By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Russ has seen 19 people come and go in the year and a half since the group began, but many weeks there's just two or three. He's worried. Just look at the battered women's group for lesbians at the Houston Area Women's Center; it fell apart from a lack of members. Not only does the straight world not realize that gay people can abuse one another, but sometimes gay people themselves don't recognize that their partners are abusing them. "There's a myth that it's mutual combat, that it's a fair fight going on between equal partners," Russ says. "If you investigate closer, there's a victim. Mutual combat is agreeing to fight, like taking it outside a bar in an alley. Domestic violence is something the victim does not choose."
Russ is frugal in his attire, simple shirt and slacks, but generous with his patience and understanding. He listens intently with a sense of perpetual preparation as if nothing can shock him. He locks the office door during group, a precaution against ex-boyfriends. Grown men come in here with their gruesome, soul-breaking stories. Russ absorbs their tears and stories, and reflects little of the strain.
On one particular Monday night, Bobby and Gary are the only ones at group, each with a couch to himself. For 14 years Gary dated a macho man who was ashamed of his own sexuality and forbade Gary from speaking in public or answering their phone in his "fagotty voice." Two months into the relationship, the boyfriend knelt and asked Gary to be his husband. This did not stop him from sleeping with other men and returning home drunk to rape Gary. Gary is jumpy, an extreme worrier. Whenever he has something to say in group, he raises his hand, anxious and ready to unleash a rapid fire of words.
Bobby, though, seems exhausted when speaking of his ex. He offers his words slowly, and his long, curly hair shifts with his frequent sighs. He peppers his story with sarcastic remarks, humor his coping mechanism. Eighteen operations have not undone what spina bifida has crippled; he drags his legs even with the help of a self-made cane. Occasionally other people marvel at his hand-made, metal-studded cane and ask him to carve one for them, a welcome supplement to his disability checks.
The men come here sometimes just to shoot the breeze and sometimes to compare notes about their pasts, for though each man's story is devastating in its own way, they have common denominators. It is an immense relief to know that you are not the only one, that your ex-boyfriend's explosive jealousy is a common trait of batterers, that his mood swings were not your fault.
Gary raises his hand. "He'd point a knife at me and said if I moved, he'd throw it at me. I'd stand in one position for hours, living in fear."
"Mine did throw a knife at me, and it landed about that far from my head," Bobby says, pointing to a spot on the chalkboard behind him about seven inches from his face.
"We had five cats," Gary adds. "He'd hurt them, beat them up, throw them. He'd bring them in the shower with him and they'd scream. And I'd try to stop him; I was going to go in and save the cats' lives even if he would beat me."
"Mine dropped a dresser on our dog, a cocker spaniel named Buddy. He pinned the dog to the wall."
Melissa Martin says hurting pets is a common form of retaliation against victims. "A lot of times there's a history of a child abusing a pet, then growing up to be abusive toward a partner," she says. "Or in a relationship, a couple will get a pet together, and the pet is used as a weapon. The abuser threatens to harm the pet if the victim does not do what the abuser is asking." Victims often stay with their partners, rather than leave their pets behind, especially since shelters don't allow them. For this reason, the SPCA's Pet Safe program provides confidential temporary lodging for pets of domestic violence victims free of charge.
Repeatedly telling the victim that no one else will ever love him is another control tactic, Martin says. Gary's ex, who knew that Gary's father had ditched the family prior to Gary's birth, often told him that even his father didn't want him. Nobody wanted Gary but him. Bobby began to believe his ex after he told him countless times that he was a deformed freak that no one else could ever love. Gary wanted to die; the abuse became consuming. When he discovered his partner was HIV-positive, he put himself at risk. Bobby, who considered it merely a matter of time before his AIDS-stricken boyfriend passed the virus on to him, was relieved when he finally tested positive.
"And yet," Bobby says later, "I felt sorry for him because he was abused by his father, and his family told him he was stupid. He was dyslexic and never finished school. I felt sorry for the things that were making him like this. And I wanted so much to be with someone that I stayed with someone not worth being with."