By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
One day at work, Lisa came by and introduced herself, sent by a mutual acquaintance who wanted to date Nichole, but was too shy to say so herself. Lisa also found Nichole attractive, and the teen, just a month out of the closet, was immediately drawn to Lisa because of the simple fact that she, too, was a lesbian. Soon she moved from one troubled household to another. The women made an incongruous pair: Nichole, a black teen a bit on the chunky side, appeared tired and aged beyond her years. Lisa was ten years Nichole's senior, a sandy-brown-haired white woman, well built, with a constant grimace. With no supportive friends and family to check on her, Nichole was easy prey for Lisa. Lisa didn't have to isolate Nichole, because the job was already done, as Nichole was an African-American lesbian in Indianapolis, a town with its own brand of Midwest conservatism.
It didn't take long for Lisa to display her truculent temper: She screeched at her five-year-old son, threw dishes like Frisbees, kicked the walls and overturned sofas, tables, anything in her path. Then she'd order Nichole to clean the debris and would disappear for hours, days even. Nichole did as she was told, afraid of instigating another round of destruction.
Nichole lost much more than her beloved pets; she also lost her independence, self-esteem and physical safety. "It started as a slap," Nichole recalls. "She slapped me as though I needed it -- 'You need to calm down,' or 'You need to get your head on straight' -- like she was doing me a favor. From then it grew from an open slap to a fist."
Lisa loved Nichole so much that she often called her a nigger, then beat her. She pummeled her when Lisa's ex-husband visited and didn't like Nichole's "nigger fried chicken."
Nichole's family, she says, was more or less aware of the beatings, but such was the punishment for her sinful, un-God-fearing ways. "It was okay with them, because they wanted to prove how destructive this lifestyle was. That forced me to stay, because the matter of my being abused was my identity along with being a lesbian. I found myself trying to prove them wrong, that this was not what it was to be a lesbian. I tried to make it work."
Almost three years into the relationship, she thought she had found a solution in returning to college, and packed her bags for Indiana State in Terre Haute, nearly two hours away. But Lisa took a leave of absence from her warehouse job, where she was the only woman unloading heavy merchandise, and drove daily to visit Nichole, waiting outside her dorm room, interrogating her about who she was with, what she was doing. "She practically carried my books to class," Nichole says. Every night after she had driven home, Lisa called from Indianapolis, and for the duration of the call Nichole was relieved, knowing that Lisa was a city away. One night, after an amicable conversation, Lisa called back in five minutes, hysterical. "She said, 'I'm going to burn down the house, I'm going to kill your nephew and my son and myself,' " Nichole recalls, as bewildered now as she was then. "She said she had a gun right there in her hand. She was going to kill everyone unless I came home." The following day, Lisa showed up unannounced with a huge grin, her pickup truck and a command: "Let's go." "She appeared so smug. She was so very proud of herself that she gave me the time and space I needed. And now a month went by and, 'You got it out of your system, it's time to come home.' " Utterly defeated, Nichole's mind shut off -- she didn't care about anything anymore. She left with Lisa and lived with her for two more years.
Nichole sighs when people ask her, and they always do, "Why didn't you just leave?" As if it were that easy when there was no help, as if she knew how, after growing up abused by her father. Even in the most brutal of circumstances, the abused are hopeful people. They hope they can do something to help their partners. They hold on to that hope until there is none left.
"I didn't know what healthy love was," Nichole realizes now. "I loved my father, but I was terrified to be in the same room with him. I had a loyalty to Lisa, even though in my gut something was wrong. Some part of me even felt sorry for her, that there was something wrong and what can I do to help? I was afraid to leave, because what if the next day she changed and I was not there to experience that, to experience the good person in her? In reality that person never showed, or didn't exist. I loved the idea of the person I thought she could be."
Gary's co-workers thought his boyfriend was the sweetest, most loving man. He'd wait outside the restaurant for Gary (who asked the Press not to use his full name) to finish waiting tables. Sometimes his boyfriend sat, incognito, at one of his tables and surprised him with roses. But at home, the smallest seemingly insignificant remark would set him into a petulant frenzy of flying fists. After a beating, when his boyfriend had stormed off, Gary called crisis hot lines from his olive-green Touch-Tone and begged for help. But the operators informed him that only women could be in crisis situations, and since he was a man, good-bye. Gary didn't know what else to do; he called for help again and again, until the operators would say, "Let me guess, your name is Gary."