Coming out as gay to his parents terrified Ethan*. He thought that was the hardest thing he would ever have to do. But he didn’t even get the chance. He was just 18 years old when his first boyfriend began abusing him.
Ethan is a 21-year-old student at the University of Western Australia. With those he feels comfortable with he is Ethan; perfectly himself. Among the rest of the world he hides a secret. He has not come out as gay to most of his friends and family. His name has been changed to protect this.
Research from Latrobe University released in 2020 found that six in ten LGBTIQ+ people have experienced intimate partner violence, with emotional abuse most common. More than six in ten reported they had experienced family violence. The study included purposely misgendering as a form of abuse and concluded it was often parents and siblings who were the perpetrators.
Domestic violence is defined by Mission Australia as “violent behaviour between current or former intimate partners where one tries to exert power and control over the other.” Family violence is a broader term referring to violence that occurs within the home between family members. Both can take the form of emotional, verbal, social, economic, psychological, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse.
While the abuse against LGBTIQ+ people is driven by some of the same factors underpinning heterosexual abuse, the types of violence and tactics can be specific to victims’ gender identity or sexuality. According to Better Health Victoria, this can take the form of rejection from family, purposely misgendering or deadnaming a person, threatening to ‘out’ a person, controlling or refusing access to gender-affirming medication, as well as pressuring a person to conform to sex or gender norms.
In his small, one-bedroom student apartment Ethan sits on his bed, surrounded by clothes on the floor and unwashed cups and plates are scattered about. He moves his laptop and dirty laundry to make room as he shakes while recalling what happened to him.
“I never thought what I experienced was domestic abuse until my psychologist told me it was. I just never looked at it that way,” he says.
In 2019 Ethan was in a relationship with his boyfriend at the time, in the early stages of privately exploring his sexuality. The initial pain of coming out to himself and accepting he had feelings for his boyfriend was just the beginning of a year of domestic abuse, which Ethan says he is still recovering from.
“My boyfriend and I never really came out to each other. I guess I was a little more accepting than he was. He wanted to get rid of it or deny it. He made me feel ashamed about being gay and having sexual desires and this is where it all began.”
Emotional abuse is a common, yet often unrecognised form of domestic abuse. According to MensLine Australia emotional abuse impacts one in four Australian women, and one in seven men. Within LGBTIQ+ relationships, it can take the form of invalidating a person’s sexuality or threatening to out their sexual identity as a means to control the relationship.
In 2019 Ethan had just left his small-town family home in regional WA to excitedly study his dream course of architecture at UWA. When he moved away, he took his secret with him. He did not come out to his family.
“I grew up in a Catholic household and we were heavily involved in the Church,” he says. “My parents aren’t bad people, but gay isn’t something they would be used to. I guess maybe one day I would plan to come out to them, but I could never let the church and some of my friends find out.”
Miles away from his family in Perth, Ethan had the opportunity to explore his sexuality in secret and entered a relationship with his boyfriend who he met online.
“Me and my boyfriend were in a relationship, but we didn’t know what to call it because neither of us were out. He especially did not like us being gay. He refused to acknowledge it.”
His abuser began to control him from the moment they were together. He would threaten to out him every day, knowing Ethan was terrified of this. He would not let Ethan talk to anyone else, especially women. He told Ethan no one would believe his story.
“When I tried speaking up he would get angry. Physically angry.”
It wasn’t until Ethan threatened to leave the relationship that his boyfriend began to tell people Ethan was gay. Eventually the news spread back to Ethan’s hometown.
“My family heard before I even got the chance to tell them. I feel like I lost that moment with them. The thought of me coming out to them terrified me, but I wanted them to hear it from me. Then people at the church heard, and when they found out I was stalked and ridiculed. They came to my university. They came to my house. They messaged me, they called me. No one wanted me to be gay.”
According to the Department of Social Services one in four women have experienced domestic violence, compared to 1 in 13 men. Furthermore, the Counting Dead Women project by Destroy the Joint recorded 35 women died because of family and domestic violence in 2020 in Australia.
Australian domestic violence service 1800Respect receive 20,000 calls a month requesting assistance. With so much for the service to already focus on, the LGBTIQ+ community can get left behind.
A federal parliamentary inquiry tabled in March 2021 into family, domestic and sexual violence heard the complexity of violence and abuse in LGTIQ+ communities is not fully accounted for in existing research. As a result, there is a paucity of specialist support services. This can make it difficult for victims to get help.
The AIDS Council of New South Wales is trying to combat this issue by providing free and confidential care and support to LGBTIQ+ people experiencing sexual, domestic, and family violence across Australia.
ACON domestic and family violence project manager Kai Noonan says domestic and family abuse is often perpetrated against women and children. As a result, most research has been centred around this, with little data collected about LGBTIQ+ specific abuse. This means there is a lack of consensus on the definition, range, scope and severity of violence, making it possible abuse in these groups is even higher than predicted.
“Despite this LGBTIQ+ people are less likely to identify their experience as abuse, report violence to the police, or seek assistance from a domestic or family violence support organisation for fear of prejudice and discrimination,” says Noonan.
At the time, Ethan believed what happened to him was completely normal. He did not think anything of it.
“Even today I don’t consider myself a survivor because I still struggle to identify it as domestic abuse. People point it out to me, and it so clearly was, but I still struggle to recognise it.”
Noonan says the community may struggle to recognise the abuse because they often face discrimination in their daily lives.
“Their life-long lived experience of discrimination may have resulted in a higher tolerance of abuse, or an inability to recognise some forms of abuse,” says Noonan.
While it is painful to remember, Ethan struggles to forget being bullied during school. While he had not accepted his own sexuality, many of his peers stereotyped and bullied him for it.
“I was the kid who was sensitive, was only friends with girls. They guessed. Even at university today I face a lot of teasing. I am an easy target. To top it off, I was bullied out of my church for being gay,” says Ethan.
Mainstream media also often focuses on heterosexual relationships experiencing domestic violence, which can make it difficult for LGBTIQ+ people to recognise abuse.
Noonan says the societal understanding of domestic abuse is another driving factor in rendering LGBTIQ+ abuse as largely invisible.
“This understanding is often internalised, and many don’t recognise they are experiencing abuse and so they feel they can’t seek help,” Noonan says.
It wasn’t until Ethan was suffering from mental health issues two years later that he recognised the abuse he faced and sought support.
“I know it sounds dumb, but I thought men aren’t victims, so I can’t be a victim. It’s crazy, I know. But I just never thought men would be the victim of men because you so rarely hear it happening,” says Ethan.
Respect Victoria launched a new campaign in March 2021 that aims to change the common perception of family and domestic violence and bring more awareness to its prevalence in the LGBTIQ+ community. Respect Victoria chief executive Tracey Gaudry told Women’s Agenda the new campaign seeks to spark a conversation about this.
“From schools, to workplaces, to families, to the halls of Parliament, we have seen people in Australia stand up and call for an end to family violence and violence against women this year.”
The new campaign seeks to show abuse suffered in a diversity of relationships, so that LGBTIQ+ people are not required to read between the lines to identify themselves.
As a framed picture of his family sits beside his bed, Ethan explains the support he had around him when he left the relationship.
“I didn’t know where to go because I couldn’t stay with him in Perth, and I couldn’t go home with everyone at the church knowing. When I finally had enough of the constant threats and put downs and left, things got physical. I didn’t report it or anything. I just went to my friend’s place, didn’t tell her anything and just said I need to stay with you for a few days.”
Showing his Tinder profile on his old, cracked phone he says he and his friends like to scroll through boys’ profiles together. He takes a minute to look at a few profiles and laugh at some of the messages he has received. However, Ethan says he does not feel ready to enter a new relationship as he recovers from the abuse he experienced.
“I don’t know why I have these apps. I plan to meet up with a guy and then I get scared, I get flashbacks and I cancel and delete the app for a few days.”
It can be a long road for survivors, even after escaping the abuse. The recovery process can include disturbed sleep, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, vulnerability, repeated thoughts about the abuse, and a fear of socialising in and outside of the LGBTIQ+ community.
Despite three years passing by, Ethan is still affected by the abuse. Fidgeting with his hands, he says he cannot get some things out of his head.
“I have visions that he will turn up. I see him coming places in my head even when I know he won’t, but I keep fighting myself saying he will. These thoughts make it hard to sleep. Sometimes I just lay in my bed crying. I have flashbacks when I see someone that reminds me of him, when I see someone that knows him, when someone brings him up.
“My psychologist tells me what is happening is signs I’m recovering. She says it will be uncomfortable and sad for a bit, but I am recovering.”
Ethan hopes his story and further representation such as the new Respect Victoria campaign will give the issue visibility to others who might be struggling.
“It’s difficult, but things can get better.”