October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. You might wear a purple ribbon, take part in a candlelight vigil, or watch a public service announcement. Odds are, you’ll hear about straight, gender-conforming women who are or have been abused by straight, gender-conforming men. Those stories are important, but they leave queer survivors and our abusers invisible just as we are the rest of the year.
National Coming Out Day, or NCOD, also lands in October. At my institution, the queer student groups sometimes put a real door on the lawn, encouraging people to walk through it and proclaim their identities. Some people come out in public for the first time on that day. Coming out can be both scary and liberating, which is one of the reasons our communities have put such an emphasis on it (some would say too much). It’s also why we rally around people who’ve just come out, knowing the importance of community support at such heady and risky times. But some queer voices will be absent on NCOD, silenced by death, by a crushed spirit, or by fear of the consequences of coming out. They’re silenced because of who they are and what they’ve been through, all of which should concern us. But I’m focused on one particular kind of silencing here. Have you ever heard of someone coming out as a queer survivor of intimate partner violence on NCOD? I haven’t. That’s why I’m writing this.
When ACT UP first shouted, decades ago, that silence equals death, they were talking about the silencing of HIV-positive people and people with AIDS. But those words ring eerily true to a queer survivor of intimate partner violence. It’s hard for queer folks to face IPV in our own communities, because we’ve struggled for so many years against homophobic claims that all gay sex is abusive. But here’s the irony: Abuse is the least queer thing about us. The numbers are hard to get at, because they rely on people’s willingness and ability to report, but IPV seems to happen at about the same rates in queer communities as it does in straight, gender-conforming ones. Some of us have had to fight so hard to have our lives and our relationships recognized that we don’t want to admit that members of our own communities are hurting and even killing others. When we suspect or find out that’s the case, we plug our ears and turn away.
I’ve experienced this willful ignorance firsthand as the queer survivor of over ten years of emotional abuse and its aftermath. The time after a victim escapes is often the most dangerous. Since my abuser avoided physical assault and instead controlled and terrorized me through verbal attacks and situational violence, I was fairly sure she wouldn’t try to kill me. But even emotional abusers pull out all the stops when their victim leaves. Financial abuse? Check. She coerced me into paying her a hefty sum, plus her health insurance premium, every month after I escaped. She destroyed my credit rating, put me through court battles that racked up hefty legal fees, and got nearly a third of my life savings when our domestic partnership was dissolved. Using children and pets to abuse? Check. She cut me off from my son and my dogs without even giving me a chance to say goodbye, then had my son leave heart-wrenching voicemails on my phone every night, knowing that the legal papers she’d filed prevented me from answering the call. Isolation? Check. She told all of our mutual friends that I had left her penniless and had walked out on my dogs and my son because I no longer wanted them. People I’d known for a decade, nearly everyone who was the backbone of my social support structure, dropped out of contact without ever asking for my side of the story. Some have even criticized me to my face. No one has ever apologized. It seems clear that queer communities, perhaps even more than straight ones, don’t want to hear about IPV and the lasting damage it causes to its victims.
But we need to hear. If we care about queer rights, if we care about justice, we can’t turn away from IPV in our communities, pretending it doesn’t happen to us. We’ve stuck together through police violence, through mob attacks, through arsons, through epidemics, through religious violence, through struggles for civil rights and political representation. Let’s start sticking together for queer IPV victims and survivors now.
When ACT UP shouted “Silence = Death,” they taught us something that went beyond the silencing of people with AIDS and that went beyond physical death, because our hearts and spirits can die from silence too.
May there be no more silence around queer IPV. May there be no more deaths. May we listen and, collectively, finally hear.