As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the global community, upsetting conventional modes of employment, leisure, and family life, scholars and activists have watched as the virus has taken its toll on the criminal justice system too. My colleagues have already written about how COVID-19 has made the overcrowded prison system even deadlier, impacted the rights of children whose parents are incarcerated, and acted as a backdrop to the mass uprising against Police brutality in the United States. For those of us who study violence in the home, we have watched with increasing concern as the current crisis has been accompanied by an apparent increase in cases of domestic, intimate partner, and family violence, which can be seen both in an increase in arrests and fatalities.

Additionally, charities, shelters, help-lines, and other support services have reported being overwhelmed by the demand, as victims seek help when their normal social networks have been disrupted. Indeed, the United Nations has even asked for governments to intervene to help stem the tide of what appears to be a separate pandemic of violence being levied against victims. However, it is important to recognise that experiences of any form of family violence are not uniform, and different groups will encounter different challenges and barriers due to their relative positions within society. One of these groups is the Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT+) community, and in this blog, I  set out some of the ways in which LGBT+ victims of domestic violence have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the options available for meeting their needs. 

Research published from the 1980s onwards, from within the LGBT+ community, began to identify and report upon patterns of abuse within same-sex couples that mirrored those known to commonly occur within heterosexual relationships. Pioneering books such as Claire Renzetti’s “Violent Betrayal” and Island and Letelliers “Men who Beat the Men who love them” highlighted that both lesbians and gay men experienced serious psychological, physical and even sexual abuse from their intimate partners, whilst more recent research has highlighted the vulnerability of bisexual and transgender women to violence from their heterosexual male partners. Nearly 40 years of research into this field there is now a consensus that LGBT+ individuals experience domestic violence at the same rate as their heterosexual counterparts. 

However, LGBT+ victims have to manage violence in their relationships within the context of their social position as sexual or gender minorities. Researchers have demonstrated that abusers can use threats to reveal their victims sexual or gender identity to homophobic/transphobic relatives or co-workers as a means to maintain control over them. Victims’ attempts to seek help either from the third sector or criminal justice agencies like the police must be done with the fear or potential that they could experience disbelief or even discrimination due to their membership in the LGBT+ community. These pre-existing barriers have become magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has been observed to have already hit the queer community hard, with LGBT+ people being more likely to experience mental illness, more likely to make less money than heterosexuals, and to be more at risk of homelessness due to housing precarity.  The disruption of the economy and enforced social distancing measures have lead activist groups and non-government organisations (NGOs) to raise concerns that queer people are suffering disproportionally.

Just as the pre-existing inequalities that harmed the queer community have been magnified by the crisis so too have the barriers that hindered LGBT+ victims of domestic violence from effectively leaving violent relationships. The virus has disrupted normal social networks for LGBT+ victims, who are more likely to utilise informal sources of support like friends or private therapists than traditional formal sources support like domestic violence charities or the police. Indeed, whilst there is, as of yet, no reports of an increase in arrests or prosecutions for LGBT+ abusers, a significant number of individuals are coming forward to seek help from gay and trans-friendly support services.  Gallop, Stone-Wall Housing, and the LGBT Foundation which offer services to queer victims of domestic violence are reporting huge surges in referrals and calls for help.

This may lead in time to other inequalities as in the U.K. there are few services designed specifically to house LGBT+ victims of domestic violence, which leaves gay, bisexual and trans men to either rely on already overwhelmed local council emerging housing services or seek help from the small number of LGBT+ charities that can provide accommodation. Queer-focused homelessness charities The Albert Kennedy Trust and The Outside Project have reported they are overwhelmed with people seeking shelter and accommodation during the crisis, particularly queer men who are often unable to access traditional domestic violence refuges. Even gay and bisexual women who can still access traditional domestic violence shelters which cater exclusively to female victims may not choose to do so. Research has highlighted that not only do queer women experience homophobia within shelters from residents and even staff members, but that many female queer victims anticipate stigma, and feel that the risks are too great to engage with these services. These concerns are also true for trans women, who may not only fear that they will experience discrimination but be denied service upfront due to their gender identity.

It is clear that in order to understand the full picture of how domestic violence operates and is experienced across society, we must consider the wider structural position that different groups of victims, including LGBT+ individuals, operate in. These are issues that have not disappeared during the pandemic but instead have become more significant. Whilst it is heartening that organisations do exist which are providing much-needed services to queer victims, they only represent a fraction of the wider domestic violence sector and thus may struggle to reach all of those in need.

What is needed is both an immediate injection of resources into this sector to expand the scope of services that can be provided to queer victims, and a concerted campaign of public awareness and education of the problem of domestic violence amongst gay and trans people. There is thus a need to both educate the wider public on the issue and to remind victims that they are not alone, that people exist who are both willing and able to help them leave their relationship and lead lives out of abuse. Some of these demands have already been made by NGO’s and activist groups, but they should be amplified and acted upon without delay, otherwise even after the pandemic is over things will return to ‘business as usual’ where LGBT+ victims continue to suffer in silence.