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Same-sex domestic abuse targeted

Spate of deaths spurs bid to raise awareness

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / September 5, 2011

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A series of killings of gay men and women by their partners has alarmed advocates, who say the deaths reflect a serious problem of domestic violence in the gay community that draws scant attention from many in law enforcement.

Since 2010, there have been seven killings as a result of domestic violence, a sharp increase from prior years when advocates reported one to three such homicides.

Last month, a 47-year-old man was accused of stabbing his boyfriend then burying his body beneath a porch in Winthrop.

As advocates struggle to understand the increase, they say many police, prosecutors, and judges lack the sensitivity and training to help gays, lesbians, and transgender people who are victims of abuse. Often, authorities fail to recognize who is the batterer in such relationships and who needs help. The consequences can be disastrous, advocates say, leaving victims with few resources and empowering the abuser.

The issue is one of many that advocates are tackling as they try to raise public awareness of same-sex domestic violence.

In some ways, concerns about police indifference reflect a broader lack of public understanding of violence that can erupt in gay relationships.

“There are . . . times when people may see [gay] domestic violence as less serious, like a catfight between women or guys who should work it out between themselves,’’ said Jessica Newman, a counselor in the Violence Recovery Program at Fenway Health. “We live in a society where heterosexism and homophobia are pervasive and people are walking around with unconscious biases.’’

Advocates say there is a deep resistance from some police departments to learn more about the issue. They report dropping off brochures about services for victims only to have officers scoff or discard them. A few years ago, officers from one department in the state walked out of a workshop on helping gay domestic violence victims, said Curt Rogers, executive director of the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project in Cambridge.

“It was pretty traumatizing,’’ he said. “As soon as we started in on the content, one officer asked: ‘Why are we here? This is just like our diversity training. This is a waste of our time.’ ’’

Advocates declined to name the departments for fear of ruining any chance of working with them.

The need to train law enforcement is great, they say.

There are regular reports of both victim and batterer receiving restraining orders to stay away from each other because a judge was unable to identify the abuser. For the same reason, victims have been arrested along with their abusers after police received a report of an assault.

“Police don’t necessarily ask what is your relationship,’’ said Beth Leventhal, executive director of The Network/La Red, which helps gay and transgender abuse victims. “They assume you’re roommates or friends, and that is not flagged as domestic violence. All of the steps that would normally be available to someone who is a survivor of domestic violence are bypassed.’’

One Massachusetts woman, who declined to give her name for fear of antagonizing her ex-wife, said that she sought a restraining order against her partner, who had thrown rocks at her windows and repeatedly threatened to kill her.

The police did not arrest her ex-wife, she said. In court, the judge ordered both women to stay away from each other.

“ ‘You girls need to learn to get along,’ ’’ the woman recalled the judge saying. “I think that the courts did not take it seriously. . . . They reflected that perhaps my ex was mean and cruel, but it didn’t rise to the level of domestic violence.’’

Advocates say they want other departments to look to law enforcement agencies in counties such as Suffolk and Middlesex, which have large urban populations and a strong gay presence, and where for years authorities have emphasized training for officers and prosecutors.

“We say it all the time: Arresting both people does nobody any good,’’ said Boston police Sergeant Detective Mary-Ann Riva of the domestic violence unit. “What happens then is the real abuser says, ‘Next time, I’m going to tell them that you hit me.’ ’’

As part of their training, officers are given tips on how to determine a victim’s sexual identity: If a man who said he was struck by his roommate denies he is gay, a detective should pay close attention to the apartment. For example, do the two men live in a one-bedroom apartment?

If both people claim to be the victim, detectives then look at other factors to determine who is more vulnerable: Victims are less likely to be in control of the finances; they may be more isolated because they are unemployed or have fewer friends and family living nearby.

Such signs are similar to those advocates and authorities watch for in heterosexual relationships, said Kara Hayes, director of the Victim Witness Assistance Program for the office of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.

Hayes recalled a comment one gay abuse victim made to her nearly 20 years ago: “ ‘Batterers in the straight community and the gay community have so much in common they could start a softball team together.’ ’’

“They’re so similar in their need to control, to dominate and to humiliate,’’ Hayes said.

One crucial difference: many gay victims who hide their sexual identity fear that they will be exposed if they report the abuse, said Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone.

Of the 2,326 domestic violence cases that are before Middlesex prosecutors so far this year, only 50 of the victims reported they were gay.

In Boston, Riva said advocates provided services to more than 4,000 victims, but only 73 of them identified themselves as gay.

“Our issue is trying to get people in communities comfortable enough with law enforcement profession so that they’ll get the right people listening and the right services,’’ Leone said.

This month, several advocacy groups will hold a vigil to mourn the recent deaths and call attention to others in the gay community about the problem of domestic violence, Leventhal said.

Advocates hope the rise in killings is a result of better reporting, not a surge in violence, but they believe even people in the gay community need more education about domestic violence.

“If this number of people had died because of [violence against gays] people would be saying this is a crisis,’’ Leventhal said. “Institutions that step up when they are not inclined to do so do it . . . because a community says enough is enough.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

Where to get help

Fenway Health Violence Recovery Program
617-927-6250, 800-834-3242; www.fenwayhealth.org

Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project
800-832-1901; www.gmdvp.org

The Network/LaRed
617-742-4911, 617-227-4911; www.tnlr.org

SafeLink (Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline)
877-785-2020, TTY: 877-521-2601

Jane Doe Inc., Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
www.janedoe.org