Domestic Violence in Gay and Lesbian Couples


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Domestic Violence in Gay and Lesbian Couples

by : Richard Niolon, Ph.D.  rniolon(AT)  
original posting is at 


Husband battering and other forms of violence against men are often ignored in reviews of domestic violence because it is assumed that the overwhelming majority of victims of violence are women (Steinmetz & Lucca, 1988). Further, domestic violence against men is often dismissed by statements to the effect that husbands are more likely to initiate violence and be more violent than wives and as such do not warrant significant attention as victims (Walker, 1984). The idea behind these statements is that to focus on men as equal victims of violence is both misleading and damaging to women. Steinmetz and Lucca (1988) report that studies addressing domestic violence towards men compared to women report a ratio of 1 battered husband to every 12 or 13 battered wives. To present men as equal victims of violence is therefore misleading.

Such statements are harmful in that they ignore the fact that approximately 10% of the population is gay or lesbian. Gay men are not intimately involved with wives or female lovers. Lesbian women are not intimately involved with husbands or male lovers. Denying that men can be victims of violence and that women can be perpetrators of violence denies that violence could even exist in gay and lesbian relationships. This perpetuates the acceptance of domestic violence in gay and lesbian relationships.


This paper is designed to review some of the many issues involved in domestic violence in gay couples. In light of this, there are several terms that require a definition at this point.

The term homosexual can be considered to be conceptually equal to "black" in that to refer to a group of people only as black is to understand them only in terms of their skin color. To refer to a group of people only as homosexual is to understand them only in terms of their sexual attraction to members of the same sex. The terms "gay" or "lesbian" can be considered to be conceptually equal to African American, in that to refer to a group as African American is to understand them in terms of lifestyle, heritage, experiences in America, and minority status. To refer to a group as gay or lesbian is to understand them in terms of lifestyle, heritage, experiences in America, and minority status as well.

The term homophobia literally means an irrational fear of erotic attraction to members of the same sex. The term has, however, become a political term as well in that it is now used to refer to people, policies, and laws which are insensitive to gay and lesbian issues. When a person who is homosexual experiences emotional turmoil over being homosexual, or devalues or avoids other homosexuals, the process is referred to as internalized homophobia. Some argue that the term "homophobia" itself is homophobic in that the term focuses on the difference of homosexuality from the norm as an object of fear, rather than on the difficulty of the heterosexual system to tolerate homosexuality. As such, the terms "heterosexism" and shame resulting from heterosexism should be used (Neisen, 1990).

In the same sense, the term lover has also become a political term. While lover may appear to reference only the sexual quality of a relationship, it now refers to the intimate and emotional partner of a gay or lesbian adult.

Finally, it should be realized that ideas drawn from understanding gay adults and couples may not be applicable to lesbian adults and couples. In as much as being lesbian involves being attracted to members of the same sex, seeking intimate relationships that society condemns, and being a minority, gays and lesbians are similar. However, in as much as being lesbian involves being a woman in relationship composed of two women, being a woman in a male dominated society, and holding a less valued gender role, being lesbian is very different from being gay. Therefore, this paper is limited to presenting information about gay couples. While many issues presented are relevant to understanding lesbian couples, many are not and generalization to lesbians should be made cautiously.

Stages of Gay Relationship Development

Before covering domestic violence in problematic gay couples, it might be helpful to first present a framework of healthy gay couples' development. McWhirter and Madison (1984, 1987a, 1987b) have provided couples therapy for many gay couples and have interviewed over 150 male couples over the past 5 years. They conceptualize gay relationships as consisting of six stages.

McWhirter and Madison begin their discussion of gay relationships by discussing the climate in which gay relationships develop. They explain that
"Heterosexual couples do not grapple with issues about roles, finances, ownerships, and social obligations in the same way as gay men do. The heterosexual couple that was concerned about acceptance by their mutual families was exceptional, whereas this was the rule for homosexual couples.... Heterosexual couples lived with some expectation that their relationships were to last "until death do us part," whereas gay couples wondered if their relationships could survive. Heterosexual couples have a wide variety of models for their partnerships -- Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Ozzie and Harriet, Kramer and Kramer. Gay men have only the same heterosexual models, including their own families, which they may try to emulate but find unsuitable.... Non-gay people rarely question the rightness or wrongness of their sexual orientation, but at some point gay persons do." (p. 3)

It should be noted that Coming Out is not a single step, like high school graduation, or even a "clean" stage by stage progression. Often progression to one stage is temporary and regression to an earlier stage follows. Often one may be "Out" to friends but not to family. Often one may be satisfied with oneself but unable to find and maintain intimate relationships, thus preventing further growth.

What follows is a short summary of McWhirter and Madison's (1984) six stages of gay relationships. It should be noted that couples may form while the individuals are at any of the given stages. The individual members of the couple may also be at different stages of the coming out process.

Blending - Stage 1 - Year 1

This first stage in a couple's development entails the "unification" of the couple into a single unit. Each is very happy to have the other and to no longer feel isolated and alone. The couple spends most all their time together, experiences high limerence (romantic love), show high sexual activity, and attempt to equalize the relationship. This equalization process serves to help the couple negotiate responsibilities, rules, mutual goals, individual strengths and weaknesses.... It can be a very difficult time for couples, in that the two members of the couple are socialized in very similar ways. Males are supposed to be decision makers, bread winners, and dominant. Two men may have a hard time giving up control, negotiating responsibilities, learning to rely on and support each other, and being able to show each other their strengths as well as weaknesses.

Nesting - Stage 2 - Years 2 and 3

This second stage is characterized by homemaking, finding compatibility, declining limerence, and ambivalence. Homemaking serves to represent their commitment to each other. Finding compatibility requires accepting and learning to live with each other's differences, personality styles, needs, and goals. Issues of control, power, autonomy etc. can play an especially important role at this point. The loss of limerence (or the "end of the honeymoon") can result in a more realistic view of the relationship and can cause a weakening of the relationship or of the members' commitment to the relationship. This may result in some ambivalence, depression, or jealousy. Internalized homophobia, models about how relationships develop, isolation from role models, ideas about how couples act, what couples should do and not do... all come into play here.

Maintaining - Stage 3 - Years 4 and 5

This stage is characterized by the re-emergence of the individual, establishing traditions and customs, dealing with conflict, and taking risks. The members of the couple may re-assert their individual needs and deal with the conflicts that will result. The couple does not have the traditions provided by dating, engagement, marriage, and religion, and has to develop their own. They may settle into traditions around holidays, may wear rings, may deal with the issue of monogamy ... and increase the stability of the couple. Each member may express interest in new activities or hobbies that do not include the other, make friends outside the couple without the other, and make career changes or development. Each member may take risks by expressing something that they dislike about the other. This involves the risk of hurting the other, losing the relationship, and of admitting that one is not everything to one's spouse. The couple learns also to deal with disagreement, conflict, problems, and "standing differences of opinion." The couple may get through these hard times with the support of family, which McWhirter and Madison (1982) note, may only come after the couple has been together for three or so years.

Building - Stage 4 - Years 6 through 10

This stage is characterized by the settling of the last stage and the feeling of "dependability." The couple establishes the independence of the individual partners, but also reaches a new balance of dependence/ independence. They are now able to collaborate towards newer goals and desires, such as career building or pooled financial ventures. One partner who did the cooking for several years may turn the job over to the other partner and go back to school. This stage may also be marked by a comfortable complementarity, a decreased need to process every issue and discuss every decision, and the ability to "know what the other is thinking" in a conversation. This may also be detrimental if the communication process breaks down or if members make unwarranted assumptions about the relationship.

Releasing - Stage 5 - Years 10 through 20

In this stage the couple trust each other completely, after realizing who they are and who the other person is. There is no desire to "change" the other one. Close friendship and companionship are the main characteristics of this stage, as well as higher relationship quality (Kurdek, 1989). Money and resources are no longer shared so much as they are simply owned by both. Each member gives themselves freely to the other. The couple may however, begin to find life with each other as boring. They may begin to take each other for granted, may sleep apart, may find little pleasure in their accomplishments, and the individual members may experience the "mid-life crisis." However, after resolving this stage, the couple may move into the next stage.

Renewing - Stage 6

The could be called "the retirement" stage of the relationship. The couple has achieved adequate financial security and now has time for each other. As they move toward "old age" together issues of health may become important. Each individual may be concerned with his own health as well as the health of the other. Old friends may die at this stage as well. Issues of productivity, accomplishment, and meaning in life may become important. It should be noted that McWhirter and Madison compiled these stages before 1984, when AIDS was beginning to be identified in hospitals. Issues of health, dying, financial security, and loneliness become even more important during this stage in the 1990's. Lower self-esteem and depression may exacerbate already present feelings of estrangement from family (Lang, 1991). Issues and conflicts in this stage of the relationship conform to Erikson's "Integrity versus Despair" stage of psychosocial development.

Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence

There is little information on gay and lesbian domestic violence for several reasons. First, only since 1987 have statistics regarding gay and lesbian domestic violence been collected. The San Francisco Police Department reported no fewer than 100 calls per month for gay and lesbian domestic violence in 1987. The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reported that 12-15% of their clients sought services there for domestic violence. Others report figured as high as 39% (Schilt et al., 1990). Second, as most types of abuse are under reported, these figures are probably the result of either under-reporting as well (Island & Letellier, 1991). Further, there is a great reluctance in the gay/lesbian community to acknowledge battering. It makes gays look "bad" in an already homophobic society and takes efforts away from fighting homophobic elements of society. It goes against most feminist beliefs as well -- that a lesbian woman, a woman most likely holding feminist ideals that women should be treated with respect and that domestic violence is largely a gender issue, that such a woman should hit another woman is unbelievable. Third, this kind of violence may be misreported as well. What is really gay domestic violence is often recorded in police logs as "mutual combat." If society refuses to acknowledge the relationship, it is impossible to acknowledge the domestic violence.

The only known statistic, according to Island and Letellier (1991), regarding gay male coupling, comes from the 1989 San Francisco Examiner, which after a national study of gay men reported that 60% of gay men coupled. Island and Letellier cite Yollin (1989) reporting that 64% of heterosexuals couple, so the coupling rate between homosexuals is very close to that of heterosexuals. Island and Letellier argue that the rate for domestic violence in gay couples should be at least the same as in straight couples, as there is no evidence that gay men are any less violent than straight men. However, it is also possible to argue further that the incidence of gay domestic violence is probably greater that heterosexual domestic violence because;

1) there are two men in a gay couple, and either could be a batterer (Island & Letellier, 1991);
2) there is still some social norm not to hit a woman and there is no woman in a gay relationship (Island & Letellier, 1991);
3) there are the social norms that combat between men is always mutual combat and men should fight to resolve differences; and
4) there are additional stressors of gay and lesbian relationships not present in heterosexual relationships

Characteristics of Domestic Violence in Straight Relationships

First, a review of the factors associated with domestic violence in straight relationships would be helpful. For a discussion of these factors, see Rosenbaum and Maiuro (1990).

       History of Abuse or Witnessing Abuse
       Low Self-Esteem in either Spouse and Spouse-Specific Assertion Deficits or Poor Communication Skills
       Large Power or Status Differential
       Alcoholism or Other Drug Abuse
       Poorly Defined Sense of Masculinity/Hypermasculinity
       Isolation and Lack of Resources

Domestic Violence in Gay Couples

History of Abuse or Witnessing Abuse

Martin and Hetrick (1988) report that the third most frequent problem for gay and lesbian adolescents is violence. Over 40% of their sample had suffered violence because of their sexual orientation, and 49% of the violence occurred within the family, from parents or siblings. Others have obtained similar findings (Harry, 1989). Hunter (1990) reported that 41% of females and 34% of males who experienced violent assaults reported having attempted suicide. Often, expulsion or running away from home results when the adolescent's sexual orientation is discovered and prostitution often occurs as a secondary consequence (Deisher et al., 1982; James, 1982).

Martin and Hetrick (1988) reported 22% of their sample reported sexual abuse. They note that, contrary to what one might expect from the literature, many gay male adolescents are abused and or raped in the home, usually by an uncle or older brother, but sometimes by the father. Most blame themselves or are blamed by others because of their preference for male sexual partners. Additional studies (Baier et al., 1991; Watterman et al., 1989; Brand & Kidd, 1986) have found that 25-35% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual college students indicated that they had engaged in sexual intercourse against their will because they felt coerced to do so.

Low Self-Esteem in either Spouse and Spouse-Specific Assertion Deficits or Poor Communication Skills

Low self-esteem, poorer relationship skills, and many other psychological difficulties could result from problems in adolescent development. Colgan (1987) uses Erikson's theory of psychosocial development to discuss problems in the development of identity and intimacy in gay males. A positive identity involves having a positive sense of self-worth and seeking relationships that value that sense of worth. An identity disorder involves a negative sense of self (low self-esteem) and seeking out relationships that reinforce one's sense of worthlessness. Intimacy is a sense of belonging, of trusting and caring for others, and listening and responding to others. An intimacy dysfunction involves an identity disordered male that must rely on outside agents to provide a sense of worth. Colgan presents two extremes that one may find in gay men as a result of failure to develop a positive sense of identity and intimacy.

Over-separation is the act of "forming and maintaining one's identity at the expense of emotionally satisfying human connections" (p. 102). The goal of over-separation is to place such a value on independence that emotions are displaced, projected, denied, and repressed. Thus, emotional needs are denied and hard to communicate. This leaves the man feeling very vulnerable and under-equipped. Colgan explains that the man learns to becomes numb to his own feelings and needs and may even learn to be very sensitive to other's feelings and needs to act to prevent exposure of his own vulnerability.

Over-attachment is "the pattern of forming human connections at the sacrifice of one's own separate identity" (p. 102). The goal of over-attachment is to "preserve affective harmony" (p. 103) and prevent negative emotions from being recognized. The man may form anxious and insecure attachments, deny negative feelings, and neglect his own feelings and needs. Again, emotional needs are denied and hard to communicate. This leaves the man feeling very vulnerable and under-equipped.

How might gay men be more susceptible to these problems? Many theorists (Chickering, 1969; Johnson, 1985) argue that males develop a positive identity when there is a congruence between their own sense of self and the responses of others. Because society is homophobic or at least heterosexist, society's ideas about homosexuals are not positive.

Martin and Hetrick (1988) state that;

"Homosexual adolescents may accept that homosexuals are predatory (Kardiner, 1954; Gilder, 1979), unsuitable for the "hard professions" (Voth, 1977; Decter, 1980), unable to form mature non-erotic relationships (Pattison & Pattison, 1980), inimical to the survival of the race (Socarides, 1975), criminal seducers (Rupp, 1980), haters of the opposite sex (Stearn, 1962; Kardiner, 1954; Decter, 1980), immature and victims of pathological development (Bieber et al., 1962), sexually disordered (Kaplan, 1983), the cause of crime in the streets (Christian anti-communist crusade, 1981), the [cause of the] second World War (Podhertz, 1977), the [cause of the] Holocaust (Jackman, 1979), [found to have] lowered SAT Scores (Falwell, 1984), and perhaps most damaging in recent years, the cause of AIDS." (p. 167)

There are no or at least very few gay or lesbian role models. Further, there are no dating norms for gay or lesbian adolescents or even available models of gay and lesbian relationships. Exploration and attempts to meet intimacy needs for the adolescent will be thwarted and possibly severely punished by the rejection of peers, teachers, friends, and parents. Even associating with someone thought to be gay carries some stigma (Sigelman, 1991; Jenks, 1991). The stereotypical "masculine" behavior is modeled for young boys and effeminate behavior in boys is often punished, resulting in feelings of real or imaginary parental rejection (Fling & Manosevitz, 1972), especially from fathers (Feinman, 1974). The stereotypic distance from affect in males and fear of homosexual stigma may result in internalized homophobia. The adolescent's needs for closeness and intimacy have to be repressed for the youth to receive support, approval, and attention from others.

The separation by the adolescent of his needs from his sense of self may lead to over-separation (Colgan, 1987) and feelings of cognitive, social, and emotional isolation (Martin & Hetrick, 1988). Bell and Weinberg (1978) reported that 20% of the gay males in their study had attempted suicide before the age of 20. Martin and Hetrick (1988) report 21% of their sample attempted suicide before the same age. On the other hand, the adolescent may develop anxious over-attachment and desperately cling to anyone who can meets his emotional needs. In either case, this rejection by others and separation of emotional needs is likely to result in the boy labeling his difference from other children as negative, in a severely damaged sense of self, and in poor relationship skills coming into a relationship due to difficulty resolving identity and intimacy issues (Colgan, 1987).

 Large Power or Status Differential

Power differences between men and women tend to be more tolerated in heterosexual relationships. As a result, a man with stereotypical ideas about power in relationships, the man's role in the decision making process, and who should make more money in the relationship may be able to find a woman with similar ideas and expectations. However, in a gay relationship, where power differences occur, neither male is likely to be accustomed or socialized to accept being in the less powerful position, to have less power in decision making, or to make less money than his spouse. The male with lesser power may not know how to handle, cope with, or change this. This also conjures up images of being a "kept boy" (Harry, 1982), although this may actually be rather uncommon (Harry 1979, 1982). In fact, Berger (1990) found that 45% of his gay couples reported financial and career issues as being the main source of conflicts in their relationships, perhaps due to these issues. It is interesting to note that some data indicates that financial issues are not as much of a concern in lesbian relationships (Reilly & Lynch, 1990). In the same sense, a female with greater power may be uncomfortable making decisions for the couple and contributing to what she may perceive as an exploitive relationship. Because women define, view, and hold power in a very different way than men do, a discussion of the effects of power in lesbian relationships is a topic beyond the scope of this paper (see Gilligan, 1982).

Poorly Defined Sense of Masculinity/Hypermasculinity

Traditional roles of men and women have been complimentary. Men were supposed to "bring home the bacon" and women were supposed to cook it. Men were supposed to make the decisions and be dominant, women were supposed to accept the husband's decision passively. Fathers disciplined children and mothers nurtured them. Men were the strong ones and women were the weak ones. Men repaired the home and women cleaned it. While these values are being called into question, one only has to look at television, literature, and the media to see that these stereotypes still exist.

Studies indicate that traditional gender roles may be less common in gay and lesbian relationships (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Cardwell et al., 1981). While intuitively it may appear foolish to assume so, many assumed that traditional gender roles of masculine and feminine behavior would be found in gay and lesbian couples, the so called "butch-femme hypothesis." One reason this idea may have occurred is that it may have reinforced the belief that male and female coupling was "natural" (See Reilly & Lynch, 1990).

As to why these traditional roles might be inapplicable to gay and lesbian relationships, Maracek and colleagues (1983) provide several reasons. First, they explain that traditional roles are less applicable to gay and lesbian couples. Given that stereotypical roles are complimentary, if neither partner was willing to be responsible for at least some of the behaviors of the other gender role, both partners would suffer. For example, if women do all the cooking and cleaning, two gay men would live in a dirty home and starve. Another reason that traditional gender roles may be problematic for gay and lesbian couples is that feminist (and profeminist) values reject traditional gender roles. Gays and lesbians may reject traditional roles as too limiting and restrictive, and seek egalitarian roles to further the enjoyment of their relationship. Finally, modern gay and lesbian couples may be actively attempting to redesign their relationships to make them very different from heterosexual relationships. Redefining such terms as "mom" and "dad" in a gay or lesbian couple with children is a good example.

There are few role models for gay and lesbian couples. Consequently, gay and lesbian couples have few examples for how to resolve such issues. Maracek and colleagues (1983) present several ideas. They first note that pragmatic factors may decide. The partner that comes home from work first may wash clothes; the partner that has Saturdays off may do housework; the partner that is most talented at cooking may prepare dinner. A second possibility is that power issues such as income, age, education, and status may come into play. The partner with the higher power may assume more of the masculine gender role behaviors as they may be more valued by society. Already noted are the problems inherent in this dynamic. There is also the possibility that gender identity may also play a part in the assumption of gender roles. While Maracek and colleagues (1983) are quick to note that gender identity lies on a continuum and is separate as a construct from gender roles, small differences in gender identity in a same sex couple may have larger effects.

Regardless of how gender role responsibilities are handled or decided, they are still a problem in our culture.

Alcoholism or Other Drug Abuse

Substance abuse is a serious problem for both gays and lesbians (Fifield, 1975; Retner, 1988; Glaus, 1988; Schilt et al., 1990). Some (Shaefer et al, 1987) report that gays and lesbians are at three times the risk of the heterosexual population for developing alcoholism. Alcoholism has been linked to non-acceptance of gay identity, and that only after attaining sobriety for an extended period of time could alcoholic gays accept their identity as positive (Kus, 1989). It is not difficult to realize that alcohol is a disinhibitor, a depressant, and our society has a high degree of tolerance for socially undesirable behaviors that occur under the influence of alcohol (Finklehor, 1984). Alcohol may help non-accepting gay males engage in sexual intercourse with other men without feeling guilty afterwards; may reduce their anxiety before, during, and after attempting such intimacy; and may be useful to mitigate the stigmatization if caught (Kus, 1989). Many assume that alcoholism is high in the gay/lesbian community because gay and lesbian bars are the main area for socialization for many gays and lesbians, but this has been disproved as a major cause of alcoholism in the gay and lesbian community in several studies (e.g. Kus, 1989). Substance abuse has been empirically linked to committing acts of violence and being the victim of acts of violence in lesbian relationships (Schilt et al., 1990).

Isolation, Lack of Resources, and Stress

Isolation and poor resources are problems for many gay and lesbian couples, especially those in small towns (Harry, 1982). Martin and Hetrick (1988), in terms of adolescent experience, discuss 3 kinds of isolation - cognitive, social, and emotional - which are equally applicable to adult gay and lesbian relationships.

Cognitive Isolation refers to the almost total lack of information about gays and lesbians, how gay and lesbian couples function, how long they stay coupled, how they determine gender roles, and how they solve relationship problems. It also refers to the lack of information regarding gay and lesbian couples and families, how they interact with their families of origin, and how they parent, and how they can fit into religious systems.

Social Isolation results in part from the cognitive isolation. While Martin and Hetrick discuss the way that the negative sense of self effects the gay or lesbian adolescent's social interactions and growth, so too does lack of contact with positive couple models reinforce the negative value that society places on the couple, as well as the expectation that such coupling is "unnatural," based simply on sex, and doomed to fail. Navigation of gender roles becomes difficult as well in the absence of couple role models.

Finally, Emotional Isolation also occurs in part due to poor social support and few resources. The legitimacy of the couple is denied in the form of lower social support from families (Meyer, 1989; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1987) possibly as the risk of "Coming Out" to family members may be too great of a rejection to handle. On the other hand, the strain of hiding the relationship is also considerable. If the couple is "out" to family, the strain of only partial acceptance of the couple's relationship by the family is also very hard. Berger (1990) reported that 27% of his sample of gay couples reported family conflicts as being the second main source of conflicts in their relationships. There are fewer resources in the community, such as shelters for battered men, much less for gay battered men. Lesbians face the same problem in that while there are some shelters for women, they often are not trained to deal with lesbian issues or desired by government to deal with lesbian issues. Califia (1986) recounts how in June 1985, Attorney General Edwin Meese stopped a $625,000 grant to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) because members of a right wing group charged that the coalition supported lesbian rights. While the grant was later released to NCADV, it was cut by over $100,000 dollars and the NCADV went without this funding for three months. The effects of stigmatization on development have already been discussed, but stigmatization continues to have an effect in that it may increase the impact of stressful life events (Ross, 1990). Further, there is also legal discrimination. Homosexual behavior is still considered illegal in 25 of the United States. Legal discrimination is demonstrated in laws that prevent the couple from obtaining housing, health insurance, property, and legal rights together. No state in the U.S. recognizes homosexual unions. In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia police were free to enter a gay couple's home without a warrant and arrest them for their consensual sexual activities with each other.

Social discrimination occurs as well in the form of religious discrimination. Homosexuality is considered "sinful" in most churches. Gay and lesbian couples experience discrimination in the rejection of the couple by the church. An individual who is gay or lesbian and religious must reconcile their own identity with little help from their church, which perpetuates existing tensions among gays and lesbians, their committed partners, and their non-gay or non-lesbian family members (Clark et al., 1989). Social discrimination continues in the form of mental health discrimination. Island and Letellier (1991) note that many are reluctant to allow the mental health profession to become involved in gay and lesbian issues due to their tendency to pathologize. The exclusion of homosexuality from the DSM III r was won less than 10 years ago, but many still pathologize homosexuality as a disorder per se. It is interesting to note that Mordcin and Myers (1990) report that 40% of the gay men were unwilling to seek professional help for a problem in their relationship.

There are problems associated with being "hidden" lovers

Being "hidden" lovers, or "passing" as heterosexual creates a unique set of stressors for gays and lesbians and has been empirically linked to relationships dissatisfaction (Berger, 1990). Gay and lesbian lovers don't have a clear word to describe their relationship and commitment to each other. Berger (1990) reported that in his sample of gay couples, 62% referred to each other as "lovers," although this may be problematic, they note, because the term may reinforce ideas that the relationship is based only on sexual interest. However, 22.5% of Berger's sample referred to each other as "partners," and 15.7% as "friends." Some argue that terms such as "friend," "roommate," and especially "Persons Of the Same Sex Sharing Living Quarters" (PSSLQ) from the U.S. Census, are damaging to the relationship.

Being hidden may also decrease family support. Apparently, only about half of gay men have told their parents they are gay (Bell & Weinberg, 1978). Berger (1990) found that 83% of his higher SES subjects had told their parents they were gay. While this may actually indicate that it is safer to reveal one's identity to one's family today, it is not unexpected that higher SES couples would be more likely to reveal their identity to their families. Children of higher SES are more likely to come from higher SES families and to have higher education, less rigid sex role stereotypes, and more accepting attitudes. Higher SES couples may also be less dependent on their families for financial, emotional, and social support.

Being hidden can also be stressful in the occupational setting. Not being able to bring one's partner to work-related social functions, pressures by co-workers to couple heterosexually, pressure to transfer to other offices in other cities, gay and lesbian jokes, as well as more severe forms of discrimination in the work place... all can be stressful to the couple. Currently, to this writer's knowledge, only two nation-wide companies have a company policy extending spousal benefits to gays and lesbians

Domestic Violence Itself is Different

The myth of "mutual combat" is even more dangerous in gay couples for several reasons. First, while this kind of violence still isn't really "mutual" combat, it is more similar since both spouses in a gay relationship may have been socialized that violence is an acceptable behavior between men and "real men" deal with it (Island & Letellier, 1991; Califia, 1986). Island and Letellier discuss a "reversal" of roles, where the victim becomes violent and harms the abuser. They conceptualize this as a case where the victim has chosen a violent means to respond to abuse and not as a true reversal of roles. The victim has not become the abuser and the abuser the victim, nor are they both "abused" or both "victims." A women who hits her husband after 6 months of abuse is not suddenly an abuser and her husband a victim. They also note that the abuser may use the "reversed" abuse to promote guilt and shame in the victim to control the victim further.

Further, while Island and Letellier (1991) include in their definition of domestic violence both physical and psychological violence and destruction of property, they also include disclosed sexual orientation. "Revealing your sexual orientation to others, such as co-workers or family members" is something not usually harmful in straight relationships.

Finally, the myth of "mutual combat" is dangerous in gay couples because it perpetuates the myth that men are not victims (Island & Letellier, 1991). A woman may be able to recognize her victimization and this may prompt some action. It is unlikely that a gay man will be able to overcome this myth on his own or that others will highlight the myth for him. Part of this myth is also the idea that men are innately violent. Thus, men are taught to accept this as part of being involved with a man by such statements as "If he hits you, hit him back!" "How could he hurt you, you're just as big as he is?"


Domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples is a serious problem. Until recently the problem has been completely discounted and thus received little attention. Many issues involved indicate that incidence of domestic violence in gay and lesbian couples is probably at least as high as in heterosexual couples, if not higher. Issues such as poorer resources, homophobia, and invisibility make identification and treatment of gay and lesbian domestic violence difficult. While treatment itself would be more appropriately discussed in a separate paper, several ideas can be presented here. Treatment for gay victims of domestic violence requires several things.

First, the therapist must be knowledgeable of domestic violence issues. Risk factors, dynamics of abuse, the cycle of violence, physical safety, and the inherent power differential must be addressed. The therapist must not blame the victim. While these factors are important in the treatment of any victim, these issues are especially important in the treatment of gays and lesbians is especially sensitive as they are already a stigmatized population.

Second, the therapist must be Gay and Lesbian Affirming. The therapist must be knowledgeable of issues such as coming out, normal gay and lesbian relationship development, societal response to gays and lesbians, internal and external homophobia, and theoretical biases in psychological theory. Personal biases must be labeled, whether glaring or subtle, and addressed.

Third, the therapist must not see males as solely victimizers and females solely as victims. To do so replicates the societal view that domestic violence isn't possible in gay and lesbian couples and serves to continue to deny the rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Finally, couples counseling is inappropriate in gay and lesbian couples just as it is in heterosexual couples. While some may argue that it under specific circumstances, such as after the violent behavior has been eliminated, it is acceptable to see partners and batterers in couple's therapy (Rosenbaum & Maiuro, 1990), Island and Letellier (1991) go so far as to say that couple's counseling is never appropriate. It is important to note that the absence of these resources is even more important in light of the finding that even after abusive husbands are no longer physically abusive, most do continue to be manipulative and controlling in their relationship (Edelson & Grusznski, 1989).

Richard Niolon, Ph.D.


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