Breaking silence on hidden trauma

Breaking silence on hidden trauma

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Part two of a two-part series about domestic violence and LGBTQ relationships 

“He liked seeing me cry,” Chantal says.

Her voice is unwavering, with no hint of tears. Even in the slightly disjunctive images of Skype, Chantal seems calm as she tells the story of how, for three years, her boyfriend abused her verbally and physically, and how hard it was for her to leave him.

Like all the victim/survivors interviewed for this series, Chantal spoke on condition of anonymity.

“He messed up enough of my life. He does not get any more of it.”

Now 29, Chantal has been openly trans since she was 18. She lives with her grandmother, works in retail clothing design and is taking design classes at Philadelphia University. She wanted to talk about the epidemic of violence against trans women of color and how she “almost became a statistic.”

A tall, mixed-race woman with striking cheekbones and the elan of a model, Chantal met her boyfriend at a small fashion event that one of her friends had organized.

“Let’s just call him Dick, OK?” she laughs, as she details how he complimented her on her outfit and she flirted with him. “I really liked him right away. I fell quick and I fell hard.”

When Dick and Chantal met, she was trying to crowd-fund a clothing line, and he had offered to help. Soon, she said, she was dependent on him financially.

“I really wanted a prince — I needed a prince — and he was so kind to me,” she said, recounting how Dick’s concern for her became more and more controlling.

He didn’t want her doing fashion shows, even at school. He checked her phone regularly for texts. He told her what to wear. “But he loved me, I knew he loved me, and I loved him,” she said.

The love part, Chantal said, was what kept her with him after the first time he shoved her and she fell.

“I was lucky — we were in the bedroom and I fell onto the bed. But if I had fallen just a few inches to the side, I would have smashed my face really hard. I still think about that.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2015 survey of intimate-partner violence among LGBTQ people, Chantal’s experience of domestic violence is common. Twenty percent of LGBTQ people have experienced physical violence while 16 percent have experienced threats and intimidation — all at the hands of intimate partners. Another 4 percent experience sexual violence and 11 percent have been threatened with a weapon.

For trans women, the threat of violence is a national epidemic. Chantal said the unpredictable nature of her boyfriend’s outbursts began to make her feel afraid all the time.

“He never hurt me so badly that I had to go to the hospital,” she said, “but he threatened to ‘mess me up’ whenever he got angry.” 

As executive director of Women in Transition and president of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Roberta Hacker has addressed IPV for 30 years and said Chantal’s experience is the most common form of domestic abuse.

“The fear factor is significant,” Hacker said. “It’s what ties the individual to the abuser. They become afraid all the time because they have been dehumanized to an extent, so no matter what they do, they will be wrong, their abuser tells them this all the time.”

Hacker said the threat of violence, either stated or implied, keeps the victim in the thrall of the abusive partner. “Fear of death, the threat of killing them or their family, their children, their pets — all of that ties the knot around the individual and keeps them in the abusive relationship,” she said.

Maya is a professor at a local college, and single. Her female partner, Sasha, “never accepted my bisexuality” and would fight with her about it, she said. The relationship was monogamous and Sasha would insist that Maya was a lesbian.

“Sasha used to tell me all the time that since I no longer was in relationships with men, I wasn’t bisexual, I was a lesbian. But that was not my identity. Even though I was committed to her and only with her sexually, I strongly felt my identity was my own, even if I never got involved with a male partner again.”

The bullying weighed on Maya and, she said, it became “a talking point in every argument. She would say, ‘Well I guess since you’re a bisexual, you don’t really understand X,’ or some other snide comment.”

The relationship turned violent when Maya began team-teaching with a man. Sasha was jealous and accusatory, demanding to know if she was sleeping with the other professor.

“I would tell her no, I would explain that not only was he married and I was not attracted to him, but we worked together and I would never become involved with someone I worked with.”

Sasha didn’t believe her. “She just whacked me one day out of nowhere. I don’t even remember what it was that we were discussing and she just said, ‘I really hate you right now’ and hauled off and hit me so hard that I burst into tears like a child. It was just so shocking.”

The couple split up several months later.Maya said she’s “still in mourning and still healing.”

Dr. Jennie Goldenberg specializes in treatment of post-traumatic stress. In her experience treating LGBTQ clients, seeking help is profoundly difficult.

“Experiencing physical and psychological trauma can lead to a reluctance and even fear of reporting intimate-partner violence,” Goldenberg said. “LGBTQ people suffer from almost daily micro aggressions that can cause depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.”

Hacker said this trauma just perpetuates the cycle of violence.

“It has been a long-term struggle to work with the LGBTQ community about violence in intimate-partner relationships,” said Hacker. “Gay men are more willing to come forward than lesbians. The isolation lesbians feel often makes them protective of their abusive partners and they can’t get help.”

The impact of discrimination also leads women to self-medicating and substance abuse, said Hacker.

Maya said she started drinking wine every night to calm down.

Goldenberg said, “LGBTQ people can experience layers upon layers of traumatic experiences as children and adolescents, including abuse and outright rejection from parents and other family members because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“They often don’t have a secure foundation of feeling loved and accepted for who they are, and they then enter their adult relationships with an anxious/insecure attachment style, a lack of a sense of safety in the world, and a belief that they don’t deserve better.”

“Homophobia and transphobia — or the fear they will encounter it in police officers or other crisis responders, including staff in DV shelters, emergency-room staff, and mental-health professionals — causes many LGBTQ folks to avoid not only reporting the abuse, but seeking mental-health treatment to mitigate its long-term effects.”

While all the survivors interviewed for this series sought therapy in one form or another, not one reported their abuser to police or any other authority. Goldenberg said this is more common for LGBTQ victims of IPV than their heterosexual peers.

“LGBTQ folks can be retraumatized by the stigma, discrimination, lack of training and outright homophobia and transphobia they can encounter when they seek safety — what is known as ‘sanctuary trauma,’” the doctor explained. “Their communities are small, and reporting a partner for DV can also lead to further isolation, as community members and friends may choose to support the abuser.”

That was Maya’s experience. “All our mutual friends took Sasha’s side,” she said. “It was devastating for me. I felt I lost everything. I also felt that it was a repudiation of who I was, as if these friends were saying I was expendable because I wasn’t the lesbian.” 

Both Hacker and Goldenberg said it’s vital to tell survivor stories to highlight both the facts of LGBTQ domestic violence and that survivors are out there — and that anyone can move from victim to survivor with support.

“It takes a great deal of courage — and a lot of social support — for any victim of intimate-partner violence to report it, and to seek help,” Goldenberg said. “It puts many at risk for even greater violence or even death. For members of the LGBTQ community, our society, sadly, just makes it so much more difficult.” n


If you are experiencing abuse of any kind from an intimate partner, contact:

Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-866-723-3014

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Congresso de Latinos Unidos: 215-763-8870

Mazzoni Center: 215-563-0652

Women Against Abuse: 215-386-1280

Women in Transition: 215-751-1111

The Attic Youth Center: 215-545-4331

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