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Acknowledging Lesbian Battering

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As we celébrate Gay Pride Month it seems quite appropriate to bring out the issue of lesbian battering. The more comfortable lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and straight people all are with lesbianism, the better we are able to support lesbians who are being victimized in domestic violence situations. An anonymous survivor of lesbian battering writes: "If I had been attacked in the Street by a gaybasher, my community would have come out in huge numbers to support me, to have the attacker brought to justice; but because my abuse happened at the hands of another member of my community, I am not allowed to talk about it." We have all been imprinted with beliefs which make us doubt the victims of domestic violence, even when we are the victims, and beliefs which make us think the batterers could never be our friends, our lovers or ourselves. Laurie Ann Livingston, who describes herself as having "been on both sides of the violence," writes in Bay Windows, a New England gay and lesbian newspaper, "The scenario is more familiar than we accept it to be. We as a community realize 'this typeofbehavior' occurs, but what we don't accept is that it occurs a lot. In the bar. On the street. Next door. Down the hall. Right here. Now. And because we don't accept the battering as something less than a rarity, we can't relate to the victimbatterer as one of us." Imagine that denial is a box of books by an author who you can't stand. One day you stumble over this box of books in your basement. Ugh! The box is full of vile, anti-woman writings which you despise. Once you know they're there, you get rid of them. But if you don't see the box yourself, you will suppose that never would there be a box of books by that author in your house. To counteract our denial, we must be able to recognize domestic violence when we see it. The Lesbian Task Force of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups breaks the definition of lesbian battering into seven basic areas: physical violence, caused by weapons or fists; sexual violence, including rape or forced monogamy or nonmonogamy; property destruction; physical or sexual threats; economie control, which includes control over incorne and assets; psychological abuse, including humiliation; and homophobic control, which includes threats to teil family, friends, employers, or others that the victim is lesbian, or inferring that because she is a lesbian she won't be able to seek help from a homophobic society, and that the lesbian community won't offer her help because it doesn't believe lesbians can be violent. (Bay Windows, June 8, 1988). Another way to cut through our denial is to clarify what is reality and what is myth with regard to lesbian battering. The following are some myths and f acts compiled by B arbara Hart of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and this reporter. Myth #1: Lesbian violence is primarily found where lesbians practice butchfemme (traditional masculinefeminine) roles. Reality: Lesbian violence occurs in all of the varied types of relationships. No one is free trom risk whether she identifies herself as traditional, feminist, butch or femme. Myth #2: Since women are likely to be more equal in size, the physical damage inflicted by the lesbian abuser is typically less than that inflicted by the male abuser. Reality: In heterosexual relationships, the size of the male abuser relative to the victim is not what determines the amount of damage sustained by his violence. Similarly, size is no indicator of potential physical damage in lesbian relationships. Further, abusive women are not necessarily larger than their partners. Myth #3: Lesbians are more likely to equally particípate in the violence than are heterosexuals. One woman might start the violence, but when they both end up in a fight it is mutual battering so both women are equally responsible. Reality: Although it may be true that lesbian victims are more likely to attempt to defend themselves against their abuser this does not mean that the victim is an equal or substantial participant in the violence. The risk of self-def ense may be smaller to the person whose abuser is somewhat similar in size. Therefore, the victim may feel there are fewer risks in taking action to stop the violence than when the abuser is much larger and much stronger. Actions taken in self-defense, although violent, are not abuse. Myth #4: Lesbian victims are as likely to identify themselves as victims as are heterosexual women. Reality: It is difficult for any woman to acknowledge that she is being battered. For lesbians dcnial might be increased for a number of reasons. It is possible that the lesbian victim may have taken violent self-defensive action and thus may believe that she is equally blameworthy. Also, there is a strong cultural belief in the U.S. that women are not violent, are able to work out their emotions verbally and that aggressive behavior is exclusively a male prerogative. Finally, in the lesbian community there is a strong view that the only violent lesbians are those who frequent bars, or who are alcoholic. Substance abuse often ex is ts with one or both partners in relationships where battering happens. It is necessary for batterers to deal with their substance abuse, but dealing with the substance abuse alone will not stop the violence. Myth #5: The reasons women are violent have to be different than the reasons men are violent. Therefore, our analyses about why men are violent to women, and why women are violent to women must differ. Reality: The only reason for a woman to behave violently (as opposed to using violence in selfdefense) is the actor 's attempt to achieve, demónstrate, or assen control and dominance over the other person. Myth #6: The problem of lesbian battering will be used as justif ication for attacks on the gay community. The superstitions that gay males and lesbians are child molesters, sexually perverted or mentally ill are so strong that acknowledgement of violent behavior within some gay relationships will fuel the fires of anti-gay prejudice . Reality: It is not lesbians, gay men or bisexuals who cause anti-gay violence. To believe that the gay community is responsible for attacks upon itself fails to hold the responsible group or individual accountable for their abuse of poweT. We mustbe willing to hear what battered lesbians have to teil us. But, as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence's (NCADV) asserts: "Battered Lesbians demand validation and safety, not sympathy and a shoulder to cry on." As a community how do we provide that safety? Battered lesbians teil us they want the community to hold the batterer responsible for her ac tions . "We must support batterer accountability as a community and as individuals," writes a woman who gi ves her name as B . in her article "If We Really Want the Violence to End." "The batterer must accept a program of therapy and change with constraints and scrutiny. Accountability promotes safety for the survivor, supports recovery for both women, supports the integrity of the woman who was battered, and prevents repetition." Atanational meeting of battered lesbians sponsored by the NCADV, women presented guidelines in response to their communities' requests for a working definition of accountability. The guidelines included the expectations: that a batterer acknowledge to herself and others that she is a batterer; that she respect the needs of other women for safe space, and be willing to leave events when another woman feels threatened by her presence; that she not batter; that she work on her own recovery, including substance abuse problems if they exist; and that she not engage in intímate relationships until she has fully recovered as a batterer. Rewriting our own beliefs about violence and sexual orientation will enrich our own lives, and contribute to the validation and safety of survivors of lesbian battering. Specific services are available to battered lesbians in Washtenaw County. The Domestic Violence ProjectSAFE House offers counseling, support groups and shelter for lesbians. The 24hour phone number for SAFE House is 995-5444. Community members can support these services by contributing money or volunteer hours to the organization. Senddonations to DVPS AFE House at P.O. Box 7052, Ann Arbor MI, 48107.