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Why abuse in LGBTQ relationships is harder to spot

Relationships

When one survey asked LGBTQ victims of intimate-partner violence "where do you seek help?," the most common answer was: Nowhere.

This might be because LGBTQ victims don't fit the stereotypes of domestic abuse: They're not straight, feminine-looking women abused by masculine-looking men.

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File photo: Violence between LGBTQ partners is difficult to see for many reasons. Picture: AP

However, violence occurs in the LGBTQ community at about the same rate as among heterosexual individuals, according to a 2010 study from the Centers for Disease Control. "My No. 1 concern is that people don't recognize that it's happening all around them," says Adam M. Messinger , an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University and author of " LGBTQ Intimate Partner Violence: Lessons for Policy, Practice and Research." 

"Silence on the issue I just don't think is an option." Compared to people of all orientations, bisexual women are 60 percent more likely to enter an abusive relationship.

The realisation that LGBTQ violence in general is as common – or more – than heterosexual violence motivated Messinger to research thousands of databases, journal articles and more to find out as much as he could. He then distilled this information into evidence-based tips that are much more accessible for the people who need it most: survivors; their attorneys; and those who work at shelters for victims of intimate-partner violence.

Messinger's tips include making victims feel welcome with more inclusive language; taking their cases as seriously as providers would an abuse case involving heterosexual partners; and also contributing to the research, so that there is more evidence for professionals and policy makers to reference.

"The most common refrain that I saw as I was reading research papers on LGBTQ intimate partner violence was 'We just don't have enough research on this,'" Messinger said. "Most journal articles on this topic seem to open up with some version of that sentence: 'We just don't know enough about this.' "

Violence between LGBTQ partners is difficult to see for many reasons. Because many queer people are often distanced from their families and friends due to prejudice, a couple may be more isolated from outside observers who might intervene and help a victim. Because they're not always accepted, many LGBTQ people want their relationships to seem "picture-perfect." When they're already handling so much criticism from outside the relationship, there's a pressure to hide anything negative.

In the course of writing his book, Messinger tackled several stereotypes surrounding intimate-partner violence. Mostly, he wanted to dismantle the idea that abuse in an LGBTQ relationships looks just like it might in a heterosexual one. That, Messinger says, is the biggest obstacle to overcome. As more agencies and service providers open their doors to LGBTQ victims, very few are adjusting their services to treat these survivors differently.

"'We're not going to treat you any differently' on the surface sounds great – it's an anti-discrimination approach and I appreciate that," Messinger says. "But it also oftentimes leads to services that are just ill-fitting, because they don't reach the unique nature of (intimate-partner violence)."

Too often, Messinger said, shelters, health providers and advocates don't use inclusive language that makes queer survivors feel welcome. Some don't accept trans people or sexual minorities in their programs, because they "don't have the funding" or resources devoted to helping LGBTQ survivors.

Messinger says the critical first step is awareness – acknowledging that this happens, and that it's common. With his book, he wanted to help shelter workers, medical health providers and mental health professionals think about how they can help LGBTQ as well as heterosexual victims.

"Unfortunately I, like the majority of people, know someone who has gone through this," he says. "Most people know someone who has gone through partner violence. So that's sort of where I began, from feeling helpless, like I wanted to do something – and research has, in my view, great capacity to make a difference."

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