Activists try to stem gay domestic abuse

Nobody, it seems, wants to talk about gay domestic violence. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

A forum organized by the Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project and held last Saturday at the Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco's Castro District proved that point.

Although the sponsoring agency, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), had contacted several Jewish agencies about the event and distributed fliers for two weeks beforehand, the only people who showed up were the two scheduled speakers, the temple brotherhood president, two of his friends and one member of the press.

"It's not an issue people want to spend their free time discussing," CUAV project coordinator Greg Merrill says. It's not a fun topic, he says, "like sex." Or even safe sex.

"A lot of people don't want to admit [gay and lesbian domestic abuse] exists," adds San Francisco social worker Eddie Kaufman, who, along with writer and same-sex battering survivor Patrick Letellier, was scheduled to speak at Saturday's forum.

Gay domestic violence can include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, threats (such as threats to "out" the partner) and intimidation. An abuser might isolate his or her partner from friends and peers, treat the partner as inferior, hinder the partner's economic well-being or torment the partner's children.

CUAV maintains that domestic violence occurs as frequently among gays as among heterosexuals. Experts believe severe violence occurs in 15 to 20 percent of all relationships across the board. According to Merrill, every year some 400 callers ask CUAV for help. About 100 of those callers later visit the office in person for counseling or legal advice.

However, the number of shelters for battered gay men is minuscule. In San Francisco, the only options are homeless shelters, or AIDS programs if the abused person has AIDS. The United States has only six organizations designed to help gay men fight domestic abuse.

One reason the gay community balks at confronting abuse among its own members is that gays already face special problems such as HIV and discrimination, says Letellier. Publicizing abuse, he says, would be "airing dirty laundry."

"It's hard for someone in the synagogue to say, `Someone you all know in the community has been battering me,'" Letellier says.

All abused persons, gay and heterosexual alike, tend to be isolated from their communities, he adds. But gays and lesbians face additional issues. Some are closeted and thus afraid to make their problem public. Others, new to the gay community, mistakenly assume all gay relationships are as abusive as their own. To make matters worse, many community bonds have vanished in the wake of AIDS.

"When I ask people if they can talk about this with any of their friends, they say `All my friends are dead,'" Letellier says.

He goes on to say that domestic-abuse counseling services tend to have a theoretical problem with gay domestic abuse. Predominant theories view domestic violence as an extreme example of male dominance in a traditional — i.e., patriarchal — male-female relationship. This makes same-sex abuse a hazy concept for many social workers and police.

Police tend to view much gay domestic abuse as "mutual combat," Letellier says. Although laws against domestic abuse require less injury than a standard assault in order for police to make an arrest, the laws' language presumes a marriage between partners of the opposite sex. So a gay man or lesbian must sustain greater injuries than a heterosexual man or woman in order to have their partner arrested, according to Letellier.

Some of this may help explain why no one showed up to the seminar at Sha'ar Zahav last Saturday. But Merrill does not count the effort as a loss. One person who picked up a flier for the ill-fated forum has since phoned in to report being abused. That person is currently receiving counseling.

"So it was all worth it," Merrill says.