When the couple argued, Lisa threatened to drown the dogs or snap the kittens' necks. A year after the verbal and mental abuse began, when it was clear that Nichole had nowhere to turn, Lisa made good on her threats. After an argument, a pet would disappear, and Lisa would shrug it off with a variety of excuses: the dog ran away, it was hit by a car, it was ill and put to sleep. In the five years Nichole and Lisa were together, Nichole lost six cats and two dogs.
Lisa wasn't content with hurting animals, though. She began slapping Nichole, saying it was for her own good, to calm her down. The open-palm slaps became fists. Then Lisa would strike out for any reason, because Nichole happened to walk by at the wrong moment or maybe because she had a bad day at work.
She thrashed Nichole after she refused to participate in a threesome involving one of Lisa's straight male friends, then granted him permission to rape Nichole.
After Lisa hit Nichole she'd apologize, say that it was just that Nichole made her so mad she had to hit her. It was only because she loved Nichole so much that she had to react so strongly.
It took five years for Nichole Gant to leave the abusive relationship. Thanks to the help of a therapist, she finally found the courage to get out. But she didn't leave town, and Lisa began relentlessly stalking her. Lisa broke down her door one time and attacked her -- choking her, giving her a bloody nose and a black eye. Nichole finally realized she had to leave Indianapolis, pretty much the only home she'd ever known, if she was to move on with her life. She landed a new job in Houston and moved by herself, not knowing anyone here. She found new friends, a new church and felt she could be safe.
Then in 1997, five years after Nichole split from Lisa and two years after she moved to Houston, her past came to her southwest Houston town home via a mail-order catalog addressed in her ex-partner's name. Nichole felt chills spread through her body with a paralyzing grip.
Even now, from 1,000 miles away, Lisa's name imposed panic. Nichole's heartbeat galloped; her mind whirled. She became afraid to check her mail. How did she get this address? Is she around the corner? Oh, God, please don't let her be here. Because she could be; Lisa was that possessive, that controlling. Any moment now she would pull up in her lipstick-red pickup and say smugly, "How dare you think you can live without me. Let's go. It's time to come home."
Please don't let it happen to me all over again. Nichole knew, based on her past experiences, there was little anyone was going to do to stop Lisa. Who cared about gay domestic violence anyway? Who even knew it existed?
It's hard to be a gay person in a straight world. And it's hard to be the victim of domestic abuse. Combine the two, and that was Nichole's life for five years. She didn't know where to turn. The straight world wasn't interested in intimate-partner abuse against a lesbian -- and still isn't -- even reacting with hostility: Police officers who responded to Nichole's calls belittled her. In the gay community, where there are enough problems already (HIV, hate crimes, discrimination), domestic violence remains a hidden, dirty secret. No one wants to hear about another issue, especially one so ugly as gays beating the partners who love them.
Last March the issue made headlines when a man gunned down his ex-boyfriend at a Montrose restaurant then turned the gun on himself. A month later Russ Robinett, a counselor at Bering United Methodist Church, joined forces with a man who had survived domestic abuse and started a support group for abused gay men. The group is the only one of its kind in Houston, yet it's hard to get the word out, Russ says. Sometimes it seems that not only is no one talking about it, but no one is listening, either. "I feel that we're ten to 15 years behind the heterosexual community in acknowledging that it happens," he says. "Our relationships aren't even recognized by society, so it makes sense that it's not discussed."
When Nichole was abused by Lisa, she couldn't find a single pair of sympathetic ears. The year 1987 was a harsh one for Nichole. The 17-year-old had grown up in a black Baptist family, traditional and conservative in its ways. Her father beat her mother for 13 years before they divorced. He also psychologically and physically terrorized the children. As soon as Nichole's older sister and brother turned 18, they refused to visit their father. Nichole was the youngest, the only one obligated to continue to see him, and the only one he sexually molested. That year, Nichole came out to her family members, who were appalled by her announcement. Living at home became a stressful nightmare. Lacking financial and emotional support, Nichole dropped out of college and snapped pictures in a Sears portrait studio to support herself.
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."
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.
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.
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."
Bobby told his story on KPFT. He recounted the day he decided to leave, after his partner had kicked him down the stairs and chased him in the street. "He was using my head as a basketball down Richmond, slamming my head into the pavement. Then he ran into the street and dared cars to hit him. I ran like hell and never looked back. I saw a cop point a gun to his face that day, and I wished the cop had actually pulled the trigger."
It was after two in the morning when the producer asked Bobby when he had stopped loving his ex. In a heartbeat Bobby answered, "Six months into the relationship, when he broke my nose by kicking my face." But now, sitting with Gary and Russ, he reconsiders. "I was wrong. I never stopped loving him. I stopped being in love with him."
Lisa always made a big show of being kind to Nichole. For a while, after the first few pets vanished, Lisa would sob over how much she had loved them, then she would bring home a new puppy or kitten and expect Nichole to be grateful. She even attended counseling for her grief over the loss of the animals. Nichole accompanied her, waiting in the anteroom. During one session, while Lisa was in the restroom, the therapist pulled Nichole aside and handed her a number. I know something is very wrong here, she told Nichole, I think this person can help you.
The number belonged to another therapist, the first person in Nichole's life -- and straight at that -- who told her that she didn't deserve to be abused, that it was not her fault, that she must leave or someone would die. Nichole saw an example in her therapist, a strong, educated woman who fulfilled her own needs and pursued her own goals.
Taking advantage of Lisa's many invitations to "get out of the house," Nichole did. Saving her earnings from a new traveling photography job with Wal-Mart, she signed an apartment lease. When Nichole announced her departure, Lisa was speechless. "That day I realized she was not as powerful as she made herself out to be," Nichole recalls. "She had absolutely no reaction.It was a side of her I had never seen before. That night when I left, I could hear her screaming from the street, 'Don't go, don't go!' That is the most puzzling thing to me, that you can beat someone like an animal, yet be so hysterical when they leave."
In no time, Lisa began stalking Nichole. Once, Nichole was laughing on the phone when Lisa smashed through the door, ripping it off the hinges and snapping the chain lock. Before Nichole could see who it was, Lisa knocked her to the floor, choking her, howling, "What do you think you're doing? How dare you be on the phone laughing, laughing at me." "She took it as a personal insult that I was living a life that she didn't give me permission to live." Lisa left Nichole with a black eye, bloody nose and bleeding head, and with Nichole's keys and her black lab. Nichole waited for an hour and a half before two officers arrived, asking snidely, "You had a little argument, a little spat with your friend?" There was nothing they could do, really, they said. "It almost makes you embarrassed because you inconvenienced them," Nichole says. "If you've been oppressed for so many years, and call the people who are supposed to help and they don't, it forces you to stay in the same situation."
Nichole stayed in Indianapolis for another two years because it never occurred to her to move away. Her family was a close-knit group that didn't stray from Indiana. Even in 1995, after Nichole had found the job in Houston and packed her life into a U-Haul, she thought that she would return home. The longer she stayed in Houston, though, the more she realized she couldn't go back. "It was like someone had given me CPR. I decided it was a healthy place for me."
Nichole attended a support group for female victims of abuse, most of whom were straight, and talked about her father. She was deeply depressed and started seeing a therapist. "The most difficult part of healing is admitting the role my family played in it," she says quietly. She joined a church, and at Bible study class one day, a woman walked in who stunned her. Nichole spent a year pining after Frances before she found the courage to ask her out. Eventually Nichole moved in.
Nichole and Frances bought a town home together, sharing four cats, and since March, three foster children. She and her mother began speaking again. Two years ago Nichole visited her mom during Thanksgiving, and Lisa called the house, inviting Nichole for dinner, saying how much her son wanted to see Nichole, who had been his mother figure. She refused.
After that, the eerie mail addressed to Lisa began to arrive, disguised as innocuous publishing house sweepstakes and specialty catalogs. Nichole's mother also received mail marked with Lisa's name. When Nichole received her credit report in May, Lisa's name was on it, though she had never jointly purchased anything with her. She called the credit agency and the postal service, but no one could offer an explanation.
"I've always feared that she'd show up," she says. "It's only been the last year and a half that I realized I don't have to be scared. I think what kept me going was receiving her mail. It was her little way she kept me in her pocket. I'd wonder, was she in town? Did she put it in my mailbox? It used to incapacitate me. Now I just throw it out."
Lisa, like the junk mail, is unwanted. Nichole doesn't need love, not love like that. No one does.
E-mail Melissa Hung at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.