Somewhere Over the Rainbow: An Investigation into LGBTQ Domestic Violence

By Angela Jones

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: An Investigation into Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Domestic Violence seeks to provide insight into a neglected quagmire.  Domestic Violence in the LGBTQ community is just as prevalent and noxious as heterosexual domestic violence, but gets almost no attention. Rationales for why domestic violence occurs in both communities are explored.  This article takes a theoretical approach, using ethnography, to understand this largely ignored phenomenon. LGBTQ DV has been difficult to study because there is no clear division of labor in homosexual families that would make it easier to understand power struggles.  Same sex bond theory and the feminization of the LGBTQ are presented as theories that suggest why DV in LGBTQ families has been largely ignored.  When studying DV in heterosexual families scholars have primarily understood DV as a result of power struggles that are shaped by a genderized division of labor that is often bound up with the principle of least interest and dependency.  Traditionally, women are more likely to be victims of DV because they are more likely to be dependent on their male partners.  DV is most often used as a mechanism to maintain dominance.  It is posited that this fundamental rationale is present in both heterosexual and homosexual families/relationships.  However, the absence of a clearly defined, genderized division of labor and power structure – often present in heterosexual families – makes studying and understanding DV in LGBTQ families more complex.

In the late 1980’s, serious literature devoted to domestic violence in gay and lesbian relationships gained wide attention for the first time.  In the beginning much of this literature was written by political activists and members of the LGBTQ community, and it only focused on abuse in lesbian relationships (Lobel: 1986).  It wasn’t until the 1990’s that domestic violence in the LGBTQ community was taken up by scholars as an academic endeavor.  Leading the way in this groundbreaking discourse was Claire Renzetti, with her 1992 book Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships.  In addition to Renzetti, the majority of the insight we have into same-sex domestic violence comes from the work done by the Anti-Violence Project.

While the scholarship proffered thus far has undoubtedly demonstrated that homosexual domestic violence is just as noxious as heterosexual domestic violence, with the exception of the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), the overwhelming majority of research done on LGBTQ DV has only focused on one section of the community; lesbians.  This is typical, as that domestic violence is typically seen as a problem for feminists to grapple with.  Demonstrating that men are victims of domestic violence is to tear at the very fabric of the “good society’s” binary construction of gender.  In addition, discourse on this matter has alienated the rest of the queer community.  Again, the AVP remains the exception as they have included transgendered respondents in their surveys.

Scholars have tried to determine if abuse is perpetrated in homosexual and heterosexual relationships for the same reasons.  Theorists originally postulated that biology might play a role in understanding the causality of domestic violence.  They tried to link both genetics and brain injuries stemming from trauma to why individuals would perpetrate violence against their loved ones in adulthood (Rosenbaum & Hodge: 1989, Perry: 1997).  More recent scholarship has attempted to link domestic violence to individual psychopathology (Dutton: 1997, Holtzworth-Munroe et al.: 1997, Margdol: 1997, Farrington: 1994).  Scholars from this school have proffered that batterers often suffer from mental disorders.  A more popular suggestion is that violent behavior is learned.  Violent behavior does stem from exposure from previous experiences and may be attributed to a sort of multi-generational problem in which violent behavior is learned as a child; children who are brought up in abusive homes are more likely to become batterers in adulthood (Hotaling: & Sugarman: 1986, Wolfe: 1999, Riggs & O’Leary: 1989).  Many have demonstrated the role that alcohol and drugs play in fostering domestic violence (Flanzer: 1993, Kanter & Straus: 1990).  Liberal feminists and radical feminists to varying degrees (the latter being far more critical) have posited that the patriarchal family structure was the major source of oppression for women in society.  Contemporary feminist scholarship suggests that in heterosexual relationships the division of labor within the family and the hegemonic role that men play might shed light on why domestic violence occurs in these families.  Violence might often be used as a way for men to maintain the status quo; to retain, maintain, and enforce their power within the family.  Scholars like Richard J. Gelles and Murray A. Straus have attributed domestic violence in heterosexual relationships to the social organization of families and the relative time spent time with them; the stress that results from the former can lead to violence (Gelles & Straus: 1988).

There are two fundamental differences between rationales for domestic violence in the heterosexual and homosexual communities: (1) Power and the division of labor play out differently in heterosexual and homosexual relationships and (2) institutional support for the victims of violence – while limited in the heterosexual community – is almost nonexistent in the homosexual community.

Figure 1- National Cases of LGBTQ Domestic Violence:

Year # of Nationally Reported Cases
2003 6,523
2002 5,718
2001 5,034
2000 4,048
1999 3,120
1998 2,534

Figure 2- Cases of LGBTQ Domestic Violence in New York:

Year New Cases # of new victims Ongoing
1 time emergencies % female %
2004 486 607 86 345 45 50 5
2003 423 501 94 711 47 51 2
2002 371 433 109 N/A 45 55 -
2001 391 428 118 N/A 49 50 1
2000 422 471 N/A N/A 47 51 2
1999 459 510 N/A N/A 42 56 2
1998 N/A 506 N/A N/A 41 54 5

Figure 3- Highest Ranked Cities of LGBTQ DV in 1999:

City/Location # of reported incidents
1.  Los Angeles 1,356
2.  San Francisco 741
3.  New York 510

All data in Figures 1-3 complied from The AVP Report on Domestic Violence

According to the scholars David Newman & Liz Grauerholz, authors of the textbook Sociology of Families (2002), domestic violence may take three different forms:

Interpersonal Conflict involves relatively minor acts of random and sporadic violence, such as pushing, grabbing, and slapping.  Nonsystematic abuse involves a range of acts from threats to kicking and hitting but generally does not involve life threatening acts.  Systematic abuse involves relatively high risk of all types of violence, including life threatening violence, such as beating, choking, and acts with knives or guns (407).

Theoretical Considerations: Power Not As Coercion

Power is not always held by one individual; it is fluid and capillary.  Perhaps our traditional notions of power as coercion should be thrown out with the bath water (Foucault: 1974).  Power need not always be defined in relation to the hegemony of one almighty force exerting its will over another.  Power is not held by one individual in the homosexual relationship; the division of labor is not clearly defined.  Now that homosexual families have begun “coming out,” the power relationships within these relationships are being shaped for the very first time.

Although the division of labor in heterosexual relationships has become less clear, traditional power relations characterized by patriarchal domination still persist.  However, in homosexual relationships the traditional dichotomy – dominant-submissive, breadwinner-homecare giver, man-woman – does not translate.  Many attempts have been made to depict the man-woman dichotomy in homosexual relationships, particularly in lesbian relationships, such as butch-femme.  However, much of the scholarship in this area quells the notion that gay identities are fixed (Nestle: 1992, Esterberg: 1997, Vicinus: 1996, Darty & Potter: 1984, D’Augelli: 1995).  Jeffrey Weeks and Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick have both criticized universalizing and “naturalistic” views of homosexuality.  Not all lesbians are butch or femme; not all gay men are top or bottom; and certainly the bisexual and transgendered segments of the community make even more dubious the “traditional family” dynamic.  An LGBTQ family has no clear structure to speak of because it is still being molded, transmogrified, decided, discussed, and politicized.

Domestic violence in the LGBTQ community is not easily summarized in one theory; it must be explored on a case by case basis.  Traditionally the power structure in the heterosexual family has been used to explain why one partner is able to perpetrate violence against the other partner.  In homosexual relationships the power structure is not clearly fixed, and it is constantly changing as LGBTQ culture becomes not only more visible, but challenges the current hegemonic discourse on sexuality in the public sphere.  As the definitions of family and sexuality have become increasingly polemicized, they are continually being re-created and re-shaped.  One theory alone cannot possibly encompass an entire community.  Rather than searching for one or even two rationales for why LGBTQ DV exists, we must realize that there must be a multiplicity of rationales determined on a case by case basis. It would be propitious for scholars in this nascent discipline to apply theories that seek to deconstruct contemporary discourse.  We may want to avoid constructing theoretical bodies of knowledge that normalize and universalize an existing phenomenon; in other words, we cannot use the same measuring stick for all cases of domestic violence.  Ethnography is the key to grasping these varying and many rationales.  LGBTQ DV has been ignored for too long; it has been ignored because many people subscribe to what I refer to as Same-Sex Bond Theory, and they have bought into The Feminization of the LGBTQ community.

Same-Sex Bond Theory

Same-Sex Bond Theory refers to the notion that homosexual partners have a “deeper bond” because they are of the same sex.  Popular discourse perpetuates this notion – through media representation and cultural imagery – that same-sex couples have a uniquely innate understanding of their partners.  Same-sex couples are supposedly able to “get closer” to one another because they are of the same sex.  Being of the same sex provides insight, knowledge, and understanding into your partner’s identity.  Biologically and socially they are susceptible to the same gender norms and rules, meaning they ostensibly have been socialized in the same manner.  Homosexual communication is therefore seen as being superior to heterosexual communication.

The understanding is that homosexual couples do not need to engage in domestic violence because they have innate tools which enable them to communicate better through verbal and nonviolent means.  Because many have subscribed to this theory, domestic violence has been criminally ignored in the LGBTQ community.  Either (1) many have ignored it much as they have ignored the community itself, wishing homosexuality was a fad and its participants would abstain from its practice altogether, or (2) people may have believed that DV was not a problem for the LGBTQ community because homosexual relationships were seen as not being as susceptible to DV.  Because we live in a hetero-normative society, DV has typically been seen as a problem of the heterosexual community.  Many people will often unknowingly subscribe to Same-Sex Bond Theory, and therefore cannot comprehend how DV could be a part of intimate homosexual relationships.   Moreover, particularly in the case of gay men, the LGBTQ community has been feminized.

The Feminization of Love

The Feminization of Love, a concept first introduced in the 1980’s (Hochschild: 1983, Holtzworth-Munroe & Jacobson: 1985, Thompson & Walker: 1989, Cancian: 1987, Cancian: 1993) suggests that in society we typically equate love with our notions of femininity.  We depict the concept of love using terms usually associated with what western societies use to measure levels of womanhood; emotionality, sensitivity, warmth, and even irrationality.  Because the LGBTQ communities as a whole – in particular gay men – have been feminized, society has attached a whole host of meanings to what it means to be gay.  Images in the media continue to perpetuate the image of the LGBTQ community as a passive and submissive population of interior decorators, dancing queens, and matrons.  The majority of these images – found in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, and others – continue to assist in the Feminization of the LGBTQ community. The idea that DV is not a problem for the LGBTQ community is buttressed by the sexist and hetero-normative ideas that are fed to use by the media.  The discourse on femininity would suggest that being feminine means that the body is a passive one.  Because the LGBTQ community has been feminized, gay individuals are seen as being non-aggressive; as individuals who because of their feminine “nature” are able to verbalize their problems without resorting to violence.  The media continues to pervade images of gay men as “sissy-boys” and lesbians as androgynous matrons.  These images continue to suggest that violence is not, and cannot be present in homosexual relationships.

If we can set aside the two former hetero-normative theories, perhaps we can ascertain a better understanding of not just LGBTQ DV, but contribute to the burgeoning discourse on sexuality, gender, family, and Queer Studies. The major limitations of the research done on LGBTQ DV have not just been in its theoretical base but in its methodology as well.


Even in Claire Renzetti’s pioneering work Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships, sheacknowledges the limitations of quantitative methods, namely her non-random sampling.  Soliciting respondents is to my understanding not the most propitious way to investigate a population, whether it’s using advertising to entice respondents or using “academic bribery” in order to conduct surveys.  The study of the “unstudiable” has come into fashion in the past few decades.  I can assure you that gaining access to a world of which you are not member is not only arduous but impossible if you try to access it by merely handing out surveys.  Moreover, inviting people from another world into yours in order to conduct research is even more arduous.  Ethnography seems to be the only methodology available that allows a more realistic view of DV without having a compromised sample.   

It has been suggested that cyberspace has proved to be a unique space in which typical signifiers of race, class, gender, and sexuality are not present.  This technology is leading us in a new direction in regards to the dismantling or deconstruction of hegemonic discourse (Haraway: 1992, Featherstone: 1996, Stryker: 2000).  In addition, cyberspace has been promulgated as the new space for the dissemination, sharing, and discussion of knowledge (Pitts: 2001)
Ethnography in cyberspace then seems like the ultimate tool.  People are free in cyberspace; free from the condemning eyes of the researcher and free from the matrix of oppressive discourse that binds them in the material world.  In cyberspace, although many fear “Big Brother” is watching, or monitoring rather, and while I agree with Foucault that we are never really free from surveillance, cyberspace has provided a space where we feel free to express ourselves and where information and knowledge abound.  Several scholars have produced fruitful ethnographies by taking up shop in cyberspace (Hamman: 1996, Mason: 2000, Hakken: 1999, Hakken: 2000, Mason: 2000, Hakken: 2004, Hakken:2004, Holloway & Valentine: 2005).

In this project I have used the popular social networking site MySpace in order to establish a satellite station.  I began a group profile entitled the LGBTQ Domestic Violence Project.  Through online chatting, discussions, postings on message boards, and online interviews I have been given detailed first-hand accounts of many experiences of DV in the LGBTQ community.

MySpace is an online community that allows individuals to network and socialize.  Users, free of charge, can log on and create their member profile.  Many people post pictures of themselves on their profiles, and they can invite other members to be on their “friend list.”  Through these lists, individuals can engage in conversation.  The site is used by many artists and musicians to network with others, and to promote their work.  However, should someone violate a space, a user can block other members from viewing their profile.  With millions of people logged onto MySpace, it seems like an ideal place to conduct social research.

Ethnography in Cyberspace

Here is an example of an online conversation I had with a survivor of domestic violence named Shane from Florida.  I posted the following question on the group page:

Angela: Do you think domestic violence occurs (1) more in heterosexual relationships than in homosexual relationships and (2) do you think it occurs for the same reasons in both communities (gay & straight)?  Why?
Shane: [T]o answer the first one w/ total honesty [I] it’s think its more 50/50 than people think BUT you rarely hear about homosexual domestic violence …
(in my personal situation ONCE [I] decided to DO something, they were going to call the charges ”assault” then “aggravated assault,” or a few other terms … [I] agreed w/ those terms but [I] constantly thought to myself: [these] people are actually right, this is (was) def. more than a Domestic Dispute … it was a Power Trip for him … [I] wrote a lot of poetry and stories about him, the abuse, the feelings [I] was going through, the things that didn’t make any SeNsE … when [I] was in High School after the Ordeal, (at 16) to be exact … [I submitted] a 3 part poem about my Broken Journey, it got published and [I] think it helped people to know that they were not ALONE.

As per my second question here is Shane’s response:

Shane: YES I DO … it’s a similar disease … it’s a lot of insecurities, Family patterns that the Abusers are repeating, it’s a self hate that they have that Make one the Target to all that [in]excusable abuses … [I'm] not justifying by any means … this people are very out of control…
Angela: Why do people stay in violent relationships?
Shane: I believe we stick around in hopes that it will change … also intimidation plays a part … the threats, the humiliation, the physical aspect.  [I] closed my walls, I became depressed … I stopped talking to people and the saddest thing is I thought he was my everything … boy was I wrong.
Angela: How long did you stay?
Shane: Well [I] was 14.  I turned 15 while in this relationship (time-wise, 10 months) … I stayed too long.

Even in this terse sample we can see that there is no single causality for domestic violence.  As Shane articulates, the rationales are multifaceted.  In Shane’s case he seemed to express that the abuse he endured was because of power and domination, learned behavior, and “self-hate,” as he called it.  The conversation that I had with Shane was quite informative.  Shane, unlike many LGBTQ DV survivors, sought assistance from the police.  This surprised me because the literature and the statistics on LGBTQ DV suggest that many victims do not seek legal recourse.  The conversations I had with Shane were wonderful.  He wrote to me about the limited resources that the LGBTQ community has in order to seek help and support for DV.  However, Shane wrote about the power of writing poetry and “artistic therapy.”  He agreed that sites like the LGBT Domestic Violence Survivors Project and other self-help and community grass-roots projects are essential for providing the much needed institutional support that members of the community sorely need.

Our online conversations revealed another key issue; too often people see DV as a problem exclusively for adults.  Some scholars have begun utilizing the term “intimate violence” for this reason.  DV is not just a problem for married heterosexual couples; it’s a problem for couples in non-heterosexual relationships, cohabiters, and young adults as well.  While many people are familiar with child abuse that is perpetrated by an adult against a child, many neglect that young people are also susceptible to DV if they are engaged in an intimate relationship that is characterized by violence.  Jay Silverman, Anita Raj, Lorelei Mucci, and Jeanne Hathaway conducted a study of violence in youth relationships, with startling results.  After surveying approximately 2,000 girls ages 14-18, they found that 20% had been survivors of many forms of DV, from interpersonal conflict right on up to systematic abuse (2001).


This is an ongoing project, and I would like to continue compiling the stories and narratives of various survivors of domestic violence in both the hetero and homosexual communities.  Through this process, people should begin to discover how to thwart the erroneous ideas and actions – like Same-Sex Bond Theory and The Feminization of LGBTQ – that only help to falsely justify why DV is not a serious problem for LGBTQ.  Grass roots efforts need to be taken to establish institutionalized support for the LGBTQ community.  This study is one that I will continue.  I am hoping that the online community I started will encourage more people to talk about their experiences with domestic violence.  I am hoping that more scholars will begin to study this phenomena in a more meaningful way, and that eventually efforts will be taken to eradicate the problem of domestic violence in the LGBTQ community.

I encountered a young woman online named Nicole.  We initially met through MySpace and after some time began to chat extensively through personal emails.  There is something quite powerful about the human voice.  It contains an emotion that statistics or studies cannot capture.  I will leave you with a sample of Nicole’s story:

“We worked together in a trendy salon.  I worked in management, as what they called a salon coordinator; a fancy term for a receptionist I suppose.  She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.  I was in my early 20’s; I think I might have even been 20 when we met.  She was 32 when we first met.  The age difference never really seemed to bother me.  She would come to work in these gorgeous exotic dresses.  They always seemed to be made of flowing chiffon-like material, so when she went up and down the stairs, her long dress would graze up and down her tan legs and make her almost seem like she was floating.  Anyway, she was exotic, really feminine, graceful, and classy.  I was never butch or anything.  As a matter of fact, at that point in my life, I was somewhat feminine.  I often wore skirts, dresses and make-up to work, although I had to.  I was basically a jeans and sneakers girl on the weekends, but hey, who [isn’t] these days.  I never really thought of myself as a femme or a butch.

“At this point in my life I identified as bi-sexual and never really saw myself under such rigid terms.  Neither did Tina.  Although she identified as a lesbian and had been in a long term relationship with a woman prior to our relationship, I never remember her referring to herself as ‘a femme.’  We started hanging out with a mutual friend.  In the beginning we had so much fun together.  We really enjoyed each other, from conversations to sex.  Things went pretty fast, kind of like that famous lesbian joke: What does a lesbian bring to a first date?  A moving truck. We both did retain separate residences until about a year and half into our relationship.  She finally moved out of the house that she and her ex had bought together.  I was living with several roommates.  I found myself looking for a new place to live as the arrangement with my current roommates was dissolving.  Thank god.  What insanity that living arrangement was.

“Tina told me I could stay with her in her new place until I found something, although I suspected she really wanted me to just move in.  This is when things got a little crazy.  I remember one story so vividly.  After living together for a while I finally found an apartment.  This did not go over well.  She wanted me to stay and well, I still was not ready for what I thought was an intense commitment.  Things got bad, fighting ensued incessantly, I even cheated and confessed.  One night after horrendous fighting at her place, after I had already moved into my new place, I tried to leave.  I was ending it for I think the second time.  I tried to exit the rear patio door; it was a sliding glass door.  Before I could get my whole body out, she grabbed my torso.  She screamed that she wasn’t done and we still had to talk.  She said she wasn’t going to let me leave.  We struggled in the doorway.  She eventually pulled me back into the house.  She slammed me to [the] floor.  She was quite bigger than me.  She held me on the floor, insisting that I was not leaving her.  She told me she did not want it to be over and she would hold me there by force if necessary.  I got loose from her hold.  I went for the door, pushing her hard each time she tried to grab me again.  We ended up outside on the patio.  I remember striking her really hard.  At [this] point it was no holds barred; I was swinging just as hard and fast as her.  She grabbed a drinking glass that had been left outside on the patio.  She broke the glass on the railings and came towards me.  I really was scared at this point.  I wrestled with her, grabbing her arms, and screaming that that had gone to far.  She dropped the glass.

“Our fighting ended in [us] both crying on the floor of the patio, holding each other.  I am not quite sure exactly why our relationship ended with this kind of violence.  It was just at the end, ya’ know, when things got really bad in our relationship.  There would be pushing, shoving, and lots of nasty dialogue.  However, it wasn’t until this one night that things got really violent.  There are so many reasons why it happened.  Everyone always says domestic violence is about power but I’m not sure how it works.  She was kind of the femme one in the relationship and she was really the aggressive one.  I guess it was about power in that she wanted the power to make me stay.  We both used drugs of all kinds on a regular basis.  Sometimes I wonder if we all just don’t deal with emotions differently.  I wonder if like in Tina’s case, sometimes emotions get the best of us and we really cannot find appropriate means for dealing with our hurt and frustration.   It’s not like we are crazy or even temporally insane, whether it is almost natural.  Sometimes maybe we are just pissed off- it doesn’t make it right, but isn’t it natural to get pissed off, don’t we all have our breaking point and isn’t that breaking point different for everyone?”


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Angela Jones is a Ph.D student in the Sociology Department of the New School for Social Research.  She is currently an adjunct lecturer of Sociology within the City University of New York, teaching undergraduate courses at both Baruch and York Colleges.  Angela is also working on her dissertation, entitled “The Niagara Movement 1905-1910: Intellectual Networks, Social Change, & the Making of Black Publics.” Her research interests are expansive.  While her dissertation speaks to the existing sociological literature on social change, intellectuals, African American historiography, and publics, she also conducts research in gender and queer studies.  When Angela is not teaching, writing her dissertation, conducting ethnography, or reading, she also enjoys watching the game and drinking a Miller Lite.