Maria* was 16 years old when she first met her ex-partner, Hannah*. Growing up in a sheltered, anti-gay household, Maria struggled with her sexual identity all through high school.
"I had little to no exposure to queer people growing up. I'd spent a lot of that time period being afraid that I was very different and I was going to be alone," she explains. "Hannah seemed perfect in every way. She was sweet, kind, gentle. I'd never been in love before so it was jarring to think I'd actually found someone so much like me... That I wasn't actually going to be alone my whole life."
Over the next four years, Hannah subjected Maria to emotional abuse and degradation, and cheated on her time and time again. "She constantly made me feel like there [weren't] many other queer people in the world," Maria says. "She constantly [reminded] me that she had so much more experience with other queer people, and all I had was her."
But with her family unwilling to accept their daughter was gay, Maria moved in with Hannah, who became her only social support. "She'd tell me my family was trying to keep us apart."
There's this one family camping trip that Maria comes back to. Her family didn't know she was gay, so Maria introduced Hannah as a friend. "I couldn't tell them [Hannah] was my partner," Maria says. "She made me sleep in the car while she had sex with my cousin in his tent."
Confronting Hannah about the abuse was nearly impossible—she'd tell Maria she was being "controlling" and "restrictive." That she was "fucked in the head." The cycle of abuse continued until Hannah met another woman, and told Maria not to come home. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know there was a thriving queer community in Sydney," Maria tells me. "She always made me feel so isolated." Maria also didn't realise she'd been abused until after Hannah broke up with her.
"I'd been in a physically abusive relationship before with a man who nearly broke my jaw, but I didn't think that a woman could be abusive to me," she says. "My therapist now is a straight cisgendered woman. I feel uncomfortable talking to her about a lot of things because I feel it doesn't sound as bad as it actually is when you are talking about [abusive] relationships with women."
"Domestic violence in LGBTIQ relationships may have unique characteristics... threatening to "out" the abused partner... withholding of gender transition medication..."
With one woman being killed every week because of gender abuse, the promises to combat domestic violence have been at the forefront of this year's election. The Coalition made waves with its "He Just Did It Cause He Likes You" campaign, Labor pledged $88 million to fund safe housing for domestic violence victims, and a "domestic violence levy" was introduced in the ACT. Pauline Hanson even opened up about her own experiences of domestic violence.
But the epidemic of domestic violence in the LGBTQI community remains almost completely ignored by the government. The first substantial study into this area, the Calling It What It Really Is report, took place last year. The study shows that domestic violence affects one in three people in the LGBTQI community. This is the same rate, if not higher, than domestic violence in heterosexual relationships.
Why don't we hear about it? Well, the reasons for a lack of public awareness are complex. Firstly, we have a relatively fixed understanding of what domestic violence looks like, and it's a very heteronormative view. The impact homophobia and transphobia have had on lack of understanding and research towards LGBTQI domestic violence is also hard to ignore. And then there's a mistrust of the legal system, that's been fostered within the LGBTIQ community. These factors have combined to cause underreporting, reduced awareness, and inadequate support for LGBTQI survivors of abuse.
Dr Philomena Horsley, who wrote the Family Violence and the LGBTI Community study last year, suggests domestic violence in LGBTIQ relationships may have unique characteristics. These include threatening to "out" the abused partner, increased isolation due to societal stigma, withholding of gender transition medication, and homophobic or transphobic name calling. Generally, these warning signs aren't included domestic violence resources, such as checklists or case studies, making it difficult for those in LGBTQI relationships to identify abuse.
Dr Horsley points to one example where police were called to a domestic violence incident in Melbourne. Two men were arguing in a flat and, although one appeared visibly shaken, the cops dismissed the call after the larger man assured them the pair were just housemates and it was a trivial argument. Later than night, the smaller man had to be taken to ICU after he was severely beaten.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a social worker told VICE there are many similar incidents of domestic violence between women being dismissed. They have even seen cases where women have been physically attacked by their partners in public but nobody calls the police, or even intervenes to help, because they think it's just a "cat fight."
"I couldn't tell them [Hannah] was my partner," Maria says. "She made me sleep in the car while she had sex with my cousin in his tent."
Currently few, if any, housing refuges are available specifically for the LGBTQI community. Despite the alarming fact 53 percent of transgender people in the Calling it What it is study reported they'd experienced sexual or physical abuse, there are repeated stories of trans women being refused from refuges or "made to feel so uncomfortable that they have left with no place to go."
Lesbian, bi, and trans women are also faced with limited options. Our narrow understanding of what domestic violence looks like means perpetrators are able to pose as victims and follow their (ex) partners into shelters and services. For many gay, bi, and trans men their only option is to hope to be referred to the Victims of Crime organisation by police.
The government needs to widen its focus to provide prevention education within the LGBTQI community, funding for further research and training of staff in the family violence field. "A lot of problems from the queer community come from people feeling like they are alone and that it's hopeless," Maria says. "[People need to] to know from the beginning that there is a whole community of people there who can and will help."
If you are a victim of domestic violence, or know someone who is, you can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 1800 RESPECT.
Follow Eliza on Twitter.