Hiding in a second closet: Silences around abuse in queer relationships

HOLAAfrica, HOLAA, queer, LGBTI, ithongomusings, QueeringTheCloak

In the queer community the idea is that everything is fine — we are loving and sexing, and the only violence we must fear is from the homophobic outside world.

When violence does rear its ugly head in queer spaces it is whittled down to just “dyke drama” and “gay bitchiness” or a sexual misunderstanding that may or may not have gone too far.

The constant need to see violence as happening purely across gender lines means there is an underdeveloped understanding of how it manifests within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer/questioning spaces.

But, mirroring the exposure witnessed in the #MeToo movement, light is being shed, particularly through the digital realm, on the harm befalling members of the queer community by their own. From instances of domestic violence and emotional and physical abuse to outing sexual predators, the conversations are increasingly coming to the fore.

Myths have shrouded the idea of abuse and violence within the queer community, making it more difficult to speak up — and sometimes very difficult to detect from the outside.

One of the main myths is that, if there is abuse, especially physical, it must be mutual.

Within queer women spaces, there is the idea that one woman cannot physically or sexually assault another. There is also the idea within certain spaces that the more ­masculine-presenting person is the one who is the abuser. 

All of these notions are based on limited heteronormative ideas about what violence looks like.

It leaves a whole host of victims vulnerable and silenced.

Reporting and speaking on abuse is difficult enough without the added weight of various misconceptions cloaked in (internal and external) homophobia and heterosexist ideas.

This is coupled with limited ideas about what abuse is.

Often people think “violence” and instantly go to the physical. But violence and abuse can be financial, emotional, mental, sexual and verbal. A woman who is withholding your finances, degrading you in public and private, isolating you and messing with your mental health is being violent.

If a partner is withholding medical treatment this also constitutes abuse. A woman who is femme-presenting and seemingly weaker than her partner can also be physically abusive. It is not about the ability to “fight back”; the fact is the abuse is happening and it can paralyse you.

One of the main characteristics of abuse and violence is the resounding silence about it and this is arguably amplified in queer spaces for various reasons. Within these social and private interactions there is a barrier to speaking out because of the intricate connections and the small, few and far-between safe spaces — and these are also at stake.

One of the major reasons that those in queer relationships stay silent about their abuse is not only that they are afraid they will not be believed but also that they fear they will be exiled from their core social group — what some term “their chosen family”.

In a paper titled Building a Second Closet, researcher Claire M Renzetti writes about how, in certain contexts, abusers can use internal and external homophobia against a victim to ensure their silence and how this can be a major reason why a queer person does not seek help when facing abuse.

Abusive partners can threaten to out their partners in the workplace or even to family and friends. When your social network feels finite, the fear of losing the few close people you have can be ­terrifying.

There is a need to reassess the ways in which we see abuse and violence to include a wider narrative. When it is limited then many victims are sidelined, ignored and silenced.

The queer community not only needs to be aware that abuse happens, but must also tackle it head on to ensure being queer in private spaces is truly safe.

This was first published on the Mail and Guardian.

This piece forms part of  the #QueeringTheCloak series which is part of a larger project exploring sexual, emotional and physical violence in queer women spaces on the continent.  The project seeks to essentially ‘pull back the cloak’ on shame and silence around this violence.

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