Home other articles live chat community centers discussion board community resources back
LesbiaNation Featured Article

medusaOuting Lesbian Domestic Violence
By Caroline Sigman, L.P.C., N.C.C.

Last December 25, 35-year-old Danielle D’Alexandris was found strangled to death, her body stuffed into a plastic trash bag and dumped in a pond at a Dallas apartment complex where she had lived with her alleged killer, 35-year-old Lisa Rae Meeks. Police have refused to confirm whether the two were lovers, although they have determined that the women had been in “an abusive relationship off and on for about six or seven years.”

On Christmas Day, D’Alexandris sadly became yet another statistic of lesbian and gay domestic violence. How widespread is the problem? According to Shawna Virago, senior domestic violence advocate at the San Francisco outreach program Community United Against Violence, domestic violence (DV) occurs in 25 to 33 percent of same-sex relationships, the same as it does in heterosexual relationships. Other figures are equally unsettling: One in four homicides result from domestic violence; alcohol and/or drug abuse is involved in about 65 percent of domestic abuse; and the FBI estimates that only 10 percent of all spousal beatings are even reported to authorities.

Most of us are in denial about what this means. No one wants to entertain the idea of violence within a seemingly loving relationship. “When someone we love begins to control and hurt us,” wrote counselor Lisa Holland in the NCADV Voice, a quarterly magazine aimed at understanding and stopping domestic violence, “the truth is so painful that we often downplay reality.” And lesbians have had to deal with so many attacks from outside our community that we’re often reluctant to “out” this very real, potentially fatal problem from within. As activist/advocate Joyce Grover noted in Social Worker magazine, we “don’t want to give more ammunition to our oppressors. [We] want to believe that women are different…that women are inherently non-violent.” But avoiding the problem won’t help solve it. What will is rigorous honesty about what happens when lesbian domestic violence occurs and empowering ourselves to change it.

Myths and Misconceptions
How does DV happen? What drives a woman to abuse and kill her partner? Why does the victim stay? The cycle of domestic violence is an endless process of abuse that increases in frequency and intensity over time and can ultimately result in death. According to activist Barbara Hart, common misconceptions about lesbian DV include the myth that “the damage inflicted by the lesbian abuser is typically less than that by the male abuser,” the idea that “in lesbian relationships…both people are equally violent” and the assumption that the “reasons that women are violent have to be different than the reasons that men are violent.” Additionally, Holland notes that we “live in a society that blames victims. Our focus is often on the character and behavior of a victim rather than on that of the abuser.” To understand domestic violence, one must understand both the victim and the person committing the violent act.

A typical victim of lesbian DV is a typical lesbian. No one—butch, femme, stealth or androgynous—plans to get hit by her partner or seeks out an abusive situation. The first incident of violence usually comes as a nasty surprise. The victim won’t want to believe what is happening and may blame herself rather than her lover. Her emotional power in the abusive situation is significantly compromised by her love for her partner. And the abuser knows this. Still, let us be clear: The victim does not cause the violence perpetrated against her; that is the sole responsibility of the abuser.

From the abuser’s point of view, myths and misconceptions—especially those held by the victim—are beneficial. Abusers rely upon misinformation, secrecy and fear to maintain control of the abusive situation. They insist that their lover actively attracts violence and can’t relate to others except in the role of “Victim.” This train of thought places responsibility for the abuse upon the person being abused. And that is exactly what the abuser wants.

What kind of a person can justify brutalizing the woman she loves? Although individuals and particulars differ from case to case, researchers have identified certain consistent patterns apparent in all domestic violence cases. Our hypothetical couple below, Alice and Barbara, illustrate these points.

Trouble in Paradise
It begins with a seduction or honeymoon period: Alice feels and behaves as if Barbara can do no wrong. Alice lavishes attention upon Barbara. Alice must have Barbara. Alice wants Barbara to give up her apartment and move in. Alice is charming, to both Barbara and her friends. Things move quickly, and the two are soon living together, fast in love. They isolate from former friends and acquaintances, as so many couples do at the beginning of a relationship, a world unto themselves: two Eves in the garden of domestic bliss.

After several months, Alice complains that Barbara no longer seems as interested in Alice’s day-to-day as she once was. Barbara, she bickers, should know that Alice’s job is very stressful and better anticipate her needs. And Barbara doesn’t clean the house well or often enough—and seems surprised when Alice mentions this. Not that Alice expects Barbara to be psychic, but Barbara should know these things without having to be told. Alice’s feelings of disappointment and frustration are obvious, and Barbara tries harder to please her lover. Alice backs off, but Barbara eventually fails to meet her expectations and tensions rise further.

One day, in the midst of a typical “discussion” about housekeeping, Alice loses control. She screams at Barbara, then slaps and punches her because, she’ll later contend, “the bitch deserved it.” Barbara is shocked by the sudden violence. She cannot believe that their once-loving relationship has come to this, and says so. Alice feels attacked, so she assaults Barbara several more times before, cringing and tearful, Barbara begs for her forgiveness. Only then does Alice stop.

Thirty minutes pass. Alice has taken a brisk walk to clear her head. Barbara, in a state of shock, has retreated to the bedroom where she sits curled around a pillow in her lap, brooding and withdrawn. Alice, now humbled, knocks on the door and enters only when Barbara answers that she may come in. Alice fears that she may have lost Barbara for good and begs her for another chance. After all, she loves Barbara and would do anything to prove her love. Alice breaks into tears, sobbing openly until Barbara relents and comforts her.

Our once-happy couple has now returned to the honeymoon. Barbara believes Alice when she says that the physical abuse will never happen again, because Barbara wants to believe her. Desperately. Unfortunately, after persuading her lover not to leave, Alice all but forgets the violent act ever took place. She minimizes the bruises and scratches, rewrites the angry script the two played out for her own benefit. Barbara’s wounds heal daily until they are nearly invisible, and in just a few weeks, it’s almost as if the whole thing never happened. But both, of course, know it did. In fact, a nagging voice in Alice’s head tells her that Barbara was really more to blame than she. After all, Barbara provoked her. In fact, Alice wouldn’t be surprised if Barbara had instigated the whole scene just to get back at her for working so much. Her contempt for Barbara rises. The honeymoon is about to end; the abuse, however, is only beginning.

At first, Barbara chooses to remain in the relationship because she believes the violence was isolated, that she somehow had invited it and that Alice will change. Alice has indeed changed, though not for the better, and now Barbara stays because she fears the consequences of leaving: She has nowhere else to go. Plus Alice has told her that she’ll hunt Barbara down and kill her if she tries to leave. Alice continues to be very convincing. And the beatings continue to grow worse.

Stop the Insanity
The story of Alice and Barbara is fictitious. Yet, there are thousands of lesbian couples like them across the United States. Some will work through their issues of abuse; some will break up without resolution; and frighteningly, with others, the abuser will eventually kill her partner or be killed in self-defense. We may never know what really happened between Danielle D’Alexandris and Lisa Rae Meeks, but their tragedy doesn’t have to be repeated. As with Alice and Barbara, there were choices each woman could have made that might have prevented the sad outcome in Texas.

If you are an abuser, take responsibility for your own feelings. Your lover did not create your negative self-image, you did. So stop making her pay for your fear and despair. You are externalizing responsibility for your pain. You need counseling. Get it.

If you are being abused, do not blame yourself. You did not ask to be treated this way, nor do you deserve it. Trust your own instincts and, if necessary, leave. First and foremost seek out support from friends, family, community organizations—anywhere you can find it.

If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, offer your help: Listen, refrain from judgment and support your friend’s decisions (even if she is not yet ready to leave). Provide information on shelters, help obtain a restraining order and back off when she tells you to. Numerous support services are available for both abusers and their victims. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE) will refer callers to outreach programs in all 50 states. Operators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have been trained to handle calls from lesbians and gay men as well as transgendered, bisexual and straight people. (You can also reach the hotline via email at www.ndh.org.) The Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project in Boston (800-832-1901), despite the name, is another excellent resource for lesbians, offering nationwide referrals for people not living in areas with same-sex domestic violence organizations. San Francisco’s Community United Against Violence (415-333-HELP; www.cuav.org) also provides support services for victims of same-sex abuse.

It is vitally important that we do not fail our sisters—or ourselves—by ignoring this issue. It may not stimulate the liveliest party patter, but lesbian domestic violence must be openly acknowledged and discussed or it will continue to plague our community. It will not go away on its own. And you may be next. I was.

Caroline Sigman, L.P.C., N.C.C., is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Atlanta area. She may be reached at sidneywin@ga.freei.net.