Intimate partner violence in LGBTIQ relationships: A victim survivor’s story
By: Russ Vickery
Content note: This article discusses domestic violence, assault, homophobia and suicide.
I met him in a gay bar about three months after my separation.
I remember him standing there in a tuxedo and our eyes meeting. He came over to me, we chatted for about four hours, and then he left.
It would be another three months until we crossed paths again. By this time, it was the beginning of the next phase of my life; a phase that was filled with hope and expectation.
We eventually moved in together, and my first gay relationship began.
In the beginning it was champagne, caviar and stretched limos. But after the honeymoon period was over, it became more about power, control and fear.
The thing is, it’s not like they hit you on the first date. It’s far more calculated and insidious than that.
Image by doidam10
Before my relationship with him, I’d been married to a woman. I was the father of three kids. Alongside the divorce, I came out.
While I have many memories of the freedom that came with doing so, coming out isn’t accompanied by a handbook. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying.
I’d always been gay, but times were different when I was growing up. Patriarchy and homophobia dictated what ‘normal’ looked like more firmly than they do now – being gay was still illegal.
This meant conforming to heterosexual norms had seemed like the only way to safely live my life.
My first broken nose occurred about three months into my relationship with him.
It was his birthday. I’d planned a special dinner for the two of us and even had a birthday cake delivered. The night went well and, after dinner, he decided we should go to the local gay bar for a drink.
All his mates were there when we arrived, and they all wanted to buy him birthday drinks. It was a work night, so when it got to around midnight, I said it was time for me to go home. He wanted to stay, so we said goodnight and off I went.
Hours later, I remember waking up with a fright as something landed on the bed. It was a very aggressive, drunk man who was ranting and raving.
I quickly got up, hoping to quieten him down. Instead, I felt a fist in the middle of my face and heard the cracking of my nose. Then came the blood.
I was in a state of shock, bleeding all over the carpet, until I got away from him and into the bathroom. In the mirror, I saw that my eyes had already started to blacken and my nose had been pushed across my face. My first thought was: how am I going to straighten this?
By this stage, he was already full of apologies. When he grabbed my nose to straighten it, he claimed it would never happen again.
This was the first of many violent encounters I would endure over the five-year relationship.
During this time, I ended up having too many black eyes and broken bones to even count. There reached a point where it seemed strangely normal to always have bruise cream on my weekly shopping list.
But while the physical injuries were difficult to endure, it was the continual attack on my self-esteem that was the hardest thing to deal with. Broken bones heal faster than a broken spirit.
I was continually told that I was fat, ugly and a bad father. That I should count myself lucky that he was with me. That no other gay man would be interested in a man like me with three kids.
The fact that I loved this man made the insults that much more painful. And, sadly, more believable. I came to believe that what he said was the truth. My self-esteem was destroyed, and I became a shell of the man I once was.
I believed that I was incapable of having any type of life outside this relationship. That because I had left a straight marriage, I deserved everything I was getting. This was my punishment; I just needed to make the most of it.
He would tell me that because I’d never been in a gay relationship before, I couldn’t understand that this was normal. “With two blokes living together, arguments turn physical,” he said. “Boys will be boys.”
I had no other reference point, so I just believed him. This became our norm. Before I knew it, two and a half years had gone by.
It was around this time that an argument I remember particularly well took place.
It was back in the days when we all had old style, heavy home phones. I remember him picking up one of those phones and smashing it into my head.
I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, there was an excruciating pain in my head and I was alone. He’d left me lying there and gone drinking with his mates.
I took myself off to hospital, where I learned that the result of this “argument” turning physical was a cracked skull. But the hospital didn’t ask me any questions about the nature of my injury. Nor did they ask anything about my safety returning home to an empty house – had I been a woman, I think this would have been different.
After my visit to the hospital, I remember walking in the door to my apartment and falling on the couch. I saw a magazine on the coffee table and started flicking through it. In it, I found an advertisement for a helpline.
I decided that I would ring them.
I was at the lowest ebb in this relationship so far. I remember, so clearly, waiting for someone to answer the phone and not really knowing what I was going to say. I just knew that I needed help to understand what was happening to me, and why I felt trapped in this relationship. Clarity was what I needed.
Finally, someone answered, and I just blurted it all out.
The person at the other end of the phone was someone I thought would be compassionate and understanding; someone who could give me some direction and support. But they provided none of that.
Instead, I was told, “Sorry, our service is not equipped to assist people with your chosen lifestyle.” No help – just homophobia.
I already felt worthless, and this one phone call reinforced every belief I had. After this, I truly believed I didn’t deserve anything better, so I hung up the phone and went back into the relationship for another two and a half years.
During this time, I had a new top priority: keeping myself safe. There would be many more injuries, and many more attacks on my self-esteem to come, but I never made another call to any service.
The final incident was the night he threw me down a flight of stairs.
My fall ended with a crack as my wrist shattered upon landing. He stepped over me and walked out the door, pausing only to say, “You know, I could have chosen the first-floor window. You should be grateful I chose the stairs.”
Again, I took myself off to hospital, struggling to drive my manual car using only one arm. This time, I required five hours of surgery to repair the damage and a lengthy hospital stay for recovery.
My stay gave me some time in a safe place, and the chance to reflect on the past five years. I found people who cared about me and were concerned about my recovery. I started to think that maybe I was worth something.
He eventually turned up to the hospital and tried to woo me back. This time, instead of falling for his apologies again, I called the nurse to escort him out and told him to go and get fucked.
You’re likely now celebrating, thinking the relationship is over and so is the nightmare. I thought so too at the time. But he did everything to try and keep me in his web.
His methods were harassment and stalking. I moved house to get away from him, only for him to follow and move in to a house around the corner, on the same block.
He contacted me many times over the next few years. I’d receive phone calls at 3am when something was going wrong in his new relationship, or a knock on my door late at night to find him standing outside, drunk and holding flowers.
You might wonder why I didn’t go to the police, or perhaps why I didn’t get a restraining order against him. But let’s be clear: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. The police in those days weren’t exactly allies of gay men of my vintage. And, like many gay men of that time, I had my own experiences of homophobic police persecution – a violent ‘poofta bashing’ in the late ’70s that nearly killed me.
It was the early 2000s when this was happening to me and, although I knew things had improved from those very dark days, I still had no reason to trust that the police would actually help me. I thought they would either ignore me and tell me to ‘man up’, or treat me with the same indignity I’d experienced from the helpline two and a half years earlier.
I’ve since learned that the time people need the most intensive support is when they first leave an abusive relationship. I had nothing, and I wouldn’t ask anyone for support.
There were friends who would have supported me through this experience, of course. Friends who would have helped me if I’d asked. In the early stages there were questions from those who were concerned but, through his ongoing manipulation, those same friends were weeded out of my friendship circle.
Close friends still hovered around the peripheries, waiting for me to approach them and always ready to help. But I never did.
Looking back, I think this was part of the influence patriarchy had on me; it led me to believe that ‘big boys don’t cry’. This was only reinforced by my experiences in a society where violence towards gay men was normalised, leaving me to think I somehow deserved this.
The constant harassment I received from him, coupled with my trauma and shattered self-esteem, led me to breaking point.
I contemplated suicide. With no support available to me, it seemed like it might be the only way I would ever escape this man.
The effects of his abuse had left me with no sense of self-value, so initially my motivation to keep living was just for my kids. But, as time moved on, I started to live for myself.
I packed everything up and moved a thousand kilometres away from him. And, finally, I started to heal.
Of course, this wasn’t the complete end. There were still the 3am phone calls and similar forms of contact from him.
But, over time, I eventually stopped picking up the phone. I moved on, and I started to heal. I finally realised that I didn’t need him anymore, and that I was so much better off without him.
With no formal supports available to me, I invented my own therapy through music.
For many years, singing in the solitude of my home when he wasn’t there had been my escape; changing the words to songs, singing my story to no one but wishing someone would hear.
Eventually, I took to the stage and started singing to a crowd. I did this to get back what he had tried to take away from me. I found my voice again through song.
Soon I found that I could also give voice to my experience, and the experiences of so many others like me who never get to be heard. I could take the power back from him in my story by turning it into a tool to help others.
I’ve since stood on stage and told my story to thousands of people through my stage show, ‘My Other Closet, The Cabaret’. I’ve spoken to many journalists and had my story in print for millions to read. I’ve even appeared on the ABC’s ‘You Can’t Ask That’, becoming the first person to tell their story of intimate partner violence in a queer relationship on Australian national television.
My advocacy has grown, and I was humbled and honoured to be invited to represent the LGBTIQ communities on the Victorian Government’s Victim Survivor Advisory Council in 2018. Through this council, we’ve made changes to the service system that acknowledges LGBTIQ victim survivors and provides services to assist them.
I often wonder how different my journey, and my kids’ journey, would have been if, when I called the helpline, I actually got help.
The findings of Australia’s largest LGBTIQ health and wellbeing research, ‘Private Lives 3′, shows that our community experiences intimate partner violence at similar or higher rates compared to men’s violence against women – about one in four.
This research also shows something very important about the vast inequity of service access. Only one quarter of participants reported an incident of intimate partner or family violence to a service at the most recent time they had experienced violence. Furthermore, only 5.9% had reported to the police.
The research also shows exactly what we need to do to achieve equity in this area. When respondents were asked where they would prefer to access support if “they ever experienced intimate partner or family violence in the future”, just over one third (35.1%) reported “from a mainstream domestic violence service that is LGBTIQ-inclusive”. Out of the respondents, 20.6% reported they would prefer to access support “from a domestic violence service that caters only to LGBTIQ people”. And 75.3% said they would be more likely to use a service that has been accredited as LGBTIQ-inclusive.
LGBTIQ people deserve access to their choice of LGBTIQ peer-support specialist, or Rainbow Tick accredited mainstream family violence services, wherever and whenever we need them. This is what equity looks like for us.
In Victoria we are closer than ever (and farther along than anywhere else in Australia) to changing the family violence sector, achieving this equity of access. But there is still more work that needs to be done, and everyone can play their part. You can learn more about how you might reach out to an LGBTIQ person experiencing violence at Say It Out Loud.
If you’re reading this and think you might be in an abusive relationship, I want to say: never feel like it’s your fault.
Your perpetrator chose to use violence, and you just experienced the result of their choice. There is help out there these days; never be afraid to ask for it. My life would have been so different if, when I reached out, someone had reached back.
I am living proof that being a victim survivor of intimate partner violence does not define you. It’s not who you are, but what you have learned. It’s an experience, not a choice, and there is life after this.
I’m happy now and have a wonderful, fulfilling and loving relationship – one which has taught me what love really looks like.
Yes, I still have scars on my body from the injuries I sustained in that relationship. But now, rather than being embarrassed about them like I was, I consider them a stark reminder to myself of why I need to push forward for change, and make sure that other people don’t have to endure the same situation I did.
You can hear Russ tell his story in episode four ‘Why do they stay’ of The Trap, a new podcast about love, domestic abuse and power, hosted by award-winning investigative journalist Jess Hill and produced by the Victorian Women’s Trust.
If this story has brought up any issues that you want to talk about, please reach out for support:
- Say It Out Loud has a list of the LGBTIQ community-controlled services for each Australian state/territory. The organisation encourages LGBTQ+ communities to have healthy relationships, get help for unhealthy relationships, and support their friends.
- QLife is the national LGBTIQ peer-support telephone service for people wanting to talk about issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
- For Victorian residents, Rainbow Door is a specialist LGBTIQA+ helpline providing information, support and referral to those experiencing a range of issues including family and intimate partner violence, relationship issues and sexual assault.
- There is also a growing list of mainstream domestic and family violence services like 1800 Respect that are committed to LGBTIQ inclusion.
You are never alone.