TW: domestic abuse, sexual assault, violence
Intimate partner violence (IPV) in queer relationships is often overlooked. Homophobia, transphobia, and victim blaming all play a role in the lack of access to resources – and the pandemic only made things worse.
When lockdowns were announced, there were growing concerns about the increase in domestic violence cases and the safety of survivors. The UK saw a 65% increase in calls to their National Domestic Abuse Helpline just during the first few months of the pandemic. The stats were just as bleak in non-Western countries. India, for example, reported a 47.2% increase in domestic violence cases just from March to May 2020.
But there was still a lack of information surrounding IPV in queer contexts. Even academic research on the subject is far and few in between.
In 2015, only 3% of total research on IPV focused on queer relationships, with most of the studies focusing on white, Western countries.
This makes it even more important to pay attention to countries like India where the queer community faces a much more complicated set of barriers.
‘It’s difficult to talk about [queer IPV] when a lot of the queer experience is still focused around getting laws passed that recognise us as human”, says Tejaswi, an editor for Gaysi Family, a queer-run media platform. While India officially decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, it remains stigmatised by the general population.
Apurupa, a sexuality educator and lawyer says the fight is still very much focused on marriage equality, and for having queer love and identities recognised and validated, “so there’s not much space for any nuanced conversations”. They normally conduct sessions around consent and communication, and make a point to stress the importance of teaching the attendees how to say ‘no’ and how to process rejection.
I ask them what the reaction usually is to conversations around IPV. “Generally, people who are AMAB (assigned male at birth) tend to get defensive – there is an inherent, harmful assumption that people who are ‘bigger’ and more ‘masculine’ presenting are usually the perpetrators, but I make it clear that that is not always the case”.
They also say that any claims against people who are more ‘feminine’ presenting or are AFAB (assigned female at birth) are completely dismissed because ‘women can’t be abusers’- ‘“If you view an entire gender as powerless, then how can you believe that they can misuse it?”.
Indian culture is also notorious for wanting to ‘keep things within the family’. Washing your dirty linen in public is generally frowned upon. Because of this, survivors rarely report any incidents of abuse. “Victim blaming is still rampant – they are thought of as being punished because they deviated from the cultural norm”, says Tejaswi.
“Even within the queer community, there is a hesitancy in calling out abusers because there are no rehabilitative services. That’s why people usually resort to using social media – that’s the only way survivors can get some form of justice”. But Tejaswi is also quick to point out that this doesn’t always benefit the victim. Structural forces like caste and gender privilege play a massive role in swaying public opinion.
Both Tejaswi and Apurupa also bring up the concept of ‘respectability’.
There is a need to present ourselves as being ‘model queers’
– we are expected to be perfect citizens, ready to educate everyone; there’s no room for mistakes. This makes calling out abuse difficult because it reflects poorly on the whole community”, says Tejaswi.
Apurupa adds, “One bad incident and suddenly all queer relationships are seen as destructive, unnatural and abusive. Even media coverage of queer IPV often emphasises the queerness of the people involved rather than the abuse itself”.
Research also shows that abuse is thought to be rare in queer relationships, especially those involving lesbian and bisexual women. This assumption can lead to survivors being unable to distinguish between ‘normal’ and abusive behaviour from their partners.
Similarly, biphobia from both the heterosexual and queer comunity can make it harder for bisexual survivors to seek help. Within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexual survivors aren’t always taken as seriously as gay or lesbian survivors because of their supposed ‘heterosexual privilege’, and this can increase the risk of IPV between bisexual partners while simultaneously decreasing access to support services.
Tejaswi also adds that violent behaviour is often normalised in relationships, making it difficult to bring nuance to these conversations, and this can be partly attributed to how mainstream Indian cinema often glamorises abuse as a form of ‘passionate love’. Emotional and physical harassment, violence, and stalking, are all depicted as normal ways to pursue someone and are seen as desirable.
So what if a victim wanted to seek justice and get the law involved? Apurupa says that you definitely can still approach the authorities, but most people usually report abuse as a complaint that someone has caused them physical harm rather than a case of IPV.
Tejaswi adds, “It comes as no surprise to anyone that law enforcement has a history of being transphobic and homophobic. Most queer relationship cases are parents reporting that their children have run away with their partner. Thankfully, the authorities can no longer get involved if both parties are adults and it is a consenting relationship. But it took us a long time to get here”.
“The justice system is only just beginning to understand what it means to be queer. The law is still catching up – I mean, there is still debate around whether marital rape can be classified as a crime! And even if laws are passed, our inherent culture is still deeply heteronormative and patriarchal so it’s going to take a while to unlearn that.”
Reporting abuse also risks the survivors being outed – and this can be unsafe, depending on their environment. “Queer people often lose access to support systems when they come out- a lot of people don’t even tell their parents they’re in a queer relationship, so how can you tell them that you’re facing abuse?”, says Tejaswi.
Now a large part of the way IPV is viewed in India comes down to privilege. Apurupa stresses that only a small slice of society with caste and class privilege has the ability to understand and even articulate certain actions as abuse. “There is a difference between viewing abuse in heterosexual vs queer relationships – it involves looking at who has more privilege, who has more familial support, who has more access to resources, and who is more visibly queer.”
I ask Tejaswi and Apurupa about support services for queer survivors of abuse. “They often have to rely on domestic violence charities and shelters. But it’s always a gamble on whether they are queer affirming or not. And even if queer-friendly resources exist, they are often not available on the scale that they are needed,” says Tejaswi.
“These resources are usually concentrated in big cities. But the pandemic has led to an increase in more helplines and online resources which is a big step forward. Even mental health services are now advertising if they are queer-friendly,” adds Apurupa.
But India still has a long way to go. “We need more support around harm reduction. Consent, especially in queer contexts, needs a lot more visibility. There is still not enough dialogue about queer people with disabilities, people with substance abuse issues, and sexual minorities like asexual and aromantic people”, says Tejaswi.
Apurupa adds, “Usually, conversations around IPV are reactive – resources are only introduced once an incident has occured. The goal is to be able to prevent things like this from happening. And for that, we need legal support. We need government backing and we need the general public to be more open to unlearning their prejudices.”
If you have been affected by this article, some resources are listed below:
For the UK:
- Sahaay Helpline by Humsafar Trust: 1800-2000-113 (operates 24×7)
- THE NAZ helpline: +91-11-47504630/9810140673 (Mon-Fri , 9:30AM-5PM)
- iCall by TISS: +9152987821 (Mon-Sat, 10AM-8PM)
Written by Nithila