Sam is in her early thirties. It is only in the last few months she has felt able to talk about the events of her early twenties. She looks up briefly, as we sit talking in a half-empty restaurant, and asks, “How do you say to your friends, ‘My girlfriend rapes me’ when their only mental definition of rape is a man forcing his penis inside a woman’s vagina? How do you say you were assaulted when it comes back to the idea of ‘that doesn’t count’? Well, it does count.”
Their relationship did not begin like this. The story of how it blackened into abuse emerges over an afternoon – a patchwork account told in anecdotes, as if the whole tale from start to finish is too much to convey in one go.
It is a story that not only Sam finds difficult to tell, but one that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people struggle to disclose. BuzzFeed News spoke to both LGBT survivors of domestic abuse and an organisation trying to help them – amid a backdrop of cuts to funding.
As the accounts of violence, rape, bullying, coercion, and control surfaced, sometimes for the first time, two questions began to form: What prevents LGBT people in particular from speaking out? And, what external forces are stopping them from finding safety?
For Jo Harvey Barringer, CEO of Broken Rainbow, the only national LGBT domestic abuse charity, coming out is a key issue. How, she said, do you tell anyone you are living in fear from your partner if no one knows you’re gay? As Mark, who wasn’t out during his abuse, told BuzzFeed News: “I had nobody to talk to, so I thought maybe this is what I’ve got to put up with.” It wasn’t long before he was hospitalised.
“About 85% of callers to our helpline have a partner that will use the threat of ‘outing’ them – to colleagues, family or kids – as a form of control,” said Harvey Barringer. They received 10,000 calls last year. She described the 85% figure as just the starting point for what they do. The wider picture – how the police react, how crimes go unrecorded, how hospitals, social services, and housing officers respond – only compounds the danger facing victims.
Harvey Barringer revealed something else: If the charity doesn’t find £20,000 in the next few weeks, it could close.
This, said Sam, would put lives at risk.
Sam recalls another incident, this time from near the end of her time with Lynn, when she tried to seek help. “I went on the Women’s Refuge website and it’s all about, ‘If he does… If he…’ It uses male terminology so it’s an instant barrier. You go on that website in the middle of the night when she’s in the loo, you’re under your duvet on your mobile, and it hits you in the face: This doesn’t happen to you, this is a heterosexual thing: ‘If he’s doing this…’ And so you turn it off. And that’s what I did.”
A few weeks later, Lynn tied Sam up. “It was for ‘a bit of fun’,” says Sam, darkly quoting Lynn. “She then produced what she told me was a knife and held it to my throat.”
On that occasion, Sam managed to get away. It wouldn’t be long, however, before everything escalated into the final incident, one Sam says is so “specific and extreme” she does not feel she can talk about it without identifying those involved. The police were called, but it did not lead to a conviction, and years later, she remains afraid.
In the beginning, she says, Lynn wooed her, lavishing her with attention: endless messages and emails, even poetry. “I was grateful that someone was interested in me,” she says. At the time, Lynn seemed to her “wonderful, exciting, but I remember always being slightly afraid of her.”
Sam thinks for a moment, trying to describe her ex-girlfriend carefully. “She’s very intimidating, bolshie, physically intimidating, a very intense character, but mysterious – talks in riddles.” As a result, even at the start, Sam says she had doubts: “I thought I can’t possibly get involved in anything being pregnant, but people win you over. She took an interest and I responded to that.”
After Sam became pregnant, she grew isolated from her friends – either, she says, because they were busy going out clubbing, or because some deemed her not a “real” lesbian because of the pregnancy. They did not know that Sam had previously, briefly, worked as a prostitute to try and survive financially. But Lynn knew.
“She used that as a stick to beat me with, calling me a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’,” says Sam. After the early charm offensive, verbal abuse, along with increasingly controlling behaviour, began to emerge.
“There was so much about the relationships that wasn’t normal,” says Sam, before explaining how. “She gave me a contract – a sexual contract: ‘Tick these boxes if you’d let me do… If you’d consider… If you’ve ever done…’ It was like a horrible version of 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t sign it.” Regardless, she says, Lynn pushed her into doing things she did not want to. Later in the conversation, Sam says something in passing so quickly that it is only when the recording of the interview is replayed that the words resonate properly: “She stuck needles in me.”
Sam couldn’t wear the clothes she wanted. “She changed the way I dressed, told me I wasn’t allowed to use the perfume I like because she claimed to be allergic to it. She wanted me to be very feminine and girlie and I’m naturally not.”
Indeed, for most of her twenties, Sam had been binding her breasts, and came out to her friends as transgender. (Sam has agreed for BuzzFeed News to use female pronouns as at the time it was a lesbian relationship.)
When Sam tried to wear shirts and ties, Lynn would respond with “constant negative comments: ‘Are you trying to be butch? You’re not a fucking butch, I’m butch, look at me, what the fuck are you trying to do?’” Sam stops for a moment. “When someone does that to you day in, day out, you just erode.”
When Sam tried to challenge Lynn – who was significantly older – or tell her that her behaviour was upsetting. “She would generally laugh or belittle or say I was being a baby.”
Many of their friends were mutual and so when Sam finally escaped after several months, she lost them too. She says they did not believe her. It was a singularly lonely time, she says, but it wasn’t her last experience of abuse. Although nothing since then has been as violent, any hints of bullying trigger past events, and push her to flee. Now single, Sam finally feels able to begin healing the internal scars.
“My self-esteem has been shot to pieces,” she says. “It’s taken years to rebuild, to get me back to a place where I realise I’m worthy of love that isn’t transactional or conditional. I’m so pleased I don’t have to worry now about anybody else’s reactions, or run anything by anyone or worry about my boundaries being pushed around.”
“My self-esteem has been shot to pieces – it’s taken years to rebuild.”
Sam does worry about the lack of discussion, both publicly and privately, about LGBT domestic abuse. “A lot of that silence is about shame,” she says. “And about community – we are a close-knit community and when I admitted to a few close friends what was happening, I lost them because everybody knows everybody.”
She adds: “It feels like a conspiracy of silence.”
Compounding this, says Sam, is the fact that many LGBT people are so used to being bullied at school, and so used to the male-female notion of domestic abuse, that often they do not recognise what is happening.
It is something that Jo Harvey Barringer frequently finds in the work Broken Rainbow does. But, she says, this is far from the only barrier for those in need.
“For anyone to get any help [from mainstream services] they have to ‘out’ themselves,” explains Harvey Barringer. “Whereas one of the things we offer, especially on the helpline, is the guarantee that the person you speak to will identify as LGBT, which takes away the anxiety of having to say, ‘My partner is another woman’ or ‘I’m trans.’”
Some employees at mainstream services, she adds, are also not sufficiently aware of issues specific to LGBT victims, such as female-to-female rape and sexual assault, in part because of received heterosexual ideas about what constitutes abuse.
“We’re also seeing a real trend of gay men who are HIV-positive and their HIV status being used as a form of control,” says Harvey Barringer. “Either through threatening to reveal their HIV status or their partner withholding medication. This also occurs with partners of trans people withholding their hormone treatment.”
Even when LGBT people seek help from agencies that are supposed to support and protect those in need, she adds, many face further problematic assumptions.
“People’s experiences of the police, health service, and housing services is one of coming up against a very stereotypical view of what domestic violence looks like,” says Harvey Barringer. “There was a lesbian who went to A&E with broken bones and reported to A&E that her same-sex partner had pushed her down the stairs. A&E did everything they should have done to ensure her safety except that when her partner turned up to the hospital and said she was a friend they gave her immediate access to her.”
Harvey Barringer adds: “That woman ended up going home to her partner that night and not ringing another service until she rang us. Some police forces are really good, some are really bad; it depends where you live. We’ve had stories of police officers saying to a trans woman, ‘You used to be a bloke once; why didn’t you give him a slap back?’”
“We’ve had stories of police officers saying to a trans woman, ‘You used to be a bloke once; why didn’t you give him a slap back?’”
There is only one police force in the UK that specifically documents domestic abuse within LGBT relationships: Manchester police. The true scale of the problem, therefore, remains unknown.
It is here, as Harvey Barringer continues to fill in the blanks, that a catch-22 situation emerges: No one knows how prevalent the problem is, so mainstream services and agencies don’t offer specialist help for LGBT people, so LGBT people don’t come forward. And the one organisation – Broken Rainbow – that does offer LGBT-specific support is under threat, in part because the government does not know how big the need is, because there aren’t the crime figures from the police.
Last month several news outlets reported that Broken Rainbow faced closure by the end of the financial year. But although the Home Office has now indicated that it will fund the helpline for another year, Harvey Barringer tells BuzzFeed News they have not received official confirmation of this, or indeed how much the funding will be.
“We have lost other funding due to the delay in the Home Office decision and will now struggle to make it through to the end of the month and through April whilst we wait for any new contract with the Home Office to be signed,” she says. “We don’t have enough cash flow to get us through to the first Home Office grant. The whole organisation will close if we do not bring in £20,000.” One of the problems has been a switch from funding over several years, to governments grants on a yearly basis.
“We’re not able to plan,” she says, adding that this is despite having a three- to four-year strategy. “And it’s really hard to get other funders on board because they like to see commitment from existing funders. Year-on-year funding is not sustainable for small organisations like us.”
With no guarantees, and a team of 17, she says they will have to give out redundancy notices. “It has a domino effect on the whole organisation.”
With the only LGBT domestic abuse service struggling to survive amid wider mainstream agencies not always able to deal with LGBT-specific cases, it is perhaps not surprising that many who wish to flee simply stay with their partner. Or, in some instances, return to them.
Mark was 20 when he first met Ralph in a local pub. The power imbalance was evident immediately, he says. Mark describes himself then as “chubby” and “insecure”. He was also still wasn’t out. By contrast, Ralph was openly gay and much admired for his looks, a lust figure among the regulars at the bar. “He was the most charming person in the world,” says Mark. “He couldn’t do enough for people. Everyone was taken in.”
Mark was so flattered that Ralph paid him attention and wanted to start dating that the beginning of their relationship was overwhelmingly heady. “I thought, Look how lucky I am! I’ve found Mr. Perfect!” he says sadly. “On a scale of 1 to 10 my confidence then was about a 3. When I was with him I gained confidence because he was there.”
It would not last long. Without realising what was happening, Mark, who ran a shop, says he found himself paying for everything: meals out, holidays, trips to the theatre. “He’d charm you to get what he wanted,” he says.
A few months into their relationship, after they had moved in together, the financial control morphed into something more dramatic.
They went away for a couple of days to Sheffield where Ralph had grown up. On the first night, they went out with local friends of Ralph’s, as well as Ralph’s ex-boyfriend. Mark says the two former lovers ignored him all evening and sneaked off for a while. The following night when the three of them were walking home to Ralph’s mother’s house after the same thing had happened, Mark and Ralph started arguing, drunkenly.
“I was getting upset and he started telling me to shut up or else he would ‘shut me up’. But I didn’t shut up because I was still crying,” says Mark. “He started lashing out, punching and kicking me. His ex jumped in the middle and stopped him and calmed him down but the police arrived, and while his ex was telling them that we were just messing around, Ralph took me aside and said, ‘Don’t say anything.’” Scared, Mark kept quiet. No one was arrested.
The abusive behaviour began fanning out in different directions.
“I would always dress smartly – shirt and trousers, but he would say, ‘What are you dressing like that? You look like a fag. Everyone’s going to be looking at you.’ He craved attention and hated when I got it. So he started dictating what I would wear. I couldn’t wear anything that didn’t look ‘straight’.”
Some nights, says Mark, when they were out together at their local gay bar, Ralph, seething with jealously, forbade Mark from talking to his own friends, and would insist on going to the toilet with him, in case anyone accosted Mark.
They were living in their new flat in south London, with many of their belongings still in bags, when the violence escalated one night, six months into their relationship. Ralph had told Mark before they went to their friends for dinner that they had to leave at 9.30pm as he had work early the next morning.
“It got to 9.30pm and I said, ‘Shall I order a cab?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s fine.’ It got to 10pm and he said the same thing. When we eventually left he starting shouting at me outside, ‘You’re gonna make me late for work in the morning.’” When they got home, Mark took a carton of milk out of the fridge and started drinking it, knowing that Ralph hated it when he did so.
“I was shaking because I knew what was coming,” he says. Ralph came into the kitchen and saw Mark drinking.
“He punched the carton right away and started going crazy. Punching, kicking. It was really physical – he’s 6’3” and stocky. He threw me across the front room.”
Mark tried to fight back, but Ralph dodged the punch. Mark’s hand went through a window. Shards of glass stuck in his wrist.
But violence wasn’t enough for Ralph, says Mark. “We had been decorating and he picked up the paint tins and poured it all over my belongings.” Amid the din of shouting and smashing the neighbours phoned the police.
“They didn’t seem to take it seriously,” says Mark. “They took the piss.” He adopts a snide, mocking tone to mimic the officers: “’So, he’s your boyfriend. So you’re gay.’” He stops for a moment before returning to his own voice. “I needed some sympathy, and to know that I was going to get some support, and it just wasn’t there.” The police took Ralph away and released him the following day. Ralph came back home to find that one of his suits was among the belongings that he had poured paint on.
“I had to go and buy him a new suit, even though he had damaged it,” says Mark.
He did not know where to go for help, and had only heard of the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard helpline. “But I didn’t have the balls to ring them up because it was embarrassing to be beaten up by my boyfriend.” Mark adds that had he been aware of Broken Rainbow he thinks he would have mustered the courage to contact them. Either way, he says, he was still suffering from shame around his sexuality, and with almost no-one knowing he was in a relationship with a man, he could not tell many of his friends either.
“My mum didn’t have a clue that he was my boyfriend,” says Mark. “And when it happens to you it throws you, you feel so weak, I had nobody to talk to, so I thought maybe this is what I’ve got to put up with.”
After his experience with the police, Mark didn’t feel he could rely on the law to protect him, or even understand what was happening.
Finally, in fear of the violence escalating further, Mark waited until Ralph was out at work one day, packed some belongings, and left. He changed his phone number, stopped going to the pub in which they met, and tried to sever all contact.
It didn’t work. “He used to send me flowers,” says Mark. “The card would just say ‘sorry’. He used to say sorry so often the word still means nothing to me.”
“He used to say sorry so often the word still means nothing to me.”
But two years after Mark left, Ralph persuaded him to return. He turned up at Mark’s place of work, bereft from his grandmother dying, wanting support. “He asked if we could just meet up for a drink,” says Mark, who agreed. “We spoke about his nan and he said how sorry he was [about how he used to behave] and we started dating again. He knew what buttons to press.”
Mark pauses to think about his decision to reignite the relationship, aware how others can judge those who return. “But I always say to people, ‘Unless you’ve been in that situation you can’t really judge.’ He knew how to manipulate my emotions, he’d stir up old feelings.” Although Ralph never hit Mark again, what lay beneath the violence began to resurface.
“The jealousy was still there: ‘Who are you going out with? Where are you going? Why aren’t I invited?’” Disturbed by the jealousy and the gnawing feeling that underneath little had changed, Mark ended the relationship. Several years later, however, the effects linger.
“He caused me to have this fear anytime someone gets aggressive. I go and watch football matches and as soon as I start hearing the c-word, things like that can make me feel… I flash back to that time.”
In relationships now, Mark says he has to tell boyfriends that he will not have arguments with them, that they can sit and discuss disagreements, but that he will walk away if they want a fight. “If anyone raises their voice to me I get shaky and scared.”
Like Sam, Mark thinks domestic abuse in LGBT relationships is even more hidden than among straight people.
“There’s a lot more violence than people realise,” he says, adding that he wishes he could go back and talk to himself at that age. “I’d say, ‘If someone does that to you they don’t love you.’” He thinks for a moment and adds: “You need to love yourself.”
His voice cracks, suddenly flooded with sadness. But as Mark clears his throat, steeling himself to carry on, it’s clear that what he is experiencing is more than just an echo of the past.
“It’s still there,” he says. “The memories have never gone.”
Names and other details have been changed to protect people’s identities.