Meet the survivors who are now making a difference.
Michael Handrick,(he/him), author of Difference is Born on the Lips.
Shanai,(she/her), a freelance writer and poet.
Julian,(he/him), an artist.
Priya(she/her), a fitness instructor.
Note: In this article lesbian relationships are defined as any intimate relationship between 2 consenting people who are not cis-men. Queer relationships involve people who identify as queer or relate to each other in ways that fall outside the cis-hetero norm.
The LGBT community is often neglected in conversations about intimate partner and domestic violence. Queer women, trans-men, and non-binary people in lesbian relationships endure exorbitant levels of: it is reported sexual violence occurs at a rate of 50% in lesbian relationships. Bisexual people, in particular, have experienced higher instances of intimate partner violence than their monosexual counterparts. The social abandonment of queer people in abusive relationships has dire consequences, and long-term mental health issues can prevail. Being in the closet and not being able to discuss the relationship with loved ones can lead to isolation and perpetuate abuse. The abuse can be insidious.
Michael recalls the abuse he faced at the hands of his ex. “We met on a dating app. Very quickly he was very romantic, affectionate, and attached – what is known as ‘love-bombing’. Throughout the course of the relationship, it went through cycles of abuse followed by affection and as a result, an emotional attachment known as a ‘trauma bond’ was formed. Due to these cycles of affection and abuse, it became very difficult to leave the relationship and [take stock of] the mental, emotional, and psychological damage it was causing. I tried to cut it off many times but ended up returning despite recognising that it wasn’t a healthy relationship for me. Once I finally ended the relationship, I was stalked online for over 6 months.”
The abuse can also be physical. Julian was a victim of such violence. “We met online and started dating shortly after meeting. We lived in separate cities, 45 minutes away. After only a few months of knowing each other, we decided to move in because I was seeking a roommate and was always traveling to his city, so we figured it was the best idea. This was my first serious relationship and I wanted to make it work. We moved in together and lived with a mutual friend as a roommate. The first few months of our relationship was all fun. We had lots of good times together and went on many road trips for music festivals. But after living together for a few months, things quickly began to escalate. There were signs of him trying to make me jealous on purpose, pushing my buttons, gaslighting me. We soon began to argue very frequently, and conversations escalated very easily. I would try to diffuse the situation or leave to resume the conversation later when we were calmer. I wanted to handle things maturely, not by screaming at each other, throwing things, insulting, and pushing.”
Women can also face violence at the hands of other women. Priya remembers the start of a violent relationship on tinder. “We met on Tinder first. We video-called on Instagram for verification. We found each other very interesting, so we decided to meet up at her place. We bonded well and started hooking up. I went to her place every weekend. It was a fun life. She was a very kind and happy-go-lucky person. She had two Labrador dogs and I loved playing with them. It was a family feeling, like two dogs and a spouse. She said she was straight, and she was curious to try it. On Sundays, I was at her place, and we used to behave like a real couple. I used to cook for her, I used to make dishes for her and bring it to her place. She used to love everything about it. Our parents did not know. At Christmas, I was at her place. She made me drink lots of alcohol. She invited a guy over, and he was smoking cigarettes. He tried to touch me, even though I made it clear to her that I am not interested in that. I left the room, and later went to go get my charger and saw them having intercourse; I was so disgusted. She apologized for what happened. It was abuse. She broke my trust. In December, she took me to a picnic spot. Since I have motion sickness, I took medication, which makes me sleepy. She was very pissed off that I wasn’t talking. She started abusing me. She began giving me commands, telling me to take care of her dogs etc. We went to an event and a woman there even mentioned that she thought it was a toxic relationship. When we left, she had not taken her bipolar medication and she started yelling at me. I told her that we are no longer in a relationship. After a few days I apologized and she planned a trip. She began harassing me and my family after the trip.”
It can be difficult to recognize signs of abuse in the relationship, especially in queer relationships when there is little to no awareness or understanding of power dynamics in the relationship. Shanai reveals that since she was much younger at the time of her abuse, it caused her to have difficulty understanding the harm she endured. “I’d like to think of myself as a sex-positive progressivist who took the time to educate herself about sex despite living in a heavily censored and religious country in the Middle East. Despite all this, I still missed a lot of signs of sexual and physical abuse—I was 16 when we had met, and many of these patterns continued over the next few years and were so normalized as part of our relationship dynamic that I didn’t think of them as something unusual. The pressure to please a male partner is so heavily ingrained into young women—especially those who can’t or choose not to discuss their relationships with other female friends—that I missed most signs till a few truly “what the fuck?!” incidents occurred when I was older.”
Support systems are significant in identifying toxicity.
Michael recollects that it was a friend who helped him understand the horrors of his previous relationship. “Throughout the relationship I thought it was ‘toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’ but at no point would I have identified it as abusive. It was only after the relationship finished that a friend made me understand that it wasn’t either of these and that it was domestic abuse.
So many queer people grow up without any models of queer relationships, education, representation, and support and so some of us essentially learn about relationships on the go without the education and signs of what is healthy and what is healthy. Our society, laws, police and judiciary system still view domestic abuse through a cis-heteronormative lens, and often [equate it to] physical abuse rather than coercive, emotional, economic or psychological abuse.
Reports show that as many as 25% queer people have experienced an abusive relationship, yet this is still not reported by mainstream media. Nor are there any campaigns, education, or centres to help support survivors. It’s what drove me to write my memoir, ‘Difference is Born on the Lips’, to [spotlight] this endemic in the queer community and raise awareness.”
Abuse in queer relationships is often discarded. Reactions to his abuse caused Michael to become vehemently vocal about the subject. “I have a very good network of ‘chosen family’ who listened and supported me during and after the relationship. However, there were a number of people who essentially told me to ‘man up’ or minimised what I was going through either because it was a queer relationship or [involving] two men and [therefore] not as bad a cis-heterosexual domestic abuse.“
Change starts by recognizing the multitude of diverse experiences.
“[My support system] provided me with action plans for those in these situations; an actual way out. Oftentimes people in abusive relationships won’t see or acknowledge that they’re in something abusive, exactly like how it happened with me. And even when they do realize they still choose to stay until something major or eye opening happens. I think LGBT people need to be understood [better]; there should be [affirming] therapy available for us because the LGBT community is SO diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need multiple and I think having more available [spaces] for LGBT community to be themselves in is the start”, states Julian.