Diva Feature on Same-Sex Domestic Violence/ Comic Relief

by Sheila McWattie

Comic Relief, the charity people tend to associate with celebrities doing crazy stunts while wearing red plastic noses is taking a seriously creative look at what can be done to break the silence surrounding the fear, shame and guilt of same-sex domestic violence. The organization, started by comedians and launched from a refugee camp in the Sudan in 1985, has raised millions of pounds to assist some of the poorest and most vulnerable people across the UK and Africa. It may come as a surprise to many lesbians that as part of their mission to tackle poverty and promote social justice, Comic Relief fund two very different projects in the UK dealing with the profoundly challenging issue of same-sex domestic violence - a taboo subject even within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Gilly Green, UK Grants Manager for Comic Relief, is clear about the charity's commitment to financing programmes to assist the lesbian and gay community. She said, "We are aware that major charities often overlook the needs of lesbians and gay men. Where there are gaps in specialist funding provision, we are positive about the ability of Comic Relief to respond sensitively, encouraging people affected by serious social issues like same-sex abuse to help themselves. Red Nose Day is a chance for everyone to contribute to alleviating this problem."

In their book, "Lesbians Talk Violent Relationships", Joelle Chandler and Tracey Taylor define an abusive relationship as one in which one partner seeks to control the other through a pattern of manipulative, intimidating and threatening behaviours which may or may not involve physical violence. The person being abused accommodates her behaviour continuously to what her partner wants.

Chrissie's story highlights the needs of lesbians experiencing same-sex domestic abuse. Successful at her job, popular with friends, she is confident and clear about her lesbian identity. Chrissie presents a very different image from the stereotype of a battered woman. But this wasn't always the case. Chrissie remembers running, half-dressed and wearing slippers, along dark wet streets to the nearest phone box, desperate to talk to someone about the desperation she felt. She recalls lying to friends about injuries sustained at home. Occasionally, she would confide about the emotional torture, physical violence and slow-burning undermining of her self-esteem by a manipulative lesbian partner. Until she was able to identify that she needed help to leave this woman she loved, shame prevented her from telling the whole story. Tiny shreds of self-belief encouraged her to call a lesbian helpline and begin the painful process of disentangling her life from the destructive spiral which was suffocating her.

Help is not easy to find, but London-based group SOLA (Survivors of Lesbian Abuse) offer support to women who have been abused by a female (ex-)partner and raise awareness of this still very closeted issue. Group members, all survivors of lesbian abuse, have run a national helpline and self-support groups on an unfunded basis for 7 years. Now a small grant from Comic Relief will pay for a 15-week facilitated support group, beginning in March 2001. SOLA worker Petra Mohr said, "Most women who have approached us have felt unable to communicate with anybody about their experiences, or have not been believed when they have tried to talk about the abuse. Many have struggled with identifying the abuse as real, as they don't fit the stereotypical image of the "battered woman".

In securing funding from Comic Relief for their new three-year same-sex domestic violence project, "hold tight tight hold", Brighton-based GLAM (Gay & Lesbian Arts and Media) are adopting a uniquely creative response to the problem. GLAM aim to raise awareness within LGBT communities and agencies providing support services to people experiencing domestic violence, produce a national information resource in the form of CD-Rom and internet website, and empower individuals by helping them to develop skills, creativity, confidence and self-esteem in a safe environment. Individuals will be able to contribute to the content and visual presentation of the resources through artist- led training, creating digital photography, art/graphics/video, drama and oral history.

Director Joan Beveridge said "At GLAM we are very keen for organisations in this field to tell us how our new project can support the vital work they are doing. Developing a frontline support service ourselves is clearly inappropriate. The effectiveness of this project will partly depend on its ability to offer information to individuals about a wide range of other relevant services. We also want to work alongside other agencies to convince funding bodies of the need to pay attention to this crucial issue. In this spirit, I hope that this project will be a true collaboration between GLAM as an arts organisation and other organisations supporting survivors of same-sex domestic violence." One difficulty surrounding exposure of this issue is the tendency of the homophobic mainstream media to sensationalise key challenges facing survivors of lesbian violence. Clearly, promoting responsible discussion of these issues within the lesbian community and more widely enables individuals and agencies to step forward together in the struggle to expose the harsh reality of same-sex domestic abuse. Now, years later, Chrissie feels more free. "When I look back, I wonder if that deep silence about what really happened between us helped to keep our violent relationship together", she says. "I would encourage women in the same position to begin to speak out by finding someone to trust. It's very hard, because you don't know what's real when you are living in a nightmare, but life can change for the better when you reach out and use the support on offer."

Contact details:

Survivors of Lesbian Partnership Abuse (SOLA):
Telephone 020-7328-7389 - Monday to Friday 10.30am to 4.30pm or email on: solalondon@hotmail.com

GLAM: hold tight tight hold:
To find out more about Hold Tight/ Tight Hold, including ways you can contribute to the project, contact GLAM (Gay & Lesbian Arts and Media) at: www.glam-brighton.co.uk/dv
GLAM, 44-46 Old Steine, Brighton BN1 1NH
Telephone: 01273-707963
Fax 01273 774232

Joelle Taylor and Tracey Chandler : Lesbians Talk Violent Relationships published 1995 by Scarlet Press

website: www.comicrelief.com
Comic Relief, 5th floor, 89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP Telephone: 0207820 5555