Coming Out

Gay domestic violence is a dirty little secret that traps victims with nowhere to turn

Gary believed there was no place for him to go for help. University of Houston psychology professor Susan Turell found that he was right. When Turell began collecting data in the summer of 1996 for her Houston-area study on same-sex abuse, there were no programs in the Bayou City that specifically addressed the issue. Domestic abuse has always lurked in relationships, gay or straight. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a quarter to a third of gay relationships are abusive, parallel to the rate in heterosexual couples. But it wasn't until the late '90s that Houston professionals began to address problems specific to gay victims. Turell collaborated with several agencies to determine what services were needed. Even something as apparently innocent as language can deter gay victims from seeking help. Shelters traditionally refer to the perpetrator on their forms as "he," assuming the batterer is male. A lesbian seeking haven in a women's shelter has no guarantee of safety, since her abuser can enter the shelter as well. Male victims have fewer options. There are no Houston shelters for gay men, says Michele Ostrander, an educator at the Houston Area Women's Center. She knows of only two in the country: one in Boston and one in Seattle. While the Houston Area Women's Center now offers Safe Harbor, a program which provides vouchers for several nights' stay in a hotel, several nights is hardly enough.

Some Houston police officers also underwent sensitivity training. Too often officers don't take same-sex domestic violence calls seriously, or worse, they ridicule the victim. Getting help requires coming out, a scary prospect for some victims. "Not only do they have to come out about the abuse," Ostrander says, "but they also have to come out to strangers -- and who knows what reaction they'll have?" Even if officers are sympathetic to the situation, identifying the perpetrator is often difficult: The more "butch" partner is not necessarily the abuser. While gays in Texas are entitled to file restraining orders, steering through the legal system is especially daunting in the face of discrimination. Restraining orders are not available to gays in ten states.

Melissa Martin began counseling gay survivors of domestic abuse when she joined the Montrose Counseling Center in 1997. Working with a crime victims grant from the governor's office, Martin has seen the pattern of abuse countless times: One partner exerts power over another through coercion, humiliation and manipulation. Being gay, though, provides additional leverage to control the battered -- threats to out someone at his workplace or to his family, or to disclose HIV status.

Some weeks, only two or three men show at Bering counselor Russ Robinett's office for the gay men's abuse survivors support group.
Some weeks, only two or three men show at Bering counselor Russ Robinett's office for the gay men's abuse survivors support group.

The myth of a pride banner-toting, parade-marching, rainbow-colored united gay community makes it especially difficult to address the problem, Martin says. "The lesbian community was founded on an idea of a lesbian utopia," she says, "of nonviolence and working for other oppressed groups, and this idea goes against the idea of the lesbian community. If an individual talks about it, it draws negative attention to a community that already has negative attention from the larger community."

Stereotypes, held by both straight and gay people, make it hard to believe that abuse occurs in gay couples: Women can't rape other women, men can't be victims, two women together are supposed to be nice to each other. But Susan Turell's study found a surprising statistic: Women are more physically abusive than men (55 to 44 percent). Until she conducts further research, Turell can only guess why. "In a gay male relationship, you'd have to be exercising power over another man, but for a woman doing it to another woman, it's easier, because women are seen as one down anyway," she says. "Women are seen as not as powerful. Women internalize that, so maybe it's safer for a woman to act out against another woman. Maybe women just don't have other avenues to feel powerful, as men do."

The hardest myth to debunk though, is that you can walk away from abuse, just leave. "They've been beaten down so much that staying is a source of comfort," Martin explains. "That's where they get all the messages about themselves, whether good or bad. All the self-esteem has been sucked dry. When you're being abused, that other person defines you."

When someone still involved in an abusive relationship comes to Martin, bruised, with terror in their eyes and voice, and doubt in their posture, she doesn't counsel or discuss self-esteem. "The very first thing I do is create a safety plan," she says, of determining a safe place to crash and what items and documents need to be packed and hidden, ready for flight. "I know that they probably won't leave immediately."

Bobby Pagano didn't leave for five years. Gary, for 14. When they finally did leave, Bobby and Gary inflicted their tenebrous stories on anyone who would listen, most of whom grew sick of hearing them, until they found a place where others would listen and understand: the gay men survivors of domestic abuse support group at Bering United Methodist Church. The emphasis is on the word survivor.

The group meets every Monday night in Bering counselor Russ's office, which consists of wall-to-wall couches, his desk and the door. Above one couch a chalkboard supports a family of assorted Happy Meal-size figures. A postcard-size sign resting on the chalk tray declares, "Hitting the bottle is no excuse for hitting your partner." To the right of the chalkboard is a poster of Henry VIII with the caption, "It's not worth being his queen for one day if you're his victim the next." Russ isn't sure if the poster designer realized how delicious the play on words is from the perspective of a gay man.

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