The bruised silence of queer women
“What drives it? Self-hatred. Baggage.
And fragile masculinities within and around us.
What sustains it? Fear. Being afraid to be alone and the idea of not having anyone to lean on.” — Thandi*
Shireen Adonis is still trying to makes sense of her reasons for staying in an abusive relationship that lasted for four years.
“It was like, how can I say? They say you always go back to what hurts you. I suppose nobody could imagine why I stayed there, but … To be honest, right now I still don’t know why I stayed that long. I think it was fear of being alone, maybe?”
That fear led her to put up with an emotional and physical abuse that became progressively worse. The occasional slap ended up with her being stabbed and, on the day she walked out on her partner, “being beaten with one of those thick chains you use to lock a gate with”.
That day was more than six years ago but, says the 29-year-old, “to this day, nobody knows this happened to me”. Her secrecy, she says, was largely because she was in a same-sex relationship. Her abuser was another woman.
“I was closeted at the time, so I was hiding the abuse plus the relationship itself. It was difficult obviously, always having to hide the bruises and not having anyone to talk to about it. It was very lonely,” she says.
Jade Madingwane is the Forum for the Empowerment of Women’s programmes assistant. In February this year, the organisation held a dialogue focusing on queer intimate partner violence. Madingwane says it was held at the request of “a number of people [who said] that, as an organisation, we only have programmes on gender-based violence but never really talk to queer intimate partner violence”.
She says there is a lot of secrecy around the issue.
“In the South African context, we hardly talk about two women, or queer people, generally, being in abusive relationships. We are already fighting the stigma of being queer, fighting to end the scourge of homophobia. To then talk about violence [in our relationships] is taboo. It’s seen as a heterosexual thing.
“There is definitely secrecy among queer people talking about the different kinds of violence they experience within their intimate relationships.”
“Growing up in an abusive household was not much help either as, day in and day out, I would witness the brutal beatings on my mother and her efforts to defend herself … All of this planted an evil seed of greed and anger inside my heart. My temper was beyond control.
“[My partner] started to deprive me of what I deemed as mine — the sexual benefits of being in the relationship. She didn’t want intimacy at all. This is what drove me over the edge. I drew in my crazy mind the conclusion that she was cheating on me. I am a dominant breed and I was not familiar with girls saying no.” — Sindiwe*
According to a statement released by the empowerment forum, the rates of spousal abuse in same-sex couples could be higher than in heterosexual relationships‚ but the prevailing stigma of homosexuality and a social indifference means victims are often rendered invisible.
Researcher Lounette Graaff says the most common depiction of intimate partner violence is a female victim and an abusive male partner.
“It is the most common form of violence experienced by South African women and it is estimated that 30% of reported cases of violence are domestically abusive in nature.”
She says, although intimate partner violence in heterosexual relationships has been researched‚ studies on same-sex relationships are relatively scarce. “It is a general assumption that domestic violence does not exist in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. Rates of sexual violence reported by gay men and lesbian women are said to be equal or higher than the rates among heterosexual individuals.
“Because of the stigma that surrounds same-sex relationships‚ victims often do not receive the support and help they need. Secondary victimisation contributes to the fact that most victims of intimate partner violence do not report abuse or seek help. Research suggests that police are less likely to offer help to victims of abuse that do not involve male and female partners.”
“I drank a lot as a coping mechanism and I was angry. We both didn‘t understand what was up but we did our best. The first time I hit her was at a camp we went to. She had kissed a girl and I told my friends I will beat her up … I slapped her [and] hit her with my fists till she stopped laughing and started crying … Mind you, I had hurt her so much in our relationship but I felt she questioned my masculinity and I had to prove to the world I am not weak.” —Busisiwe*
A 2017 report by the Triangle Project, titled Substance Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence among Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Women, found that factors such as unemployment, education and religion contributed to the vulnerability of black lesbian women to drug and alcohol use and intimate partner violence. Of the study’s surveyed sample, “28% … said they had been or were currently in an abusive relationship”.
“This is higher than the average for young women in South Africa [with] the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey [finding] that about 17% of women between 18 and 24 had experienced relationship abuse in the past year. This put LGBT women in the position of experiencing a greater likelihood of relationship abuse, and also having no suitable recourse to address the situation, given that they are afraid of discrimination at public clinics and by the police.”
For Madingwane, one recourse is ongoing conversation. “We need to have more conversations that are more personal. As queer people and organisations, we are always talking to people who are not queer, having conversations that don’t really hit home for queer people.
“We are always having conversations on sensitising government, or the world at large, but we never talk about the mental illnesses queer people go through. And we need to do this because this world is very harsh on queer bodies and minds.”
“I texted the friend who hooked us up and told her [my partner] beat me and [that] I am afraid. [The morning after she beat me, she] asked the neighbours for face foundation to hide my beating. A month later, I told my aunt and she said [that] in order for us to grow, sometimes we need to walk away. I did that. With all that is in me, I walked away. Never to return again.” — Thobeka*
Six years after the end of her abusive relationship, Adonis says: “I feel liberated. I’m glad I’m free. If I had stayed, I would have died.”
* Testimonies gathered by the Triangle Project. Names have been changed.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G