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  • James Rowlands

We need to talk about identity-based abuse

I was invited to two different events recently. The first by Galop, as part of a consultation event about the UK Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill and the needs of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer (LGBTQ) communities. The second by SafeLives, when I took part in a national Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) Scrutiny Panel looking at the response to victims from these same communities who are at high risk of serious harm or homicide.

At each event there were engaged discussions about the risks to, needs of, and barriers faced by LGBTQ victims and survivors. There was also a focus on good practice. But what struck me was how uncertain those discussions were when it came to describing the specific ways in which some LGBTQ people experience domestic violence and abuse. I think such uncertainty is a problem and indicates a wider issue. So that’s what I want to write about here.

When I say we are uncertain, I’m not saying we don’t recognise these specific experiences. You'll find reference to them in some resources and publicity, but they tend to be described in a round-about way. A generic definition of domestic violence and abuse will usually be followed by a nod to those ‘aspects that are unique to LGBTQ domestic abuse’. Sometimes you might find more than that, perhaps taking the form of some pointers about potential risks. Most commonly pointers cover:

  • If it’s someone first relationship

  • Threatening to out someone (or doing so)

  • Telling someone they are to blame for the abuse because they are LGBTQ

  • Dictating how someone dresses or behaves

  • Controlling access to LGBTQ community spaces

  • Controlling access to medication.

There is good reason to highlight all of these factors, underpinned by some important research. (Perhaps the most cited is the work by Marianne Hester and Catherine Donovan, with Melanie McCarry, ‘Comparing love and domestic violence in heterosexual and same sex relationships’).

But for some reason, it’s not that common to give these specific experiences a collective name. So, let’s name them for what they are. What we are talking about is identity-based abuse.

Identity-based abuse involves the use of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity (in other words, a central aspect of their sense of self) by a former or current partner. A key point is that victims and survivors who experience identity-based abuse are not being abused because of their identity (that would be more accurately described as a hate crime). Instead their identity is intentionally being used by their former or current partner to demean, manipulate and control them.

Identity-based abuse can be effective because it thrives on two things. Firstly, someone’s sense of self. Our sense of self is critical to our everyday lives, even if we don’t always think about it. I’ll use myself as an example: I’m an out gay man, with a partner and loving family and friends. When I think back to growing up, at times I felt incredibly exposed. My identity was precious. Partly that was because it was developing. That was often exciting. But it also felt risky because, for a long time, my sense of self was intertwined with fears, doubts and shame as I grappled with how it felt to be growing up as a gay man in the 1990s and early 2000s. If I had been in an abusive relationship at the time, then that would have been a rich seam for an abuser to exploit. For many LGBTQ victims and survivors, their identity is weaponised in exactly this way.

But in talking about how identity can be used, let’s be clear this isn’t about pathologising LGBTQ people. So secondly, identity-based abuse is only powerful because of the cultural and societal factors that still set a wider context in which LGBTQ people live and love. Despite huge progress, we still live in a heteronormative world. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia also remain all too present. In short, it’s not all rosy and the battle is not won.

Why do I think we aren’t so good at naming identity-based abuse? Well, I think the needs of LGBTQ people can be overlooked. Recently I was talking about identity-based abuse, and why we should include this in the national definition of domestic violence and abuse. I was told by one person that identity-based abuse was already covered in the existing definition. After all, they said, surely it’s just another form of psychological and emotional abuse? And, if that’s the case, wouldn’t including it as a stand-alone item just be repetitive? On one level, sure. Much of what comes under identity-based abuse could be called psychological and emotional abuse. But that doesn’t mean we don't need to draw attention to identity-based abuse in its own right. At its most basic, subsuming the experience of LGBTQ communities suggests that identity-based abuse isn’t all that important. And when something’s not all that important, it all too often gets forgotten.

And we need to make sure identity-based abuse, and LGBTQ victims and survivors, are not forgotten.

It’s a stark fact that too few LGBTQ victims and survivors access help and support. Finding a way to include identity-based abuse in our thinking can play a part in addressing this. Firstly, we need to do a lot more to raise awareness. As for any communities, awareness raising is best done in a way that speaks to people’s experiences. If we name identity-based abuse, we might help some LGBTQ victims and survivors more readily identify what’s happening to them as domestic violence and abuse. Secondly, talking about identity-based abuse will encourage agencies to think about LGBTQ people’s experiences more explicitly. That might lead them to take a hard look at their own practices and if they actually help or hinder LGBTQ victims and survivors. After all, being told no-one will help you because you’re LGBTQ is made all the more effective if, when you do look for help and support, the message you get is that you don't matter. Why might you feel you don’t matter? Well, that’s what you might think if LGBTQ people are invisible in the materials produced by agencies and campaigns. Thirdly, professionals and agencies need to be more confident in engaging with LGBTQ people’s experiences of domestic violence and abuse, including how they can be different. Naming identity-based abuse means this issue can be more fully explored in training and reflected in resources. That hopefully means professionals will be better equipped to identify and consider the impact of identity-based abuse, so they are able to work with LGBTQ victims and survivors more effectively.

Suffice to say, if thinking about identity-based abuse means we start to think more about the needs of LGBTQ people, this goes much wider. We might begin to address other practice issues, for example robust inequalities monitoring (the LGBT Foundation has developed some great resources in this area), as well as addressing the woefully inadequate provision of specialist LGBTQ domestic abuse services.

Naming identity-based abuse shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. There is good news: much work is already underway to raise awareness and meet the needs of LGBTQ victims and survivors. SafeLives’ recent Spotlight #6 has explored the experiences of LGBTQ victims and survivors and has a range of resources to help professionals and agencies develop their practice. Galop has a LGBT+ Domestic Violence Resource Library and is also host to the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline. Things have changed massively. They continue to get better. I just hope that, as that continues, all of us can become more confident in naming, identifying and responding to identity-based abuse.

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