Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of abuse and assault
Often when we’re talking about domestic violence, we centre the discourse on heterosexual relationships. It’s the same for the conversation around #MeToo and #TimesUp that only looks at sexual violence through a heteronormative lens. What we talk about less than we should is partner abuse in the LGBTQIA+ community because right now, it’s a pandemic.
If you’re not part of the queer community, why should you care? Because ultimately, abuse in same-sex relationships is like peering through a looking glass and into a deeper social problem revealing sexism, misogyny and the normalisation of gender-based violence.
These are cultural problems we all experience in one form or another because of our ingrained ideas about identity.
Why addressing abuse matters in ALL relationships
Women in LGBTQIA+ relationships bear the brunt of trying to convince society that domestic abuse happens in same-sex relationship dynamics and ignoring that is the root of sexism.
*Nandi tells COSMO – of an abusive relationship with the woman she was meant to spend the rest of her life with. Nandi had met her then-girlfriend, now separated wife, in Cape Town but their relationship blossomed when they both moved to Jo’burg.
‘We fell for each other. But I realised that for her, falling in love was her taming me. We started dating and within a month we got married.’ But even before they tied the knot in a shotgun wedding, Nandi saw the warning signs.
‘I became a subordinate and Buhle really thought she made me. She thought that without her, I was nothing.’
‘I didn’t realise it at the time, but a lot of the decisions I made were based on how she would respond to something I would propose. I thought it was okay – we’re two extremely strong characters and you have to make the decision to let go of your ego because you can’t both exist as the two extroverts in the relationship,’ says Nandi.
‘I soon knew I couldn’t exist with *Buhle. The fights we had were basically around her saying ‘you think you’re so amazing’ and ‘your work is trash.’ I thought someone had to be the ‘okay man’ and there was someone who had to give in. And that was always me.’
Nandi recalls the months of isolation that Buhle trapped her in – a cycle of insecurities and manipulation that strategically kept Nandi away from seeking help.
‘Buhle was the biggest reason that I didn’t leave because I thought nobody would be good for me.’
‘Buhle stopped having friends because she couldn’t trust anybody, so that meant I stopped having friends,’ says Nandi. ‘She felt that people are in your life as opportunities. She liked the attention but she was super lonely. I became a subordinate and Buhle really thought she made me. She thought that without her, I was nothing.’
I wish people in the LGBTI(Queer) community spoke out more about abuse that happens in their relationships,alot of people don't even believe it exists,most of the time its not even physical abuse,its emotional abuse💔🏳️🌈😭
— coco_thando_ (@coco_thando) June 5, 2018
The control was so deep that Nandi found herself in an inescapable grip – her partner was controlling who she was seeing, and emotionally and psychologically grinding down her self-worth. ‘She would be irritated that I couldn’t motivate her. She would force me to work on her projects and was so invested in mine. Buhle is the biggest reason that I didn’t leave because I thought nobody would be good for me. She became very depressed and was saying things like ‘‘You can help me. Why aren’t you helping me?’’ I told her I can help, but I can’t do it for you.’
After weeks of mind-games, the abuse turned physical
‘There was always a reason for Buhle to hit me – at first, it was like I’m a hoe. She started saying that she used to think I was amazing but that now I’m shit. She would take to Twitter and say I’m full of nonsense. She wanted to kill herself after the first time we broke up; I was begging her not to but she manipulated me. Even her apologies were forced,’ says Nandi.
‘There’s something about that abusive situation that makes you feel like… ‘whoa’. Your brain says it didn’t happen. I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d hit someone when it first happened. I was more shocked than she was. There was something so nonchalant about that.’
acting like abuse doesn’t happen in queer relationships is not progressive or helpful at all, queer people across the spectrum are being abused in queer relationships by other queer people. yes, it happens.
— ⍤ (@Igbtxmen) February 23, 2018
‘The cycle started with ‘‘I’m sorry but…’’ for her to feel better about what she did. She needed me to admit I did something wrong to have provoked her so we could both apologise. My problem was that I didn’t realise being abused was a big deal,’ says Nandi.
‘She started having a problem with my friends, with me being too open and nice.’
Nandi tried to escape by coaxing Buhle into losing interest in and breaking up with her. ‘I told her to leave because she’s so extremely unhappy. She would tell me I can’t just tell her to leave after everything she’d done for me. She said I was just going to have to deal with this shit.’
‘She started having a problem with my friends, with me being too open and nice, about people using me, everything about me became the problem. Money also became an issue,’ says Nandi.
Queer abusive relationships exist. Stop shaming folks for leaving unhealthy relationships bc you refuse to believe your friend has the capacity to hurt, to manipulate, to control. Stop gaslighting folks by telling them leaving = abuse. Liberation doesn't look like that, honey !!
— Taylor Medley (@reprotaylor) February 18, 2018
‘One day, I had a blue eye from Buhle hitting me and she was the one helping me put makeup on. I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘enough’. I went to her workplace to get something and that’s when she knew I was done. She was swearing at me at work, but her insults and abuse didn’t even mean anything to me. I was so numb to it all,’ says Nandi.
That’s when Nandi started to panic for a way out of her abusive marriage.
‘Buhle broke me to the point where she thought there was no return for me. I knew I would rather die than go back. I was terrified of her. No matter where I go, I will have that fear.’
This goes to show that just because someone is a woman who has romantic relationships with women or queer people, doesn’t mean abuse is any less traumatic or violent than if she had been with a cishet man.
While we are discussing domestic violence, let us not forget about the vulnerability and abuse of queer partners and abuse within queer relationships. Not only “womxn and children” fall into a vulnerable group. @MasechabaNdlovu @moflavadj
— Your Zaddy 🌈 (@ItsLithaAfter9) May 22, 2018
When we start separating heterosexual abuse as more valid and more deserving of our attention, we neglect to recognise same-sex relationships as real enough to offer protection from domestic violence.
Research shows lesbian women are being abused just as much as hetero-women
In 2016, the Triangle Project, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy and support organisation based in Cape Town, launched the report ‘I’m Your Maker’ which describes the violence perpetrated by and against women in same-sex relationships.
Ingrid Lynch, board member of the Triangle Project and co-author of the report, says ‘Lesbian and other sexual minority women face complex experiences of violence – not only perpetrated by men in the broader gender-based violence epidemic, but also at times in their intimate relationships.’
I don't know what's worse, these accusations of rape and abuse or that there are queers mocking the fact that rape and abuse occur in lesbian relationships 💔
— Joykazi™ 💫💞 (@ladyj_oy) May 17, 2018
There’s a void in resources, advocacy and awareness for abuse that happens in same-sex relationships and mixing that with the stigma LGBTQIA+ people already face simply makes that an existing danger to your safety, the silence is deafening.
‘How does this person have so much power over me?’
‘I was so tired. I didn’t feel anything. I disappeared and I couldn’t do my work. I didn’t feel like myself and I didn’t want to see anyone. I felt like a failure and I didn’t even know where to start again. I couldn’t call my grandmother, I couldn’t tell my family or people who looked up to me, who thought I was strong. I thought they would be so disgusted with me,’ says Nandi.
‘How does this person have so much power over me? I didn’t understand it. All I was reduced to was her wife.’
Even in lesbian relationships, there are SO many abusive ass lesbian relationships that are normalized because it’s “equal opportunity”. Abuse isn’t okay from any gender.
— 6.28 🥀 (@muvatesfaye) June 21, 2018
Myths around domestic violence contribute to why it happens in the first place. The narrative of women deserving abuse if they’re gay, and the culture of sexism that frames women as benevolent creatures, means reaching out is near impossible.
Those meant to protect us are alienating us
There are countless stories of women trying to get help from police and anybody with the power to take control, but they end up being mocked, ridiculed and victimised by the very people in charge of protecting us.
‘Women get killed for going back. She said it would never happen again; she would blame me for going to the extreme when she was over it; she asked if I wanted people to know our business,’ says Nandi about the time when she tried to get help from law enforcement.
When are we gonna talk about the abuse that happens in gay and lesbian relationships pic.twitter.com/Yn3mlBKsDI
— Mahlogonolo Jiane🇸🇩🇸🇩🌈🌈 (@MahlogonoloJia1) June 16, 2018
Lynch explains how these interactions with law enforcement add to the stigma of abuse. ‘Women participating in our research recounted varied experiences of secondary victimisation from police, including police minimising the seriousness of the case and trivialising the abuse because it is perpetrated by a woman. This is linked to social norms that suggest that women are inherently non-violent and that idealise lesbian same-sex relationships as [equal].’
‘I ask – in queer relationships, is abuse still abuse? Most women in these relationships say it’s not.’
‘When Karabo Mokoena was murdered, Buhle was all for men are trash but then I ask – in queer relationships, is abuse still abuse? Most women in these relationships say it’s not, it’s just my girl who’s hitting me,’ says Nandi.
‘To them, if we’re both women, it’s not abuse. When I went to the cops, the one was laughing the whole time. I got irritated when they kept saying ‘he’ and I said it’s a woman. You can see when they give the file to someone else, they want to do it to humiliate you,’ says Nandi.
‘When you’re heterosexual it’s ‘just’ another rape case; if you’re homosexual it’s like a joke.’
‘He was trying to give me advice and told me to get her help. I told them I was beaten up for nine months. I told them I want to speak to a woman officer. I asked why they were laughing at me trying to file a protection order and all the time they don’t care. This is why women get killed because of their incompetence. When you’re heterosexual it’s ‘just’ another rape case; if you’re homosexual it’s like a joke. They asked why I didn’t fight back and I told them, “You’re a police officer telling me to commit a crime, isn’t that illegal? Why are you telling me to do that?”’
‘They think we deserve it. When we get killed, it’s witchcraft. As a lesbian or gay person, they tell you-you’ll be killed, it’s just how it is. There’s no help for you. Nobody is having the starting point conversation of hey, this exists, this is a problem, these are our kids being abused.’
Nandi’s story is far from unique but it is one of the few narratives we’ll ever get to hear. That’s why breaking the silence and doing more to protect people in abusive LGBTIAQ+ relationships is more important than ever before.
Points to consider about abusive queer relationships:
- ‘Outing’ is used as a method of control – the abuser may threaten to ‘out’ their partner’s sexuality to co-workers, family members, religious organisations and other social circles where they fear being stigmatised and closed off.
- Abuse is sometimes excused on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity – abusers can associate being gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc and give that as a reason for the abuse.
- Domestic abuse isn’t well recognised in the LGBTIAQ+ community – without research and open dialogue within the community, some people may not even believe or realise they’re experiencing domestic abuse.
- Encouraging Disclosure. It can be hard for LGBTIAQ+ domestic violence victims to seek help because they may not want to disclose their sexuality to police or other organisations, and so the problem is not addressed.
Need help? Reach out:
Lawyers Against Abuse
- Visit Lva.org.za
Legal Aid Advice Line (Free)
- Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service on 079 835 7179.
- They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location.
- Call 011 642 4335
- Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near you.
- Call 0861 322 322
- Dial *134*7355#
- Call 10111
- Visit their FCS Unit
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