When Love Hurts: Understanding violence in LGBT relationships

Wee Lee first got in touch with me an hour after I posted an online appeal for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Singapore to contribute their personal stories. We decided to meet over drinks in Holland Village; I was half-expecting him to share his coming out story, and was not ready for some of the things he was about to tell me.

As an average-looking guy with an athletic build and broad smile, he didn’t look too different from other young men. Yet what I heard from him that night was to change my understanding of human endurance. You see, Wee Lee is a survivor of violence inflicted upon him by his gay partner.

As a gay man and a social worker, I thought I had seen it all.  Before this, my experience of family violence had been the kind between straight couples, or when someone vulnerable, such as a child, or an elderly or disabled person, is being mistreated by a family member. I had heard from someone else about a friend who was being beaten up by her lesbian partner; I think they lived in the US. All these cases of domestic violence, although real and tragic, seemed somewhat remote from my own life.

Still, just because we don’t hear or talk about something doesn’t make it non-existent. International research has shown that rates of violence in same-sex (gay and lesbian) relationships is very similar to rates of violence against women by their male partners – around 25% to 30%. This can only mean that same-sex partner violence happens right here in Singapore: to our neighbours, friends, colleagues and family members. Wee Lee was in a four-year relationship with his abusive partner Carl while they lived together in a flat near Ghim Moh.

What is partner violence?

Partner violence is about power and control; it happens when one partner intentionally exerts that power through behaviours that seek to control the other. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their social class, educational level, profession, gender and sexual orientation.

It can take many forms: physical and sexual attacks, emotional and psychological abuse, even financial exploitation. For same-sex couples, there is the threat of outing someone’s sexual orientation to others, such as family members or work colleagues. In relationships where one partner is transgender, abuse can take the form of threatening to embarrass their gender identity in the presence of others.

What prevents people from seeking help?

Yet there are probably as many barriers to seeking help as there are lesbians and gay men. Bryan Choong is centre manager of Oogachaga Counselling and Support, a non-profit agency that provides a range of professional counselling and support services for the LGBT community. He offers some common reasons why so few LGBT people in Singapore are seeking help for partner violence.

“In the gay community, there are many who do not believe that someone will be abused or hurt by a same-sex partner. Many think that it is always easier to walk out or fight back.”

There are victims who are afraid that by revealing their abusive experience, they are also exposing their sexual orientation and same-sex relationship to others. This has much to do with a general lack of awareness about partner violence in the LGBT community, which may also explain why many victims do not see the need to seek help, are unaware of where to go for support, or feel embarrassed to reach out.

It is a common misconception that it needs to be physical for it to be considered as abuse. “Sometimes, even the victims get confused with whether abuse is an acceptable part of their relationship, or they are just being too sensitive. For example, in cases of sexual violence, the abused partner may think it is just part of role-playing in bed,” explains Choong.

Serene Tan, a senior social worker with Care Corner Project START (Stop Abusive Relationships Together) which works with victims and perpetrators of family violence, adds on to the list of obstacles facing LGBT victims.

“The LGBT community is relatively small, and couples usually have a  common circle of close friends. They may feel that even if they are experiencing violence from their partners, their friends would not believe them or would not take their side. Hence they would choose to keep quiet. Some of them may also be isolated and do not have a good support network.”

Unfortunately, the current legal system in Singapore is also not helping. Section 377A of the Penal Code continues to criminalise consensual sex between adult men, and the same level of protection for married heterosexual couples is not available to committed same-sex couples. While a married man or woman can apply for a personal protection order from the Family Court against their abusive spouse or ex-spouse, a gay man or lesbian is not able to do the same. Instead, they can only report the offence to the police or take out a private summons against the abusive partner through the Subordinate Courts, which is a tedious process and offers a lower level of protection.

All these reasons serve as very real barriers that prevent a victim of LGBT violence from seeking help. Sadly, as part of Oogachaga’s ongoing outreach services through the Internet, Choong has made observations about responses from within the LGBT community.

“The understanding of this issue is so low… it is common to read in local forums that one should not be too ‘drama’ by claiming their partner is violent; or maybe one must have done something ‘wrong’ to deserve a violent treatment.”

Tan, whose professional experience includes working with same-sex as well as heterosexual couples in abusive relationships, adds,

“No one starts out with the intention to hurt their partner. However, they may lack the appropriate coping skills or effective communication skills to convey their needs to their partner, resulting in them using violence to obtain power and exert control.”

So how can WE help?

According to Tan, it is important that concerned family members and friends adopt different approaches toward helping victims and perpetrators.

For the abused victim:

  • Assure them it is not their fault that their partner used violence on them
  • Offer a listening ear
  • Encourage them to talk to someone, such as a professional, to help with their issues
  • Check in on them with regard to their safety
  • Invite them to call you in case of an emergency
  • Offer to call the police for help when there is danger

For the abusive perpetrator:

  • Let them know that they should seek professional help with their issues
  • Encourage them to work on using other ways of resolving their issues
  • Provide a listening ear, but do not condone their abusive actions, or agree with what they are doing as being right.

In addition to Oogachaga’s hotline, email and counselling services for the LGBT community, those affected by partner violence can also contact Care Corner Family Service Centre (Queenstown) where Project START is based. However, according to its website, I noted that one of their key missions is “To base all activities on Christian values”. This statement may worry many in the LGBT community, since the traditional stand adopted by Christianity is to condemn homosexuality and transgenderism as “unnatural” and an “abomination”.

When I asked about this, Tan clarifies by saying,

“Although Care Corner is a Christian-based organization, we serve all clients in the community who are in need, regardless of their race, religion, socio-economic status or educational level, and provide the same level of service to people from all walks of life. We also follow the professional code of ethics and believe in seeing each person with their individual worth, regardless of their worldview, sexual orientation and the choices that they make. We also ensure that confidentiality is maintained, unless harm has been done to self or others.”

Additionally, Tan explains that at Project START, working with someone affected by partner violence means focussing on developing a safety plan together, so as to keep them safe, regardless of whether they wish to continue in the relationship. If a client chooses to stay in the relationship, they will invite the abusive partner to attend counselling sessions to work on using more effective ways of coping or communicating with one another.

To the wider LGBT community, Choong has this message:

“Under no circumstances should anyone have any reason to be emotionally, verbally, physically or sexually abusive to another person, even if they are in a relationship. If you are a victim, do not be afraid of seeking help or talking to someone who can support you.  If you are not in a violent relationship, arm yourself with knowledge on how and when to assist a friend who may need your help. “

We all know love can sometimes hurt, but it shouldn’t be in this way. LGBT partner violence is very real and occurring in Singapore. We need to keep talking about it so that it does not remain invisible.

*        *        *

What happened to Wee Lee?

Towards the end of my hour-long interview with Wee Lee, during which he also showed me the scar where he was stabbed by his partner’s knife, I was told that his relationship, and his ordeal, finally ended after four-and-a-half years.

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Oogachaga will be organising a community talk on intimate partner violence, entitled “When Love Hurts: Understanding violence in LGBT relationships”, on 29 September 2012, Saturday afternoon. For more details and online registration before 27 September, visit their website.
You can read Wee Lee’s full story, along with others, in the ebook.
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Why many won’t be at Pink Dot

It really doesn’t require much effort to go down to Pink Dot, does it?

You’ve marked the date on your schedule, and selected your pink outfit. Catching the MRT down to Clarke Quay, you might bring some family members along, or have arranged to meet friends. You’ll end up having a great time, come home and tag yourself on all those gorgeous photos the next day.

But for many people, it’s not that easy.

Maybe they’re not feeling very good about themselves. Maybe they have difficulties coming to terms with being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or different.

Perhaps they’re unwell. With a mental health condition or addiction problem, or even struggling with self-harming thoughts.

Or they’re in hospital after a suicide attempt, or recovering from injuries inflicted by someone they love. Or still grieving a painful loss.

Some could be afraid to be seen at such a large public event, where they worry about being recognised. Their own experiences of being bullied by peers or persecuted by their religious community have taught them fear of those who hate them.

Others might have decided that they just want to blend into mainstream society, and dislike the sensitive issues of sexuality, gender orientation and same-sex love to be displayed in public.

And then there are those who have left Singapore because they’ve decided that here is a country that does not respect people who are different.

Had they still been in their darkest moments, each of the story contributors in I Will Survive probably would not have attended Pink Dot for the reasons above. Yet, time has passed since then, and being the resilient survivors that they all are, I look forward to seeing many of them at this year’s event.

But for every person who, for whatever reason, is unable or unwilling to be at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 30 June 2012, there will be the rest of us who can and will.

Let us all be there for those who can’t or won’t, and believe that someday, they too might join us.

Leow Yangfa

Editor, I Will Survive

My hopes and dreams

Lester is 21 years old, and a student at a local university. He lives in an HDB flat with his parents and sister, and is HIV-positive.

I must have been around 18 years old when I got infected with HIV. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that there was a link between HIV and sex between men. As far as I knew, the media had only portrayed the link between HIV and heterosexual sex, the kind of sex men have with women. I didn’t know I could get HIV through gay sex.
I decided to go for an anonymous HIV test when someone suggested it to me while chatting online. He went with me, and it was an absolutely terrifying experience. I was afraid of being there, and hated the intense atmosphere. I also remember how everyone and everything there was very quiet. When I went back into the room for the counsellor to give me the result, he casually said that it was bad news – that I was HIV -positive. I understood what he said, but I thought he was just kidding. So I waited for him to tell me that it was a joke. He didn’t.
That’s when I started to feel really lost and confused, and very alone. It took me another half a year before I decided to go for a follow-up test at a hospital. What took me so long? I don’t know. Perhaps I was just avoiding the issue, and hoping it would go away. But it stayed somewhere at the back of my mind while I went on living my normal life.
Suicide crossed my mind again when I was 19 years old, and feeling lost and hopeless after losing a boyfriend. I wanted him to want me, so I threatened to end my life. I thought that perhaps it would trigger him to want me back, but it didn’t work. By then I had already decided that I wanted to escape from reality and from my less than perfect life.
I never wanted things to turn out like it did. I didn’t want my parents to know. I didn’t want to be HIV -positive, and I certainly didn’t want the life that I was leading.
*     *     *
Yes, I felt very hurt and betrayed by the guy who infected me with HIV.  He decided to cut me out of his life when I called to inform him that I was positive. But I also decided I wasn’t angry with him at all. Someone else I met suggested a doctor whom I could see at the Communicable Disease Centre for a follow-up appointment to my HIV -test. I went alone, and was so afraid that I would be judged by the staff there. Thankfully the nurses were friendly, and the doctor was helpful. Because I was under 21 years old, I also had to get the medical social worker’s help with my bill, and they allowed me to continue as a subsidised patient. And so my life continued with school and routine check-ups.
*     *     *
I recall having sessions with my social worker, where she would insist that I had to tell my mum. I agreed with her that my mum was indeed very worried, but I also knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing for me to do, to tell my own mother that I was HIV-positive. I felt I needed time to tell her only when we were both ready.
I had to tell her eventually of course. We had been out one day, and were on our way home when I decided to tell her. I thought she handled it pretty  well; she didn’t even cry in front of me. I felt really horrible about having to do that. I really love my mother, and didn’t want to hurt her. But I knew that having to tell her I am gay and HIV-positive really hurt her a lot. Both times it felt like I had no choice. Between the two, coming out as gay was easier. Coming out as HIV-positive was a lot harder. I knew it was going to hurt her  even more, and I was right. It did.
It’s just as hard telling my friends that I’m positive, because although some of them know I’m gay, none of them knows anyone else who is HIV-positive. When someone doesn’t know anyone who is HIV -positive, they are less likely to have adequate information about HIV / AIDS. So I found myself having to educate them, explaining that it’s safe to hang out with me, that HIV can’t be transmitted through saliva or mosquitoes, and answering all the other strange questions they had. I’ve only told two of my close friends so far, and had to explain things twice, which wasn’t that bad.
I am slowly beginning to deal with my life as it is now. The difficult thing about being HIV-positive is the problems I face with relationships and sex.  I feel this deep sense of responsibility about having to tell all my dates and partners about my HIV-status. Whenever I meet someone I really like, I would worry about how I am supposed to tell him, and hope that he would still stay with me and accept me for who I am, and let the relationship develop from that.
I also worry about medication, when to start, and how much it will cost me in the future. The regular check-ups at the CDC can also be tiring, mainly because of the travelling and waiting time. Being in a support group has helped me in some way, as it has given me a chance to meet other HIV-positive people, and learn about certain medications and ways they have coped with this illness. My hopes include having a male partner and getting a house together after I graduate from university. Perhaps we would like to get married, have children and be by each other’s side. Above that, my dream is also to be successful in my professional career, to be able to support my family and give my parents the quality of life they should have.
*     *     *
It may sound like another dream of mine, but maybe our world would be much better if everyone was accepted regardless of our sexual orientation or HIV-status. I’d like to see the stigma against HIV-positive people removed. It’s really not wrong to be gay or HIV-positive.
*     *     *
The above are excerpts from Lester’s full story, which can be read in the book.