“Excuse me, sir . . .” A stranger on the subway spears my shoulder with her forefinger, rousing me to attention. “Sir, you’re spilling!”
Squinting through the fog of a hangover, I behold a sea of vexed faces staring at me. The train is crowded with morning commuters, but somehow they’ve managed to form a clearing around the river of mud-colored coffee cascading around my feet. I’ve been sleeping through several stops unaware of the hot streams pouring down my coat, looking like a complete disaster: eyes shut, mouth agape, exuding the stale odor of last night’s whiskey from my pores.
Feeling embarrassed and exposed, as though I’ve walked onto the stage of my high school auditorium naked, I grumble an apology to the audience and rummage through my bag frantically searching for a napkin. I don’t know what emotion is stronger: public humiliation or private disappointment. Either way, I knew what I had to face today, and despite that fact—or, more likely, because of it—I chose to drink myself into oblivion last night.
Now, sitting here steeped in a puddle of my own shame, I try to form a coherent thought through a splitting migraine. My body desperately craves the coffee I heedlessly spilled. I imagine myself lapping it off the subway floor like a dog, feeling a jolt of energy course through my veins, setting my mind straight again. Perhaps what I really want is something powerful enough to erase the whole history of events that have led me to this moment.
I got drunk last night half hoping I would wake up to a different version of reality this morning—or maybe not even wake up at all. But here I am.
I exit the train at Chambers Street, trudge a few blocks through a blistering cold January morning, and enter the New York City Family Court for the first time in my life. Terrified, alone, and without a clue of what to expect, I will soon sit in front of a stone-faced judge to ask for an order of protection from my boyfriend of three years.
While domestic violence is anything but new, the laws protecting victims are rather recent in the history of our nation’s jurisprudence. The Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was introduced in 1994 by then Delaware Senator Joe Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton as part of the controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of that same year.
According to Legal Momentum, a non-profit organization dedicated to the legal defense and education of women, VAWA was the first piece of federal legislation to seriously consider the issue of intimate partner violence (IPV)—a more inclusive term that has come to replace “domestic violence” at the behest of advocates, though both are still used interchangeably—and codify protections for victims into law.
These protections include: the first federal criminal law against battering; a full faith and credit clause requiring all states to recognize orders of protection issued anywhere in the United States; and crucial funding for grant programs geared toward victims’ services, like battered women’s shelters. Since its initial passage, VAWA has been reauthorized many times to renew its funding and to update the language of the law.
In subsequent reauthorizations, legislators have pushed to make its scope broader, but not without pushback from political foes. For instance, in 2012, in response to proposed language that would extend VAWA protections to undocumented immigrants and same-sex partners, Republicans blocked the law’s reauthorization for the first time. After facing mounting pressure from advocacy groups—and fearing the loss of women voters at the polls—GOP lawmakers finally caved and VAWA was eventually reauthorized with more expansive language and signed by President Obama on March 7th, 2013.
The title of the bill is somewhat of a misnomer, since in reality it covers any victim of IPV, regardless of gender. Despite this fact, I can’t help but think of the ways the law is designed, by its very nature, both to protect and exclude someone like me, someone caught in the crossroads of contradiction. I have often wondered, with varying degrees of guilt:
Does coming forward as a victim make me less of a man? How do I come to terms with simultaneously benefitting from and being disadvantaged by the structures of patriarchy, by a system of justice whose scales bend heavily toward male perpetrators of violence? What am I to make of a culture in which masculinity is too fragile and toxic to withstand even the slightest admission of weakness and vulnerability?
This, along with a host of other ruminating thoughts, circles around in my head as I think about how four letters, rolling off the tongue like water from a fountain, have been passed down from one Congressional delegation to the next throughout the larger part of my lifetime, and have since come to define my story.
When I reach the courthouse at 8:00 am, a line to the entrance is already snaking around the block. I wait behind a couple who are cursing at each other, scared to approach any closer but wishing I could huddle up with them as we wait in sub-freezing temperatures to enter through the ominous glass doors.
A half hour later, finally inside, I remove my coat and belt, empty my pockets, and a security guard waves me through a metal detector. Where do I go now? I wonder in a brief moment of panic, in which my mind conjures up every imaginable excuse to turn around and walk back out the revolving doors.
As soon as the initial dread passes, I gather myself enough to approach an officer behind a desk and whisper sheepishly, “Which way is the . . . um, domestic violence unit?”
“Take the elevator to the third floor, through the double doors on your left. You’ll see a window where they’ll give you the paperwork,” he replies, unfazed by my inquiry. I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not the first person to ask, though perhaps the first man in a while.
After finding the proper office, I approach a stern-looking clerk armored behind a wall of plexiglass to request “papers to make a complaint about a domestic dispute.” I don’t know the proper terms and opt for weak euphemisms in place of candor. They pass me a clipboard, some forms, and a black ink pen through a metal slit at the bottom of the window and point me in the direction of a bench.
“Once you’ve finished filling these out you’ll wait here to be called into the judge’s chambers.”
Judge’s chambers. It sounds like an invitation into the bedroom of a royal family, like I’m a medieval court jester being ushered in to provide comic relief, a boy traipsing around in costume as battered wife. Who are you trying to fool? taunts a voice in my head.
The first few questions ask for the usual demographic information. Age: 28. Sex: Male. Race: White/Non- Hispanic. Then I’m asked to list the same about my boyfriend, the “alleged perpetrator,” until I reach a blank box at the bottom half of the page instructing me to describe the “nature of my complaint.”
I pause and nervously tap the pen against the clipboard, wondering how I’m supposed to be “as detailed as possible” about a three-year history with a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive partner in less than a page. Where do I possibly begin? In a way, I’m still searching for the right words, still stumbling over the proper syntax, attempting to weave together disparate thoughts into a coherent narrative of victimhood and survival.
Once I’m called into the courtroom, my heart sinks. The judge towers over the bench, wearing a scowl that could cut through ice. I was hoping for a woman. Shaking uncontrollably, I take a deep breath and tell myself: No amount of whiskey is going to make this easier. There’s no turning back now.
“How do you know this person?” the judge inquires flatly. He glowers at me suspiciously through thick black frames, one eyebrow raised, as he skims over my statement scribbled in chicken scratch. I feel all the more juvenile thinking about how I could barely hold my hand steady long enough to write legibly, how the very fact of my queerness threatens the boundaries of legibility in the overwhelmingly straight space of this family court room.
“He’s my partner,” my voice cracks. I offer that information tenuously, head down, gaze fixed on the floor.
“What kind of partner?”
“Um . . . I mean, intimate partner,” I reply tentatively, without looking up.
A moment passes that is probably only a minute, but may as well last millennia, and then the judge explains, in terms I struggle to understand, that since my boyfriend and I live together he must issue a temporary order. According to Section 826 of the New York State Family Court Act, an alleged perpetrator of violence can only be excluded from a residence for up to three days before appearing in court for a full hearing.
“I suggest you find an attorney to represent you,” he remarks blithely, before whacking the wooden gavel. Case adjourned.
Every year since 1987, October has been designated National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Incidentally, October 11th is also National Coming Out Day. For those of us straddling both worlds—the 2,032 LGBTQ survivors reported in 2016, the most recent data available from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs—it can feel like neither the month of awareness nor the day of celebration is really meant for us.
Most advocacy efforts for victims of IPV are geared towards heterosexual, cisgender women, while the LGBTQ community—faced with the pressure of appearing “respectable” in the straight world—is understandably reticent to discuss the scourge of violence within our own relationships. As Dr. Joan McClennen, an emeritus professor in the School of Social Work at Missouri State University, writes in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, gay and lesbian survivors “have created a conspiracy of silence about the existence of IPV in their homes,” often leading to the phenomenon of what she calls a “double closet.”
I understand the reasons why a queer survivor would fear coming forward with their story. I, too, participated in the conspiracy of silence, trapped in a double closet where my gay identity was an unspoken, open secret with my Evangelical Christian parents back home in the South, and the ongoing physical abuse was my dirty little secret I was hiding from friends here in New York. In my mind, my family would judge my situation as the “wages of a sinful lifestyle,” while my supposedly open-minded friends—many of whom are gay and educated—would judge me for allowing myself to stay in such a toxic situation.
In the end, I allowed these two different versions of “You should know better” to keep me quiet and further alienate me from anyone who might offer the support I so desperately needed. It isn’t easy for any survivor to come forward and break the silence surrounding their pain, to bring to light a type of violence that is insidious, intimate, easily hidden from view. For queer survivors, who are too often shut out of vital family support systems, silence conspires with systems of heterosexism and homophobia to render us invisible, to plant the false belief in our heads that we’re alone in this world, blinding us to those around us who can help, to the experiences we share with other survivors from all backgrounds.
It’s not like going to the authorities was any better. After a particularly ugly fight in our apartment one night, I finally stomached the courage to dial the cops at the 34th Precinct. After the two officers, both straight men, finally arrived on the scene, they examined the broken glass from the bedroom mirror, the marks on my body, and spoke to my roommate who had witnessed the altercation, before telling me: “It’s your word against his. You’re both men. Sleep it off in different rooms and try to work it out amongst yourselves in the morning when you’ve had a chance to cool off.”
Never have I felt such a sinking feeling of hopelessness as when I watched the officers leave that night. The thought that “No one is ever going to believe you” kept swirling in my head. In weaker moments, that voice still echoes in the chambers of my mind.
I’m reminded of this incident while skimming an article for background research for this piece, a piece I began writing in fits and starts years after ending the cycle of abuse with my ex. In a paper published in the Journal of Family Violence, titled “Gender-Role Stereotype and Perceptions of Heterosexual, Gay and Lesbian Domestic Violence,” I highlighted a passage where psychologists find:
There is some evidence that the sex of the perpetrator and victim and the couple’s sexual orientation influence criminal justice system responses to domestic violence. For example, police are less likely to arrest perpetrators or to enforce protective orders in cases that do not involve male-to-female violence . . . To the extent that members of the criminal justice system perceive non- prototypical domestic violence as less problematic or worthy of intervention than domestic violence perpetrated by heterosexual men against their wives or girlfriends, many victims, including those in gay or lesbian relationships, may not receive equal protection under the law (Sheila M. Seelau and Eric P. Seelau 364).
The data confirm what personal experience has already proved true: those in power do not take intimate partner violence seriously, and even less so when it involves partners of the same sex. Pouring through the available research on violence in gay relationships, as scant as it may be, I find myself at once reflected in and erased by the data.
As I read in one article in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior about how “[g]ay men are more likely to be victimized in public, including in gay-identified areas,” I start writing down in the margins a memory triggered by the sentence, in which my ex attacked me outside of a bar in Hell’s Kitchen one night. My best friend ran away instead of sticking around to defend me. Nobody broke up our fight on the street. I felt betrayed and abandoned; yet in retrospect, I can’t blame my friend for putting his own safety first. If the roles had been reversed, I might have done the same thing.
While writing this essay, I find myself alternating between obsessive bouts of research, and then, for weeks at a time, I’m unable to write anything at all as the flood of traumatic memories grows into a tidal wave threatening to swallow me whole: a flash before a glass of wine lands on my face; the imprint of a curtain rod across my forehead, worn like a badge of shame to work the next day; the deafening crash of a flower vase shattering against the living room wall; the thousand tiny shards of broken iPad screen swept across the bedroom floor, sad remnants of a Christmas gift from my parents that year—all traces of destruction left in my ex-boyfriend’s wake.
At times, the detached voice of the academic researcher in me provides a welcome respite from all the painful memories. The language of social science is how I cope. It’s always easier to think about the political rather than the personal, to view IPV in the abstract as a public health crisis rather than something that actually happened to me, something now part of a past life I’d rather forget.
Senate Resolution 556, which provides a pledge of support for survivors and officially recognizes October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, was introduced to the floor by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and a team of bipartisan lawmakers on September 15th, 2016. The resolution includes some sobering statistics about the prevalence of violence in our country: An estimated 12,637,000 individuals have experienced IPV nationwide; three women are killed, on average, by a former or current partner every single day in the United States; a National Domestic Violence Counts Census found that 12,197 requests for services from victims went unmet in 2015 due to lack of funding and resources. Not once does the resolution mention the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims and survivors.
Clearly, we have a problem with violence in this country. Less clear is how it is an issue that extends beyond the intimate relationships of heterosexuals, since queer and trans survivors are too often left out of the conversation around IPV. More staggering still is Senator Grassley’s disingenuous pledge to support federal funding for the reauthorization of the law. At the time of this writing, Congress has provisionally extended VAWA in a bill to reopen the government temporarily, after letting it expire for more than a month during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women quietly narrowed the definition of domestic violence last year, and removed domestic violence from the list of eligible grounds for immigrant victims who are seeking asylum. As it stands now, the future of VAWA is in doubt, and Republican lawmakers continue to chip away at its ability to protect victims.
The next time I find myself in a Manhattan courtroom sitting in front of a judge is three years later—this time to answer a summons for jury duty on a criminal trial. The judge in this case is the complete opposite of the one I faced before. In place of an icy, intimidating demeanor, he seems gregarious, wearing large circular frames that punctuate a round face poking up from his black robe. A dopey, almost apologetic, smile stretches across his face as our group of nearly 50 potential jurors enters single file into a dark mahogany, wood-paneled courtroom to answer a series of screening questions.
—How long have you lived at your current residence?
—What’s the highest level of education you obtained?
—Have you or any close relatives ever worked in law enforcement?
No, your Honor.
—Have you or any close relatives ever been a victim of a crime?
When he reaches that point in the questionnaire, my heart stops. A couple people in line before me answer, “Yes,” and tell the judge about a cousin arrested for narcotics possession in North Carolina, and a parent whose house was robbed upstate. One man says he was cited for underage drinking in college, causing everyone to erupt in laughter.
I start rehearsing the answer in my head, dreading the moment I’ll have to confess before a room of total strangers, “Yes, your Honor, I am a gay man who was a victim of domestic violence.” The shame and trauma of the whole experience immediately resurfaces, and I feel my body start to hunch over. I suddenly have an intense desire to shrink, to become as small and unnoticeable as possible.
When it finally reaches my turn to answer, I offer a vague response hoping that the limited amount of information I’m willing to give up will suffice. “Yes, I was a victim of assault in 2015.” Which is true, of course—at least in part.
“Is there anything about that experience that will affect your potential to be fair and impartial in this case?”
“No, your Honor.” I pray nobody notices the beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
During the lunch break the prosecutor and defense attorneys deliberate about which jurors to select from the pool. Once we re-enter the courtroom, the bailiff escorts us back to our assigned seats in the jury box lying perpendicular to the judge’s bench. A court reporter sitting directly across from us pulls out a sheet. “If you hear your name called, that means you’ve been selected. Please remain in your seats and wait for further instruction. If you do not hear your name, you’re dismissed. Please exit the room, and the officers will guide you back to the juror lounge to retrieve service forms for the day.”
The fact that I’m a man who is a survivor of IPV disqualifies me—thankfully, I suppose—from the realm of impartiality required in the proper administration of justice. Perhaps occupying the dual identity of gay and victim excludes me from ever speaking or thinking from a neutral, objective place—if such a thing exists. It’s precisely that thought which kept me from reporting the violence sooner; a fear only confirmed when the cops arrived after my first desperate call and did nothing. It’s also precisely that fear of being disbelieved, of being judged by strangers, that has kept me silent for this long.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, studies show the lifetime prevalence of IPV among LGBTQ partners is just as high or higher than the general population. In fact, one researcher found that gay men are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by a stranger. Unsurprisingly, the number is even higher for people of color and for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, who are disproportionately represented in IPV statistics across studies. While IPV may not be letters that national organizations are eager to tag onto the acronym defining the diversity of our communities, the conversation about the prevalence of violence in same-sex relationships needs to be broached.
Admittedly, I am extremely uncomfortable with the “victim” label. It feels disempowering; it strips the survivor of agency. The fact that I sought help and left a toxic relationship is proof of my inner strength, proof that I’m a survivor. I try to remind myself of that fact on days when I need encouragement.
On my bad days, however, I’m unable to see myself as anything but dumb, weak, and, frankly, deserving of what happened to me. “Why didn’t you just fight back?” “Why would you stay with such a monster?” “But what did you do to make him angry?” The voices of those who were unwilling or unequipped to help when I reached out for advice return so easily at times. The voices of coworkers who eyed me skeptically when I tried to convince them that the bruise across my forehead was a harmless mishap, a clumsy spill in the shower, also resurface at times—but I don’t let myself linger in that headspace for very long anymore.
Without a doubt, the years of abuse I experienced impacted me in many profound, indelible ways. In the wake of the separation from my ex, I suffered spells of crippling depression and anxiety. I avoided sleeping in my bedroom for an entire year. I would often wake up on the couch covered in sweat from a recurring nightmare in which I was attempting to escape for my life. I struggled with substance abuse to cope with the pain; I missed days of work; and I eventually caved under the pressure and dropped out of a PhD program I was pursuing at the time.
Yet if it hadn’t been for the outpouring of support I received from the New York City Anti-Violence Project hotline, an incredibly kind and generous pro-bono attorney I found through a victim assistance organization called Safe Horizon, and the close friends who stuck with me in the aftermath of my breakup, I would have never emerged on the other side of this alive. If nothing else, the experience forced me to confront, from a therapist’s couch, a whole host of issues that predated the relationship with my ex, which has contributed to a healthier life today.
Writing now with the distance and insight time has created, I feel in many ways like I don’t recognize the person who sat for a day in the offices of Safe Horizon and was interviewed for several hours by an Assistant District Attorney. I have a new relationship with myself that bears little resemblance to my self- destructive past. I’ve come so far and feel stronger and more self-aware today than I was back then—at least I would like to believe.
Despite this personal growth, the shame that welled up during jury selection, and all the unexpected moments that trigger me, such as witnessing scenes of IPV in movies or television, remind me how much hasn’t changed. The trauma never really goes away; it just gets easier to manage. I wish this weren’t the story I’m writing about myself, but the undeniable fact of the matter is that no amount of wishing will change the truth of my past. I am a gay man and I am a survivor of intimate partner violence. Plain and simple.
I cannot begin to express how difficult it is for me to write those words; how difficult it is to live with that truth. Even scarier yet is the thought of sharing this story and exposing myself in such a public way, in a world that still overwhelmingly views gay people as inferior, that believes men are too strong to be victims, that continues to doubt women who come forward with stories of abuse and violence.
Never has our collective cultural suspicion of survivors been on more flagrant display than during the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. What became strikingly obvious to me as I watched from my desk at work was how powerful men do not want to hear the stories of survivors, and the scales of justice—in the courts of law and public opinion alike—are tilted toward the accused at nearly every turn.
But this is my story, and it needs to be told. If not for my own sake, then perhaps for all the others who see themselves in my words, and who have also been too afraid to speak up. Whatever fear I may now feel about coming out publicly as a gay survivor of IPV pales in comparison to the fear I faced when walking alone into Family Court on that January morning back in 2015. Reflecting on that moment, I wonder if I might have felt a little less scared, a little less alone, if I had been able to read a narrative such as this one, if I had realized there are other gay men who have been through this before.
Sitting on the couch in my therapist’s office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, weeks after jury duty, I’m still trying to process the reasons why I found the experience so triggering. My mind wanders, focusing on the sparse décor—grey walls, a succulent on a side table next to a digital clock, a bright orange throw pillow, probably from IKEA, punctuating the room like a vibrant brush stroke on a drab canvas. My therapist speaks during our 45-minute session in a gravelly Italian accent, the kind that’s been ground into his vernacular by the toughness of Brooklyn’s streets.
“If others betray you, you can find it in yourself to forgive them. If you betray yourself, that wound doesn’t heal.” His words stay with me during the whole train ride uptown to my apartment.
Violence is a double-edged sword in which victims are not the only casualties. Everyone gets hurt in ways both overt and hidden—even, or most especially, perhaps, the perpetrators. Despite everything, I have finally found it within me to forgive my ex and let go of the resentment I held against him for so long. I’m still learning to forgive myself.
Zach Shultz is a higher education administrator in New York and freelance writer and blogger. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Huffington Post, INTO Magazine, and more. He blogs about queer culture and politics at kafkasdoor.com and you can find him on Twitter @zach_shultz.