It's Time to be Honest About Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence

by C. Imani Williams Last week, WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson were married. The c...

by C. Imani Williams

Last week, WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson were married. The celebrity couple had been in the news two weeks prior when they were both arrested on assault charges following a physical altercation between the two at their Arizona home. As various professional sports associations crack down on domestic violence, it was confirmed on Friday, May 15, 2015 that both women will be suspended for record number of seven games during the upcoming WNBA season.

I don’t know Griner or Johnson personally, but I’m not sure marrying so closely after a domestic violence incident was a good idea. Statistics show that they are likely to have another incident again. And not only that, but many of us are applauding the marriage of two young black celebrity athletes without fully addressing the rarely talked about issue of same-sex intimate partner violence.

Domestic violence in Black, same-gender loving relationships is more common than one may think, though there have not been nearly enough studies done to investigate the causes and effects behind abuse in same-sex relationships. What we do know is that domestic violence affects people of all backgrounds, genders, and sexualities—including Black lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. According to the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, the top reason women in same-sex relationships stay in abusive situations is they fear being “outed”.

Domestic violence is never an easy conversation to talk about within our families and communities. In the case of same-sex domestic violence, the shame is two-fold: (1) a woman may want not to admit the abuse she’s experiencing; and (2) she may be afraid of the homophobic views others carry.

Whether or not you know or love a woman who identifies as LGBTQ, the fact is: We are your sisters. Sadly, many of us feel those in our lives wouldn’t give two f*cks if they knew we were being abused by another woman. This homophobia and lack of empathy excuses perpetrators’ actions and places blame on us for “choosing” to bring abuse on ourselves by being homosexual in the first place.

Intimate partner violence affects women in same-sex relationships slightly more than heterosexual women. However, this may not be widely known, as the topic is rarely discussed within the overall Black community, outside of organizations that serve LGBTQ individuals. This lack of information means women do not receive the support they need most.

Take, for example, the Black Church. Traditionally, the Black Church has provided sanctuary to women and children in need. It has not, however, been at the forefront of protecting women and children from abuse. While the Black Church is slowly coming around to discussing other important issues that affect our community—like the HIV/AIDS pandemic—in most cases, addressing domestic violence remains taboo. When I was in my abusive and short-lived second marriage, my mother practically begged me to not ask for prayer over my “specific” situation during testimony. At the time, I was married to a man, so I can only imagine what she would have said had I been with a woman.

Another reason same-sex intimate partner abuse is severely under-reported, is because many bi-attracted and lesbian women do not disclose their sexual orientation. Health care providers should be, but are not always, aware of the fact that they are treating a patient who identifies as LGBTQ. The lack of practitioners who are trained in cultural responsiveness and inclusivity, and the fact that women may be unwilling to disclose certain information to receive proper services puts Black women at an even higher risk for being victimized by violent partners.

Then there are our own internalized beliefs and biases about relationship violence and gender.

“Shit, ain't no way I'd let a chick slap me!” My friend Janine was becoming visibly upset as she told me about a friend of hers, who was experiencing abuse within her relationship. It was 1993, and I had not yet come out as bi-curious or lesbian.

Our conversation was my first about same-gender domestic violence. Janine's candid language around “two chicks scrapping” was not wasted on me. “We are equals as women, it doesn't make any sense to let another woman beat you down!”

After my coming out in 1999, a friend shared that her partner of nine years put a gun in her mouth while threatening to kill her if she ever left. I had hopes that she would seek counseling and leave her partner. She elected to stay and we fell out of touch. I can only pray she found the strength to leave.

I, too, have been in a same-sex partnership that was both verbally and emotionally abusive. Finally one of us was smart enough to end it, and stay away. At the time, individual counseling should have been my main priority, but it wasn’t. Since then, I have found therapists and clinicians whose skill and empathy were a good match for my growth and healing. With their help, I was able to do the work needed to help me learn and move past the experience.

Later, I would put my master’s degree in counseling to use by helping Black LGBTQ youth and women in various capacities. I organized events for Black same-gender loving people—including Black queer film nights focused on domestic violence within lesbian relationships and community-wide discussions.

In 2003, I served as co-founder of African-Americans and Allies Against Domestic Violence (AAADV), a now defunct Detroit based community initiative to end domestic violence. I worked alongside women warriors from all backgrounds—straight, same-gender loving, Black, white, Latina—to change the number of women being abused. We used marketing strategies to ensure queer Black women received the information they needed about intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships. This required us to step outside of hetero-normative ideas about domestic violence, to ensure queer women understood:
  • Women can be abusive
  • Size or appearance does not matter
  • Smaller/feminine women can also be violent
  • Abuse can and often does involve, emotional, sexual, and financial exploitation
  • Children can be used as pawns
  • Some abusers threaten to “out” partners to family, friends, and co-workers as means of control
With these uncomfortable and difficult conversations, we can begin to transform misunderstandings and misconceptions about same-sex partner violence. Our united front as Black women, regardless of sexual orientation, is required to dismantle abuse. We must demand that same-gender intimate partner violence be included in sexual education curriculum, as LGBTQ youth are here and not going away.

It’s time for the Black community to step up its game when it comes to acknowledging and providing services to same-gender loving sisters. Our lives depend on it.

Photo: Brittney Griner / Instagram

C. Imani Williams is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times, and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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