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date: 29 January 2023

Domestic Violence in the LGBT Communityfree

Domestic Violence in the LGBT Communityfree

  • Betty Jo BarrettBetty Jo BarrettBetty Jo Barrett (MSSW, PhD) is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She received her doctoral degree in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2006. Dr. Barrett specializes in the study of intimate partner violence, with a particular interest in violence perpetrated against those in socially, economically, and racially diverse populations. She is currently conducting research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) investigating variations in intimate partner violence survivors’ help seeking behaviors and interactions with police over a ten year period in Canada.


Since the mid 1980s, a growing body of theoretical and empirical literature has examined the existence of intimate partner violence (IPV) in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. Collectively, this research has suggested that IPV in rainbow communities occurs at rates comparable to those documented among heterosexual populations and results in similar detrimental psychological, social, and physical consequences for victims. Importantly, however, this work has also highlighted myriad ways in which the social and structural marginalization of gender and sexual minority populations create unique vulnerabilities for IPV that are not shared by cissexual and heterosexual individuals. This entry provides an overview of this scholarship to inform strength-based social work practice with and for LGBT survivors of domestic violence at the macro, mezzo, and micro levels.


  • Couples and Families
  • Criminal Justice
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Human Behavior


Since the advent of the contemporary battered women’s movement in the early 1970s, intimate partner violence (IPV) has been constructed as a social justice issue threatening the equality, self-determination, and inherent dignity and worth of survivors of violence in the home. As such, social workers have played a central role in the development of policies and programs to prevent its occurrence, rehabilitate perpetrators, and empower survivors as part of the profession’s social justice mandate. Although an extensive collection of empirical literature has evolved over the last 40 years to support evidence based practice with perpetrators and survivors of IPV, this body of work has primarily centered on violence in heterosexual couplings between cissexual identified female victims and male perpetrators. In recent decades, a surge of scholarship has attempted to address this limitation of the literature by documenting the prevalence of IPV in rainbow communities, its common and differential correlates when compared to IPV experienced by heterosexual and cissexual identified individuals, and the barriers lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) survivors of IPV face in accessing support in the aftermath of violence. Collectively, this work has highlighted the importance of understanding the experiences of gender and sexually diverse populations with IPV within the broader context of social structures and ideologies, which create unique vulnerabilities for violence (both within the home as well as society at large) for members of these populations.


Gender and Sexual Diversity

A vast array of terms have been both constructed by as well as ascribed to gender and sexually diverse populations to encapsulate a range of identities and experiences. While an in-depth examination of this extensive terminology is outside of the purview of the present entry, it is important to emphasize the heterogeneous nature of “rainbow communities” and the ways in which it is reflected in the language used to define their members. Commonly, terms such as LGBT, LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and intersexed), gender and sexual minorities, and rainbow communities have been used to describe diverse populations of individuals whose experiences differ from dominant sexual (heterosexual) and gender (cissexual) identity categories. Some individuals within these populations may define themselves in terms of specific sexual identities, such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Ristock & Timbang, 2005). Others may eschew such labels and prefer behavioral based categorizations of their sexuality, for example, women who have sex with women (Waldron, 1996) or men who have sex with men (Boellstorff, 2011). Further, some embrace the reclamation of the word queer as a positive means to challenge the construction of gender and sexual identities in distinct categories and use the term to encapsulate a diverse range of gendered and sexual experiences under a shared umbrella (Ristock & Timbang, 2005).

Rainbow communities also encompass a wide spectrum of transgender identities that challenge the dichotomization of gender as exclusively male or female and contest the implied alignment of one’s psychological sense of one’s gender with one’s sex assignment at birth (Jauk, 2013). These communities oppose the societal privileging of cissexual individuals (those whose gender identity, body of birth, and gender presentation have always been aligned as either male or female) over transgendered individuals (Serano, 2007). The term transgendered encompasses a myriad of gender identities. These include but are not limited to individuals who identify as male or female and desire to create congruence between this identity and their gender presentation and/or biological bodies (with or without the use of surgical or hormonal alterations), individuals who may identify as both male and female, and those who reject the labeling of gender entirely (Jauk, 2013). Because gender identity is often constructed as distinct from one’s sexual identity, transgender individuals may identify as heterosexual or as a member of a sexual minority group, such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Knowledge of the diverse composition of rainbow communities is essential for understanding the complexities of domestic violence within LGBT populations. While violence within same sex couples in which both partners identify as gay or lesbian is the most common focus of scholarship on IPV in LGBT communities, it is not the only form of IPV experienced by members of rainbow communities. For example, IPV may also occur in the context of male-female intimate relationships in which only one partner identifies as a rainbow community member (for instance, IPV against a bisexual identified individual perpetrated by a heterosexual identified partner) or in the context of romantic relationships between cissexual and transgendered individuals. As such, LGBT persons may experience IPV at the hands of partners who are also rainbow community members or by perpetrators who are members of gender and/or sexually privileged social categories.

Intimate Partner Violence

In describing violence in romantic partnerships within rainbow communities, terms such as same sex intimate partner violence (Messinger, 2011), same sex domestic violence (Jennings & Gunther, 1999), same gender domestic violence (Bunker, 2006), gay and lesbian domestic violence (McKenry, Serovich, Mason, & Mosack, 2006), same sex battering (Merrill, 1996), lesbian battering (Balsam, 2001), gay male battering (Island & Letellier,1991), abusive lesbian relationships (Marrujo & Kreger, 1996), and lesbian partner abuse (Renzetti, 1989) have all been employed in the literature. Some scholars, however, have cautioned that the adaptation of language to describe IPV in heterosexual relationships to LGBT relationships may be problematic because the heterocentric origins of such terminology may alienate gender and sexual minorities (Gillis & Diamond, 2012). These scholars have argued that the use of terms such as partner violence may be more appropriate to describe IPV in rainbow communities than labels such as domestic violence, which may serve as a deterrent to the recognition of violence among LGBT persons who may not identify with the gendered assumptions historically implied by such terms (Ristock & Timbang, 2005).

Defining Violence in LGBT Partnerships

Cited as the most widely circulated educational tool for defining violence in intimate partnerships (Dutton & Corvo, 2006), the Power and Control Wheel was developed in 1984 by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. This model conceptualizes violence in intimate partnerships through a power and control framework, in which IPV involves a myriad of tactics used by batterers to assert power and control over their victims. Such tactics are inclusive of but not limited to the use of bodily forms of violence, such as physical and sexual violence. The model emphasizes a multitude of psychological and social strategies employed by abusers such as use of coercion, threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, economic abuse, isolation, male privilege, manipulative use of children, minimization, and denial (see Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, 1984 for a complete model description). This construction of IPV as the imposition of power over a victim by a perpetrator is pervasive in both the professional and academic literature; however, it should be noted that this model has also been criticized by some scholars for its failure to consider the role of other documented correlates of IPV (see Dutton & Corvo, 2006 for an extensive discussion of such criticisms).

A noted limitation of the application of the Power and Control Wheel, in its original form, to IPV experienced by LGBT persons was its implicit focus on violence in heterosexual relationships. To respond to these limitations, the Southern Arizona Task Force on Domestic Violence (1995) modified the Power and Control Wheel to illustrate specific strategies used by perpetrators of IPV against gender and sexual minorities (McClennen, 1999). The model was revised to depict the ways in which dominant ideologies, such as heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, create a structural context which facilitates the use of power and control tactics against LGBT persons. For example, the wheel identifies violations such as threatening to “out” a person or questioning the legitimacy of their sexual or gender identity that are unique to LGBT victims of IPV and are directly reinforced by the societal oppression of gender and sexual minorities (Ristock & Timbang, 2005). Related tactics include drawing on societal homophobia and biphobia to isolate and intimidate victims by saying that one will not be believed because the individual is a member of a sexual minority group, constructing abuse in same sex relationships as mutual fighting, or by threatening that one’s child will potentially be removed due to one’s sexual or gender identity (Roe & Jagodinsky, n.d.)

Additional versions of the Power and Control Wheel have now also been developed to specifically address strategies used against and by transgendered individuals in violent relationships (munson & Cook-Daniels, 2013). These tactics draw on the social pathologizing of transgendered individuals, in conjunction with societal transphobia, to harm transgendered individuals psychologically, socially, and emotionally. Forms of abuse used by perpetrators against transgendered identified victims may include identity oriented tactics, such as ridiculing one’s body or refusing to use one’s self-identified gender pronouns, as well as body based forms of emotional abuse, such as refusing to touch certain parts of a person’s body or fetishizing one’s body. Additionally, perpetrators may restrict access to medical, hormonal, or personal items, such as clothing, that a transgendered person requires to live life in one’s self-identified gender (munson & Cook-Daniels, 2013). Importantly, for transgendered persons who also identify as sexual minorities, for example, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, these forms of abuse are further compounded by an abuser’s ability to also draw on societal homophobia, biphobia, and heterosexism to reinforce the isolation of their victims.

Several authors have noted that IPV against sexual and gender minority individuals does not just occur in the context of social structures that marginalize and oppress LGBT persons but also in the context of intersecting structures such as racism, classism, and ableism (Butler, 1999; Ristock & Timbang, 2005; Waldron, 1996). These structures may exacerbate power inequalities within LGBT relationships and provide perpetrators with additional leverage for exerting power and control over their victims. For example, threats to “out” an individual may be particularly damaging for individuals who come from cultural groups that do not acknowledge the validity of LGBT identity or openly pathologize such identities (Waldron, 1996). As such, scholars have emphasized the importance of using intersectional frameworks to understand variations in individuals’ experiences of victimization within rainbow communities (Ristock & Timbang, 2005).

Historical Developments in the United States

While social concern regarding IPV against heterosexual women gained widespread traction through the battered women’s movement in the early 1970s, public acknowledgment of violence in LGBT communities did not enter mainstream discourses until nearly a decade later. McClennen (1999) dates the first national attempt to document abuse in lesbian relationships as the year 1983, with the drafting of a declaration on violence in lesbian relationships by the Conference on Lesbian Battering of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This was followed in 1988 by the first National Conference on Lesbian Battering (McClennen, 1999), the same year in which Claire Renzetti (1988) first published findings from her landmark study of one hundred lesbian survivors of IPV. The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw the publishing of other foundational works examining violence in the lives of gays and lesbians, including Kerry Lobel’s (1986) edited collection Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering and David Island and Patrick Island’s (1991) book Men Who Beat the Men who Love Them: Battered Gay Men and Domestic Violence.

Even though research documenting the occurrence of same sex IPV was published as early as 1978 (Murray & Mobley, 2009), efforts to raise public awareness of this issue within rainbow communities by LGBT activists was initially slow to follow. Jennings and Gunther (1999) identify several reasons why activists within the gay and lesbian community were reluctant to take on this issue. They note that in the 1970s, a primary agenda of broader LGBT social movements was obtaining basic social and civil rights for LGBT persons. As such, movement efforts centered on priorities such as ending the legal discrimination of LGBT people, challenging laws that criminalized same sex behavior, and normalizing gay and lesbian identities through the removal of the classification of homosexuality as a mental health disorder. Jennings and Gunther argue that raising public awareness of violence in rainbow communities would have potentially undermined such efforts by reinforcing the notion that LGBT relationships are inherently pathological and unhealthy, legitimizing the social oppression of LGBT persons. In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis further displaced concern about LGBT IPV by necessitating the prioritizing of AIDS activism over other LGBT social and political concerns (see Jennings & Gunther, 1999 for an in-depth discussion). As such, widespread attention to IPV within LGBT communities was slow to materialize, with a surge in publications about the issue not emerging until the early 1990s.

Legal Context for LGBT Domestic Violence in the United States

Legal and social protections for LGBT survivors of IPV in the United States are deeply intertwined with the legal status of gender and sexual minorities and the extent to which nonheterosexual partnerships have legal recognition in given geographic regions within the county. As of October 23, 2014, 32 states and Washington, D.C. legally recognize same-sex marriage (CNN News, 2014). While the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act now affords federal benefits to couples in gay and lesbian marriages in states where same sex marriage is legal (Barnes, 2013), as of October 23, 2014, there are 18 states that have constitutional bans against such marriages (CNN News, 2014). Stephenson, Rentsch, Salazar, and Sullivan (2011) note that the legal recognition of same sex partnerships has profound consequences for survivors of IPV in the context of such partnerships as lack of such recognition may limit their ability to access certain forms of legal protection, such as civil protection orders. Further, for survivors desiring to exit abusive relationships, lack of legal recognition of partnerships may prevent LGBT survivors of IPV from obtaining equitable distribution of resources acquired during the partnership upon termination of a relationship, serving as a deterrent for leaving for those who have been economically dependent on their partners.

Guadalupe-Diaz and Yglesias (2013) note that, as of 2013, over 30 states used gender neutral language in their domestic violence laws that rendered such laws inclusive of same sex relationships. Despite these increased legal protections for LGBT survivors of IPV, however, research suggests that many individuals are unaware of such provisions and still believe that LGBT survivors have no protections even in states where such protections exist. Guadalupe-Diaz and Yglesias (2013) conducted a survey of LGB persons in the state of Florida, which has domestic violence laws that are inclusive of same sex couples. They found that despite the inclusive nature of the laws, many respondents still held negative views about the applicability of the state’s domestic violence laws to same sex relationships. These findings suggest that legal changes in and of themselves are insufficient to protect LGBT survivors of IPV if such survivors are not informed of their rights under the law.

The ability of LGBT survivors of IPV to access social services and supports in the aftermath of violence is also impacted by broader social policies governing the funding and provision of services to survivors of violence. The Senate sponsored a bill reauthorizing the federal Violence Against Women Act, which attempted to expand the sensitivity of service providers in the violence sector to the barriers experienced by LGBT survivors of IPV by including specific language to protect these populations when seeking services (Parker, 2013a, 2013b). These provisions were later removed from an alternative bill sponsored by the House of Representatives. In response to criticisms from human rights groups, language protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity were retained in the Senate sponsored bill, which ultimately was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 7, 2013 (Dahl, 2013). This measure not only provides protection for LGBT survivors of IPV when accessing services but also explicitly now includes LGBT communities in the federal Services Training Officers Prosecutors (STOP) grant program, which would provide funding for LGBT community service providers who collaborate with law enforcement and prosecution in providing domestic violence services (LeTrent, 2013). As the STOP program is the one of the largest federal grant programs for services for survivors of IPV, the expanded eligibility for funds to gay and lesbian service organizations has substantial implications for the further development of services to assist LGBT survivors of IPV.

LGBT IPV in Global Contexts

Social and legal protections for LGBT survivors of IPV vary dramatically across the global context and are related not only to a given country’s broader social policy responses to violence in the home but also to its legal treatment of sexual and gender minority populations. At present, one’s sexual orientation is basis for imprisonment in 70 countries, with 5 countries (and parts of two others) criminalizing homosexuality with a punishment of death (BBC News, 2014; CBC News, 2014). For LGBT survivors of IPV in these contexts, the criminalization of same sex behavior reinforces the social isolation of gender and sexual minority persons, simultaneously increasing their vulnerability for IPV while restricting their ability to seek help when victimized for fear of imprisonment or death. Even in places where same sex sexual behavior is legal, specific provisions in a country’s domestic violence laws, if a country has such laws, may prohibit their application to survivors of same sex violence. Japan, for example, passed its first national domestic violence law in 2001; however, this law applies exclusively to heterosexual married or divorced couples (Distefano, 2009). The lack of domestic violence laws in many countries, even those governing IPV in heterosexual relationships, adds another layer of complexity to the issue.

Although the vast majority of published research on IPV in rainbow communities has originated from the United States and Canada, an emerging body of work now documents such violence in contexts as diverse as France (Lhomond & Saurel-Cubizolles, 2006), Venezuela (Burke, Jordan, & Owen, 2002), Australia (Davis & Glass, 2011), and Japan (Distefano, 2009). While the use of varied methods makes comparisons across these studies difficult, what they collectively suggest is that violence in LGBT partnerships occurs in diverse political, cultural, and geographic contexts, which may differentially shape survivors vulnerability for violence as well as the resources available to them in the aftermath of violence. Further, research has suggested that even in countries, such as Sweden, with strong legal protections for gay and lesbians and progressive social climates that value diversity, violence in same sex partnerships may still be taken less seriously than violence in heterosexual couples (Ahmed, Alden, & Hammarstedt, 2013).

Barriers to Discussing IPV in Rainbow Communities

Understanding the prevalence and correlates of IPV against LGBT persons is complicated by the historical silence surrounding this issue within rainbow communities. Scholars have noted numerous fears that may serve to perpetuate the reluctance of LGBT communities to engage in public conversations about this issue. For example, Gillis and Diamond (2012) express the concern that discussing IPV perpetuated within gender and sexual minority communities may divert attention and resources away from addressing hate crimes and violence against LGBT persons committed by those in gender and/or sexually privileged social categories. Another commonly expressed fear is that acknowledgement of IPV within rainbow communities will be used to stigmatize LGBT communities, contributing to their further oppression and social marginalization (Kaschak, 2001; McClennen, 1999; Ristock, 2003). For gay male survivors, cultural ideologies regarding masculinity may deter victims of IPV from openly discussing their experiences for fear that it will reinforce the notion that gay men are less manly than heterosexual men (Ristock & Timbang, 2005). There is also the concern among feminists that acknowledgment of violence in same sex relationships, particularly violence committed by women against other women, may further perpetuate the backlash against feminism and minimize concern about the scale of male perpetrated violence against women (Ristock, 2001, 2003). For LGBT persons of color, cultural ideologies within specific racial-ethnic communities may further perpetuate silence about LGBT relationships (in general) or LGBT IPV (in particular).

In addition to these fears, the proliferation of numerous myths about violence in same sex relationships further fuels distortion of the issue. Perhaps the most pervasive and concerning myth is the construction of violence within LGBT relationships as a form of mutual combat (Bunker Rohrbaugh, 2006). This notion is problematic in that it not only creates barriers to services for LGBT survivors of IPV but also contributes to the tendency to minimize the severity of IPV and dismiss it as not a pressing social concern for LGBT persons (McClennen, 2005). One reason why the myth of mutual combat is so pervasive is that research with gay and lesbian survivors of IPV has consistently documented that it is not uncommon for both partners to utilize violence (for example, Carvalho, Lewis, Derlega, Winstead, & Viggiano, 2011; Edwards & Sylaska, 2013; Ristock, 2002). However, to universally construct these interactions as mutual in nature is inaccurate due to the different documented reasons partners engage in violence. For example, multiple studies (for example, Merrill & Wolfe, 2000; Renzetti, 1988) have documented self-defense as a common motivation cited by victims for their enactment of violence. Other studies (for example, Marrujo & Kreger, 1996) have identified an established pattern of “fighting back” on the part of survivors. Still other research (for example, Ristock, 2002) has found that some survivors report engaging in retaliatory violence not solely as a means to defend themselves but, rather, to stand up for themselves and reassert their power. Ristock and Timbang (2005) further argue that because same sex partners may be of relatively the same size and apparent strength, other power dynamics in the relationship that may contribute to IPV may not be as readily apparent, which may reinforce the illusion that violence is mutual when, in reality, it may not be.

For some members of gender and sexual minority communities, controversies regarding the legitimacy of their inclusion in both rainbow communities and antiviolence movements create further silence about their victimization. Sulis (1999) argues that the existence of biphobia within LGBT communities and the perpetual myth that bisexuality is not a “real” sexual identity simultaneously increases the risk of IPV against bisexuals while narrowing the range of supports within rainbow communities available to them. The focus of IPV services within rainbow communities on gay and lesbian domestic violence may be particularly isolating for bisexual identified individuals who may have been victimized in the context of a male-female relationship, as the presence of survivors abused in such relationships may not be welcome in spaces devoted specifically to supporting survivors of same sex violence (whose needs often go unmet in mainstream domestic violence services).

Similarly, the focus on gay and lesbian IPV by service providers within LGBT communities and the focus on heterosexual IPV between cissexual individuals in mainstream IPV service organizations create unique challenges for the inclusion of transgendered identified individuals in both spaces. In some instances, transgendered individuals have been legally barred from participation in violence against women service organizations because of the belief that their inclusion would create an unsafe space for cissexual female victims (see Goldberg & White, 2011 for a discussion of the prominent Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief Society case in Canada). As such, attention to the specific issues of IPV against bisexual and transgendered identified individuals is underrepresented in both the professional and scholarly literature on LGBT IPV.

Methodological Issues

Understanding the scope and dynamics of IPV in LGBT communities has been impeded not only by historical silence surrounding the issue but also by a range of methodological issues, which complicate researchers’ attempts to generate valid data about this phenomenon. Given the continuance of social stigma surrounding LGBT identity and the potential for research findings to be misused to further pathologize LGBT persons, members of gender and sexual minority groups may be distrustful of researchers and reluctant to disclose their experiences, particularly to researchers who are not members of rainbow communities themselves. Further, studies on LGBT IPV not only are impeded by the ethical and methodological difficulties inherent in the study of gender and sexual minority populations but also the challenges that exist in the study of domestic violence more broadly (see Fontes, 2004 for a review such ethical concerns in violence against women research).

Murray and Mobley (2009) conducted a methodological review of studies investigating same sex intimate partner violence and identified numerous common problems. As it is impossible to identify who is a member of a LGBT community without an individual self-identifying such membership, most research studies are reliant on convenience samples of LGBT persons usually obtained through LGBT organizations or events. Such samples may be biased toward individuals who are more likely to be “out” regarding their sexuality and those who live in urban areas that are more likely to have LGBT communities large enough to support the existence of LGBT specific organizations or events. Murray and Mobley also note the dearth of studies involving the use of probability based sampling procedures, which contribute to the potential for other forms of sampling bias. Other frequent methodological limitations cited in their review include but are not limited to a failure to control for social desirability, use of measures that do not have established validity, and an inability to address the potential for partners within the same relationship within the same study.

Burke and Follingstad (1999) further note the challenge in obtaining a cohesive picture of LGBT IPV through summarizing findings across studies because of the wide range of samples included in such research. Some studies have selected samples based on sexual identity (lesbian, gay, bisexual) whereas others have sampled based on sexual behavior (individuals who have ever engaged in same sex behavior) or relationship configuration (individuals who are currently or have ever been in a same sex relationship). This diverse range of samples creates the potential for some individuals to be included in research who currently identify as heterosexual even though they may have partnered with same sex partners in the past. The failure to account for the gender of the perpetrator in many studies creates further complexities, as even individuals who may currently identify as gay or lesbian may have partnered in male-female relationships in the past and been victimized by a partner who is not a member of the rainbow community. Given this range of issues, a unified picture of the prevalence and dynamics of IPV against LGBT persons has yet to emerge, despite more than 20 years of research and a substantial body of published work in this area.

Assessment of Same Sex IPV

The assessment of IPV in same sex relationships, in both practice and research settings, has been impeded by the lack of instruments specific to the identification of IPV with rainbow communities. Ristock (2003) has noted concern with the use of the Conflict Tactics Scale-2 (CTS-2; Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996), the most commonly utilized instrument for the measurement of IPV, with LGBT populations. Given that power differentials are potentially not as readily identifiable in same sex relationships and this measure fails to assess the contexts, consequences, and motivations for abuse, there is concern that its use with LGBT populations may impede our ability to accurately understand complex dynamics of same sex IPV.

To assess the appropriateness of the CTS-2 for measuring IPV between male intimate partners, Regan, Bartholomew, Oram, and Landolt (2002) conducted an item analysis on the CTS-2 in a randomly selected sample of 284 gay and bisexual men in a large Canadian city. Their findings suggest that the recommended ordering of some items as minor versus severe in the instrument may not be appropriate to the measurement of IPV between men. For example, they note that punched (expected to be a severe item) was more likely to appear with other minor items. They speculate that this may be because unlike in male-female relationships when violence escalates to punching, in relationships among men punching may be more likely to be one of the first acts that occur. Their findings suggest that the construction of physical violence into minor and severe categories in the CTS-2 may not be an accurate construction of the phenomenon of such violence in gay male relationships. These results speak to the importance of the further modification and development of instruments to specifically measure IPV in same sex relationships, which may differ in important ways from that in heterosexual relationships.

Two screening tools were identified in the literature specific to LGBT IPV. McClennen, Summers, and Daley (2002) developed a tool specific to the assessment of violence in lesbian relationships called The Lesbian Partner Abuse Scale (LE-PAS). More recently, Hidalgo (2011) developed the Fairness and Relationship Equality (FARE) Screen based on research with 16 gay male survivors of IPV and 10 mental health professionals as a tool for use in direct practice settings. Complete versions of both instruments are available in the respective appendices of these publications; however, the need for continued development and validation of these measures has been noted by their authors.

Prevalence of IPV Against LGBT Persons

Adult Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Samples

An increasingly large body of work has attempted to document the prevalence of IPV in rainbow communities. Collectively, this scholarship indicates that IPV against LGB persons may occur at rates comparable to those reported in the heterosexual IPV literature. Results from two large national studies in the United States published within the last five years, the—National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (Hughes, McCabe, Wilsnack, West, & Boyd, 2010) and the National Violence Against Women Survey (Messinger, 2011)—, found that sexual minorities actually experience a higher risk of IPV than heterosexuals, with bisexual women experiencing the greatest risk. However, a third (the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey) found that although the prevalence of IPV was higher for lesbian and bisexual women than heterosexual women, the prevalence for gay men was actually lower than that for heterosexual and bisexual men (Walters, Chen, & Breiding, 2013). Despite the lower prevalence of IPV overall for gay males, the same study found that when looking specifically at severe forms of IPV, gay men were significantly more likely to experience severe violence than heterosexuals. It is important to reiterate, however, that a range of rates for LGBT IPV have been documented in the literature, and these vary dramatically based on methods for sampling and measurement employed (see West, 2012 for a recent review of LGBT IPV prevalence studies). Given the numerous methodological challenges inherent in studying such a highly sensitive subject matter within a historically oppressed population, some authors have urged caution in accepting the assertion that violence occurs at higher rates in LGBT relationships than heterosexual relationships (see Ristock & Timbang, 2005).

In addition to the aforementioned studies comparing rates of IPV in heterosexual and sexual minority communities, numerous studies have attempted to establish prevalence rates within large LGBT specific samples (for example, Bimbi, Palmadessa, & Parsons, 2007; Carvalho et al., 2011; Guadalupe-Diaz, 2013b; St. Pierre & Senn, 2010; Turell, 2000; Turell & Cornell-Swanson, 2005). Sample sizes for these studies have ranged from a low of 280 participants (St. Pierre & Senn, 2010) to a high of 1,048 respondents (Bimbi, Palmadessa, & Parsons, 2007). Collectively, these studies suggest that anywhere from one in five [physical IPV (Bimbi, Palmadessa, & Parsons, 2007)] to almost nine in ten [any type of IPV (Turell & Cornell-Swanson, 2005)] LGBT persons experience some form of IPV.

An additional body of work has examined rates of IPV within gender specific LGBT populations. Research with samples comprised exclusively of sexual minority females (for example, Balsam & Szymanski, 2005; McClennen, Summers, & Daley, 2002) has suggested that somewhere in the vicinity of one half of women (44% and 58%, respectively) have experienced physical forms of IPV. In regards to rates of victimization reported specifically in samples of sexual minority men (for example, Craft & Serovich, 2005; Greenwood et al., 2002; Stephenson et al., 2011), rates for physical IPV have ranged from a low of 22% (Greenwood et al., 2002) to a high of 45% (Craft & Serovich, 2005).

Multiple studies have attempted to examine within group variations in LGBT communities on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Some studies have found that sexual minority women are at a higher risk of some forms of IPV than sexual minority men (Bimbi et al., 2007; Guadalupe-Diaz, 2013b; Tjaden, Thoennes, & Allison, 1999; Turell, 2000), whereas others have reported no differences in rates of victimization experienced by sexual minority women and men (Carvalho et al., 2011). While most studies have consistently reported that bisexuals, particularly bisexual women, are at a higher risk of IPV than other sexual minority groups (Barrett & St. Pierre, 2013; Hughes et al., 2010; Walters et al., 2013), other research has indicated that bisexuals experience less violence than gay men and lesbians (Turell, 2000). These findings suggest that even though a growing body of work has examined rates of IPV within LGBT communities, a coalesced picture of the scope of this phenomenon has yet to emerge.

Adolescent and Youth Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Samples

A small number of studies (for example, Dank, Lachman, Zweig, Yahner, 2014; Edwards & Sylaska, 2013; Halpern, Young, Waller, Martin, & Kupper, 2004; Jones & Raghavan, 2012; Porter & Williams, 2011) have attempted to examine rates of IPV experienced by sexual minority adolescents and young adults. Sample sizes for these studies have ranged from a low of 391 (Edwards & Sylaska, 2013) to a high of 5,647 (Dank et al., 2014). Similar to studies with adult LGBT populations, conflicting findings have been reported, with some studies of college students (for example, Jones & Raghavan, 2012) finding no significant variations between gay and lesbian students and heterosexual students in rates of IPV victimization while others (for example, Porter & Williams, 2011) have found an elevated risk of IPV for sexual minority students compared to heterosexual students. The limited data available for middle and high school students suggest that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a higher risk of all forms of IPV victimization than heterosexual students (Dank et al., 2014). As cohort effects are likely to differentially shape the experiences of young people with LGBT IPV as compared to those of previous generations, further work specific to LGBT youth’s experiences with IPV is an important area of further inquiry.

Transgender Samples

In contrast to studies on LGBT IPV, which focus on the experiences of sexual minorities, there is a dearth of studies that have examined the experiences of gender minorities. Some studies of LGBT IPV have included transgender respondents; however, the comparatively smaller number of transgender participants in these studies has precluded separate reporting of findings specific to transgender experiences (see Guadalupe-Diaz, 2013b and Turell, 2000 for examples). In the rare instances in which studies have focused exclusively on transgendered IPV (for example, Brown, 2007 [N = 5]; Guadalupe-Diaz, 2013a [N = 18]; Singh & McKleroy, 2011 [N = 11]; Willingham, 2010 [N = 12]), the use of small sample sizes and qualitative methods have impeded the construction of broader prevalence estimates beyond the study sample. As such, compared to what we know about IPV experienced by sexual minority identified individuals, efforts to document the experiences of transgendered and gender queer individuals with IPV are in their infancy.

In contrast to the dearth of studies in the IPV literature investigating the experiences of noncissexual individuals, a sizeable body of work has examined transgendered people’s experiences with violence and victimization more broadly. Very few of these studies, however, have examined the identity of the perpetrators of such violence, making it difficult to determine what proportion of violent crime committed against transgendered individuals constitutes IPV versus other types of assault (for example, stranger assaults, hate crimes, etcetera). Other limitations of this body of work is its predominant focus on transgendered populations that have been deemed high risk (most notably those engaged in sex work, those experiencing substance use issues, and those who are homeless), which may inadvertently reinforce stereotypes about transgendered persons (Jauk, 2013). Finally, this work has primarily focused on the experiences of transsexual identified individuals (most commonly, male to female transsexuals), to the virtual exclusion of other forms of transgendered identity.

With that said, three studies were identified in the peer reviewed literature that may help shed light on the prevalence of IPV perpetrated against transgendered people. In a study of 5,647 middle and high school students (Dank et al., 2014), it was found that transgender youth experienced higher rates of all forms of IPV than cissexual students, with almost 9 in 10 (89%) transgender respondents reporting physical IPV and over half (59%) experiencing psychological violence in a dating relationship. In a study of 67 male to female transgendered people, Risser et al. (2005) found that IPV was reported by 50% of respondents. In a survey of 53 transgendered persons aged 50 or older, Cook-Daniels & munson (2010) found that two-thirds of participants had experienced a sexual assault, with the perpetrators identified as intimate partners in 8% of these cases. Two additional studies of transgender individuals (Kenagy, 2005; Kenagy & Bostwick, 2005) inquired more generally about “violence in your home”; however, the question wording did not differentiate between violence experienced as a child and violence experienced in the context of IPV. With that caveat, 56% (Kenagy, 2005) and 66% (Kenagy & Bostwick, 2005) of these samples reported that they had been victimized in their homes.

Severity and Frequency of LGBT IPV

In contrast to the myth that LGBT IPV is exclusively mutual in nature and consists primarily of less severe forms of violence, multiple studies have established the potential of IPV to cause serious harm to its victims. Barrett and St. Pierre (2013) found that almost one in five (18%) gay, lesbian, and bisexual survivors feared that their lives were in danger as a result of IPV. Rates of physical injury in LGBT samples of IPV survivors have been found to range from a low of one in four survivors experiencing injury (26%, Craft & Serovich, 2005) to a high of over three out of four (79%, Merrill & Wolfe, 2000), with one study (Kuehnle & Sullivan, 2003) finding that approximately 30% of survivors required hospitalization or medical care as a direct result of IPV. Qualitative interviews with survivors have also revealed a range of emotional and psychological sequelae of abuse, including shame, anger, depression, suicidal ideations, and a loss of innocence (Ristock, 2002). Survey data with LGBT survivors of IPV have recorded similar mental health consequences of violence. Results from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that one in five (20%) lesbian and almost half (46%) of bisexual survivors of IPV reported at least one PTSD symptom as a result of the violence (Walters et al., 2013). Further, research with both gay male (McClennen, Summers, & Vaughan, 2002; Merrill & Wolfe, 2000) and lesbian (Renzetti, 1988) samples of IPV survivors have documented an association between IPV and the abuse of children and pets in the home, suggesting that the potential for harm associated with violence may extend beyond survivors to others in the domestic sphere.

Other work has also reported the heightened vulnerability that LGBT IPV victims may experience in relation to H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted infections. In their study of 58 LGBT survivors of IPV, Heintz & Melendez (2006) found almost half (41%) had been forced by their partner to have sex, with only half of their partners engaging in safe sex practices during these sexual assaults. Additionally, almost one third of respondents had never engaged in safe sex with their abusive partners, with these individuals commonly reporting that they were unable to negotiate these practices due to the threat or actual infliction of violence by their partners upon request for condom usage or other practices to promote sexual safety.

While negative consequences of IPV have been consistently documented, a range of reports have drawn differing conclusions regarding the frequency with which IPV occurs within abusive LGBT relationships. Some studies (for example, Stanley, Bartholomew, Tracy, Oram, & Landolt, 2006) have suggested that the frequency of IPV within LGBT abusive relationships is low, often occurring as only an isolated incident. In contrast, other work (for example, McClennen, Summers, & Daley, 2002) has documented higher frequencies, with large numbers of survivors (38%) reporting daily or almost daily violence. Because most research studies simply measure the existence, as opposed to the incidence, of violence it is difficult to ascertain from the current body of literature consistent findings regarding the frequency with which abuse occurs within violent LGBT relationships.

Correlates and Contexts of LGBT IPV

Because of the lack of longitudinal studies comparing survivors of LGBT IPV in pre- and post- abuse states, it is difficult to determine whether specific correlates of IPV are causal agents or constitute effects of abuse. As such, Ristock (2002) has argued that it may be more appropriate to speak of contexts of violence rather than risk factors for violence (see Hiebert-Murphy, Ristock, & Brownridge, 2011 for further discussion of the challenges to the application of risk frameworks to survivors of same sex IPV). Such contexts, which may surround abusive relationships identified by Ristock in her qualitative research with abused lesbian women include but are not limited to the context of first relationships (49% of Ristock’s sample experienced violence in their first relationship with another woman, commonly at the hands of older partners), the context of homophobia and the closet, dislocation and isolation, drugs and alcohol, shifting power dynamics, and histories of previous forms of interpersonal and structural violence (Ristock, 2002, 2003).

Quantitative research has identified numerous correlates of IPV victimization among sexual minority populations. Similar to heterosexual IPV, substance use has been documented to have an association with victimization in the context of LGBT partnerships (Bimbi et al., 2007; Hughes et al., 2010). LGBT persons with lower levels of education (Barrett & St. Pierre, 2013; Greenwood et al., 2002; Stephenson et al., 2011) as well as those who are younger in age (Siemieniuk et al., 2013) have also been shown to be at an increased likelihood of experiencing IPV. Health factors, such as HIV positive status (Greenwood et al., 2002), poor physical health (Siemieniuk et al., 2013), and having a physical or mental limitation (Barrett & St. Pierre, 2013), have also been found to be associated with victimization at the hands of an intimate partner. LGBT identified Aboriginals (Siemieniuk et al., 2013), Native Americans (Turell, 2000), and members of other non-Caucasian racialized groups (Stephenson et al., 2011) have all been found to be at a higher risk of IPV victimization. However, it should be noted however that other work (Bimbi et al., 2007) failed to find racial variations in IPV risk for LGBT persons.

For individuals who are in abusive relationships, numerous factors have been identified that may contribute to the choice to remain with a violent partner. In a qualitative study of 25 gay or bisexual male victims of IPV, Cruz (2003) identified 14 themes reported by participants for why they stayed in their violent relationships. These themes, included the following:

Financial dependence



Hope that the partner would change


Commitment to the relationship

Emotional dependence

The cycle of violence

Fear for consequences of leaving


Low self-esteem

Continued attraction to partner

Physical dependence on partner

Feeling trapped in the relationship

The themes resonate with the reasons commonly offered in the IPV literature to account for heterosexual women’s choices to remain in abusive relationships. Similar findings were reported by Merrill and Wolfe (2000) in their study of gay male IPV survivors; those who stayed commonly did so because they hoped the perpetrator would change, loved him, did not understand that what they were experiencing was domestic violence, were fearful of the consequences of leaving, or were financially dependent on their partners. Just as heterosexual women in violent relationships often make numerous attempts to leave their partners before permanently terminating the relationship, this appears to be the case for LGBT survivors as well. Over 60% of the survivors in Merrill & Wolfe’s study made more than three significant attempts to leave before finally leaving permanently.

Perpetrator Characteristics

Research with perpetrators of gay and lesbian IPV have identified common psychological and interpersonal characteristics similar to those found in clinical samples of perpetrators of heterosexual IPV. Research in clinical settings with lesbian perpetrators of IPV (Marrujo & Kreger, 1996; Poorman & Seelau, 2001) has found that perpetrators exhibited pathological jealousy, issues with anger control outside of the relationship, manipulative behaviors, intrusive behaviors with their partners that violated boundaries, and high levels of control within the relationship (the correlation between IPV perpetration and control needs has also been documented in nonclinical samples of LGBT persons, for example, Miller, Greene, Causby, White, & Lockhart, 2001). They also exhibited a strong sense of entitlement and actively avoided responsibility for their abusive behavior. Other lesbian perpetrator attributes found in clinical samples include the use of substances during abusive events and high levels of violence perpetration against nonintimate partners (Poorman & Seelau, 2001). Clinical data from both gay and lesbian IPV perpetrators has also documented high rates of psychological disturbance and previous issues with substance abuse (Farley, 1996).

Protective Factors

While membership in a socially marginalized population may create unique contexts for violence, research has also highlighted protective factors that such membership yields that may serve as resources for survivors of IPV. Focus groups with LGBT individuals (Hequembourg & Brallier, 2009) and LGBT survivors of IPV specifically (Bornstein, Fawcett, Sullivan, Senturia, & Shui-Thornton, 2006) have highlighted the powerful role of LGBT communities in facilitating stress management for LGBT persons and providing social support, familiarity, a sense of inclusion, and a safe refuge from the broader contexts of heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Respondents spoke of the importance of community connection and LGBT identity in their lives and cited many positive aspects of being a member of sexual and gender diverse communities. Further, ethnographic research with transgender identified individuals (Jauk, 2013) has highlighted the sense of empowerment, which results from coming together not only for socializing in transpositive space but also for political activism and creative expression. Individuals spoke of participation in broader transgender social movements and engagement in the arts to develop transgender cultural space as a means of not only combating societal transphobia and cissexism but also as a means of personal and collective coping.

The close knit nature of LGBT communities and their powerful role in the lives of individuals, also created unique challenges for survivors of IPV. The small size of particular LGBT communities, particularly in rural geographic locations, meant that they provided these functions not only for survivors of IPV but also for their abusive partners (Bornstein et al., 2006). The centrality of gay and lesbian bars as hubs for socializing and community life for some LGBT communities also was seen as introducing alcohol into a potentially “volatile mix” for escalating conflict, particularly for individuals who were attempting to sever ties with an abusive partner (Hequembourg & Brallier, 2009, p. 284). Shared membership in community space resulted in some survivors feeling that their social networks were torn between survivors and their perpetrators, with some perpetrators using these dynamics to further isolate survivors. Thus, for some survivors of IPV, community membership was simultaneously a source of strength and vulnerability.

Theorizing IPV in Rainbow Communities

Fundamental to theorizing the etiology of IPV in rainbow communities is the question of the extent to which such violence is similar or dissimilar to IPV in heterosexual communities. As such, numerous theories have been applied to explain the occurrence of IPV in LGBT communities, some of which have been previously applied to the study of heterosexual IPV on the assumption that there are shared attributes to both phenomena. Others constitute new areas of theory development specific to LGBT IPV.

Sociopsychological Theory of Same Sex Battering

Citing the importance of both social and psychological theories of IPV, Merrill (1996) has proposed the sociopsychological theory of same sex battering. This theory postulates that perpetration of same sex IPV is fueled by three inter-related causal dimensions: (a) an individual has learned to abuse, (b) an individual has the opportunity to abuse, and (c) the individual chooses to enact this opportunity to abuse.

Merrill contends that a primary mechanism through which individuals learn violence is both through experiencing or witnessing violence in the home as a child, commonly known as the intergenerational transmission of abuse theory. Some empirical evidence supports the relationship between being abused in one’s family of origin and perpetrating IPV as an adult (Craft & Serovich, 2005; Farley, 1996) and between abuse in one’s family of origin and being a victim of LGBT IPV (Siemieniuk et al., 2013; Stevens, Korchmaros, & Miller, 2010). It should be noted, however, that other work (for example, McKenry et al., 2006) has failed to find an association between family of origin violence and IPV victimization or perpetration for gay men and lesbians. For LGBT individuals who were abused as children who later perpetrate IPV, Merrill argues these individuals learned through observing the consequences of violence for the perpetrator that violence is both effective and rewarding, thus increasing the likelihood the child victim would replicate this behavior himself or herself as an adult.

The second piece of Merrill’s model pertains to the opportunity to abuse. He contends that for same sex IPV to be enacted, a perpetrator must perceive an opportunity to engage in violence that will not result in negative consequences to the perpetrator. Here, Merrill argues that the societal context of heterosexism, homophobia, and other social oppression actively deter survivors of same sex IPV from reporting such behaviors, permitting their batterers to isolate victims and engage in violence without fear of criminalization or other negative consequences.

Although individuals may have learned violence and live in a social context that may create the opportunity for violence perpetration with immunity, individuals must actively choose violence. Merrill argues that central to this choice is an individual’s access to and desire for power. He argues that one’s relationship to power is influenced simultaneously by social factors (for example, membership in socially oppressed and privileged categories) as well as psychological factors (for example, one’s perceptions of relational power, whether or not this conforms to actual power dynamics in one’s relationship). Because power relationships in this conceptualization are not solely gendered but involve other structural and psychological factors, Merrill contends this theory can account for IPV perpetrated in the context of same gender relationships between both gay males and lesbian women. Others, however, have argued for an expansion of Merrill’s sociopsychological theory to better encapsulate the ways in which patriarchy and homophobia intersect to create distinct vulnerabilities for lesbian women for IPV as compared to gay men (see McClennen, 1999 for a discussion of her proposed patriarchal social sociopsychological theory).

Feminist Theories

Given the historical prominence of feminist theories in accounting for violence in male-female cissexual dyads, it is not surprising that a broad body of theoretical literature in the LGBT IPV arena has engaged with the question of whether such theories are applicable to violence among sexual and gender minorities. Some (see Letellier, 1994) have explicitly rejected the application of feminist theories to IPV experienced by gay males, pressing for gender neutral conceptualizations of violence in LGBT relationships. Others (see Renzetti, 1994) have argued that feminist theories have the potential to provide insight into LGBT IPV, including gay male IPV, because of their central focus on power. Because power is not solely gendered but intersects with other social structures (race, class, ability, etcetera), individuals have different access to privilege based on their membership in specific social categories. As such, even though two individuals may share the same gender, their access to power (or lack thereof) based on other social categories may serve to create power imbalances in a relationship that are not gendered in nature. Because feminist theories contend that IPV results from the abuse of one’s power over another (or one’s desire to obtain power when it is perceived to be lacking or threatened), Renzetti argues their applicability is not exclusive to violence in the context of heterosexual relationships.

Typologies of IPV

While feminist theories center on the role of violence as a means of asserting power and control in intimate relationships, Johnson (1995) has proposed that not all relationship violence is inherently about power violations. As such, he proposed a typology of violence that distinguished between two types of IPV in heterosexual relationships: (a) patriarchal or intimate terrorism (in which IPV constitutes an established pattern in which men attempt to subordinate women through a constellation of power and control tactics, including severe and persistent violence); (b) common couple violence (in which IPV is infrequent and mild in nature, resulting from mutual conflict rather than entrenched power dynamics). This typology was later expanded to include two additional forms of violence, for a total matrix of four types of IPV; (c) violent resistance (when IPV is marked by a clear perpetrator and victim dynamic. however, the victim also engages in forms of violence in a direct attempt to resist their victimization); (d) mutual violent control (in which both partners engage in persistent patterns of seeking power and control over the other) (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000).

Although this typology was originally created to theorize the dynamics of violence in heterosexual relationships, two research studies were identified, which have attempted to establish its relevance to violence in LGBT relationships. In one study of gay and bisexual men in Canada, it was found that 68% of violent relationships constituted common couple violence, with only 3% of abusive relationships constituting patriarchal terrorism (Stanley et al., 2006). In contrast, in the study of battered lesbian mothers, descriptions of 71% of relationships were characterized as intimate terrorism, 17% common couple violence, and 13% mutual violent control (Hardesty, Oswald, Khaw, Fonesca, & Chung, 2008).

Fusion Theory

The concept of fusion has been used to describe the heightened levels of emotional intensity and “merging” that frequently occurs in the context of lesbian relationships (Miller, Greene, Causby, White, & Lockhart, 2001, p. 111). Fusion is theorized to play an adaptive role in lesbian relationships in response to societal homophobia and heterosexism and has been characterized as “a fierce drawing together of two into one” (Miller et al., 2001, p. 112). Miller and colleagues (2001) have posited that because of the protective role that emotionally and physically intense intimate relationships may play in helping lesbians to cope with social oppression, any perceived threats to the bond between partners may be met with resistance. When one partner makes any attempts at differentiation to create distance, assert independence, or terminate a relationship, such efforts may be perceived as highly threatening to one’s partner and serve as the catalyst for the use of abusive behaviors to exert control and reestablish the threatened bond.

Research in the area of lesbian IPV (for example, Stevens, Korchmaros, & Miller, 2010) has provided some empirical evidence in support of these notions in the finding that lesbian women were significantly more likely than heterosexual women to demand obedience from their partners and engage in controlling behaviors within their intimate relationships. Ristock (2002) explicitly cited the role that fusion played in creating a context for IPV in her study of abused lesbian women. She noted that IPV often occurred when one partner attempted independence, resulting in the use of emotionally manipulative tactics (such as threatening suicide or engaging in self harm) by the perpetrator of violence to block such attempts. It should be noted, however, that other research has countered the role of fusion in lesbian IPV, finding that lesbian batterers demonstrated traits of emotional distance rather than closeness (Poorman & Seelau, 2001). While the concept of fusion has primary been applied to lesbian relationships, research with gay men has suggested that individuals may perpetrate violence in response to threats to relationship closeness or fidelity in male partnerships as well (for example, Stanley et al., 2006; Stephenson et al., 2011). Although the concept of fusion was not explicitly employed by these authors, the findings resonate with the theorized dynamic of fusion in lesbian relationships in similarly creating a context for IPV against gay males.

Peer Support Theory

Male peer support theory posits that relationships among men create a social context in which attitudes that condone violence against women are normalized and in which abusive behaviors by males are reinforced by their peer group (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1998). Although this theory was originally put forth to explain male perpetrated violence against heterosexual women, research has recently attempted to evaluate the salience of social networks to LGBT IPV. Jones and Raghavan (2012) analyzed the relationship between peer support and both IPV perpetration and victimization in a sample of heterosexual and sexual minority students. While the peer support model was not confirmed to account for the experiences of sexual minority men, a peer support effect was evidenced for lesbian women. In regards to victimization, lesbian women were more likely to have experienced sexual coercion in a dating relationship if they had a higher number of female victims of sexual coercion in their peer support network. In regards to perpetration, lesbian women who had a higher number of men in their peer support network who perpetrated dating violence were more likely to have themselves perpetrated violence in their dating relationship. As the methods of this study did not allow for meaningful interpretation of directionality or causality, additional research is needed to further evaluate the relationship between peer support and LGBT IPV.

Minority Stress Theory

The concept of minority stress has been used to describe the unique, chronic, and socially based forms of stress experienced by members of socially marginalized groups that is above and beyond the daily stresses experienced by those who are not members of oppressed identity groups (Meyer, 2003). Meyer (2003) has conceptualized three distinct processes through which individuals experience minority stress: (a) exposure to external objective stressors (for example, discrimination, threat of violence, negative cultural narratives, etcetera) that are directly connected to one’s identity, (b) the necessity for heightened vigilance on the part of members of minority groups to anticipate, manage, or avoid such external stressors, and (c) the internalization of social beliefs that cast one’s identity as negative or pathological. For LGBT persons, dominant social structures and attitudes such as heteronormativity, “cisnormativity,” homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and cissexism directly contribute to the potential for minority stress not only through legal and social oppression but also through the perpetration of interpersonal microaggressions that may directly threaten the health and safety of rainbow community members (see Hequembourg & Brallier, 2009 and Nadal, Skolnik, & Wong, 2012 for research documenting specific forms of minority stress and microaggressions experienced by LGBT persons). For gender and sexual minority individuals who are also members of other socially oppressed categories based on race, ability, and class (among others), the potential for minority stress is further compounded.

Research in the area of LGBT IPV has provided initial empirical support for an association between some forms of minority stress and IPV victimization and perpetration. Balsam and Szymanski (2005) found that internalized homophobia was related to IPV in the past year for lesbian women and that this relationship was fully mediated through relationship quality. They argue that internalized forms of minority stress may indirectly contribute to IPV by creating or exacerbating strains in relationships, which may then result in violence. Similarly, Edwards and Sylaska (2013) found a relationship between levels of internalized homonegativity and the perpetration of physical and sexual same sex IPV in their study of LGBTQ college students. They also found that internal forms of minority stress were stronger predictors of IPV than external forms. As such, they hypothesize that external forms of minority stress in and of themselves may not directly contribute to IPV but may facilitate it indirectly through the extent that such stressors become internalized. Carvalho et al. (2011) found that while those who had higher levels of stigma consciousness were more likely to be in violent relationships, there was no relationship between internalized homophobia and IPV. The finding of no relationship between internalized homophobia and IPV was also found by McKenry et al. (2006). Others (Lewis, Milletich, Kelley, & Woody, 2012) have suggested that the relationship between minority stress and IPV may be more complicated in nature given that both share common correlates, such as substance abuse, which may in part account for the association. Further research is needed to untangle these potential complexities.

Help Seeking and Systems Response

Minority stress may not only create vulnerabilities for LGBT persons for IPV. It may also deter their efforts to seek help in the aftermath of such violence. Research has documented numerous fears LGBT persons have about seeking support from formal help systems, for example, the police, social service organizations, medical professionals, and etcetera. Qualitative data from multiple studies (for example, Scherzer, 1998; St. Pierre & Senn, 2010; Turell & Herrmann, 2008) suggest that LGBT survivors of IPV are fearful that non-LGBT specific service providers will be heterocentric and lack the specific knowledge of LGBT communities (in general) and LGBT IPV (specifically) needed to provide effective support. Perhaps it is not surprising then that LGBT IPV survivors are more likely to seek out informal rather than formal sources of help, with research commonly documenting friends as the most utilized source of support (McClennen, Summers, & Vaughan, 2002; Renzetti, 1989; Ristock, 2002). Research has further shown that help seeking efforts are also frequently contingent on the extent to which an individual is publically open about their sexuality (Renzetti, 1989; St. Pierre & Senn, 2010).

The use of friends as potential support providers, however, is not without challenges. Research has cited the complexities of help seeking within friendship networks for LGBT survivors of IPV, given that these networks are often shared by both the perpetrator and survivor (Ristock, 2002; Turell & Hermann, 2008). As such, survivors have expressed fears specific to seeking help from friends, including a fear that they will not be believed, that information shared will not be kept confidential and may make its way back to the perpetrator, or that the violence will be minimized as a mutual conflict (Turell & Hermann, 2008). Butler (1999) has argued that the sharing of same social networks between victims and perpetrators creates heightened challenges for sexual minority people of color. Racism within LGBT communities coupled with homophobia within some communities of color may render social connections among sexual minority people of color particularly powerful as a source of support. Given the potentially close knit connections among communities of color within rainbow communities, which are often shared by both victims and perpetrators when they are of the same racial-ethnic group, LGBT survivors of color may be reluctant to disclose their experiences to friends. Other authors (for example, Poon, 2000) note the further complexities of experiencing IPV and help seeking for members of racially oppressed populations whose abusers are members of racially privileged social categories.

When IPV survivors do seek help from formal sources of support, LGBT specific service providers are often the preferred venue (St. Pierre & Senn, 2010; Turell & Hermann, 2008).

Research has suggested that survivors are perhaps least likely to seek support from domestic violence agencies and battered women’s shelters (Ristock, 2002; Turell & Cornell-Swanson, 2005) and the police (Kuehnle & Sullivan, 2003); when victims do use these services, they are more likely to rate them as unhelpful compared to other sources of support (McClennen, Summers, & Vaughan, 2002). In contrast, multiple studies have documented counselors as one of the most commonly sought services by LGBT IPV survivors (for example, Ristock, 2002, Scherzer, 1998) and indicated that survivors tend to rate counselors among the most helpful forms of support received (McClennen, Summers, & Vaughan, 2002; Renzetti, 1989; Turell & Cornell-Swanson, 2005). Research has further suggested sociodemographic variations in help seeking among LGBT survivors of IPV. Guadalupe-Diaz (2013b) found that IPV survivors who were of lower economic class were less likely to use formal sources of support than those in higher income brackets. In another large study, Turell and Cornell-Swanson (2005) found that when there were significant racial variations in specific types of services used by LGBT survivors of IPV, African American and Latino/Latina identified survivors were less likely to use those services. These findings collectively speak to the importance of not only economically accessible but also culturally accessible services for LGBT survivors of IPV.

Implications for Social Work Practice at the Macro Level

A consistent theme throughout the literature on LGBT IPV is the importance of understanding the experiences of gender and sexual minorities within the context of social and cultural structures, which devalue, pathologize, and marginalize these populations in comparison to those both in gender or sexually privileged identity categories. The continuing legal and social oppression of LGBT persons in many regions of the world, coupled with the pervasiveness of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic belief systems, renders LGBT persons at a higher risk of violence both in society at large as well as in the context of their intimate relationships. Further, these attitudes and structures serve as barriers to help seeking for LGBT persons in the aftermath of violence. For this reason, Hamberger (1996) has noted that legal reforms to ensure the full and equal protection of LGBT persons in all aspects of society are essential to any social policy efforts to address IPV in the lives of rainbow community members.

To prevent IPV against LGBT persons and to ensure the protection of victims of all forms of violence, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (2010) offer three primary recommendations that can inform macro-level social work advocacy efforts in this area. First, they call for advocacy to increase government and private funding for LGBT developed and directed anti-violence services. Second, they call for advocacy efforts to strengthen the legal protections for LGBT survivors of IPV. Efforts they highlight include legally prohibiting discrimination against LGBT survivors of IPV in all federal Violence against Women Act (VAWA) funded programs and heightened efforts to ensure that all VAWA funded organizations offer appropriate cultural competency training for workers in the area of LGBT IPV. Finally, they call for advocacy for increased government funding for research documenting the prevalence, correlates, and consequences of IPV in the lives of LGBT persons as well as to fund the ongoing evaluation of services to prevent IPV and effectively support survivors of such violence (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2010).

Research with LGBT survivors of IPV has highlighted that survivors are most likely to seek informal sources of help. Further, given that LGBT survivors of IPV often share the same friendship network with their perpetrators, individuals in those friendship networks are potential bystanders to violence and may be uniquely positioned to help disrupt violence and support survivors (Bornstein et al., 2006). For this reason, ongoing targeted public education efforts to assist friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers and other potential sources of informal help about the dynamics of IPV in LGBT relationships are important means to enhance the ability of such individuals to be effective support providers. Programs to help individuals identify violence, support survivors, and develop the skill set to safety intervene to challenge violence have been an important part of efforts to combat violence against women, for example, see Bringing in the Bystander program (Banyard, Moynihan, & Plante, 2007). Given the documented frequency with which LGBT survivors of IPV turn to informal forms of support, sometimes to the exclusion of formal forms of support, the further development and modification of such community education programs specific to the experience of LGBT IPV are warranted.

Implications for Social Work Practice at the Mezzo Level

Research with both LGBT survivors of IPV as well as service providers have documented numerous challenges to effectively meeting the needs of LGBT survivors within traditional domestic violence service organizations. For example, the proliferation of gendered pronouns, which assume a male perpetrator and a female victim within domestic violence services has been noted as a deterrent for LGBT survivors when making initial phone contact with such organizations (Turell & Hermann, 2008). Similarly, even when service providers try to be inclusive of LGBT persons, efforts tend to use language such as same sex or gay and lesbian IPV, which still excludes the experiences of rainbow community members who may not experience same sex violence or identify as gay or lesbian, for example, bisexual survivors (Sulis, 1999) and transgendered survivors (Goldberg & White, 2011). In this way, efforts to be inclusive of LGBT persons may actually serve to further marginalize some members of rainbow communities. For this reason, the importance of extensive cultural competency training on LGBT issues for service providers has been noted as an important first step for the promotion of inclusive services (Helfrich & Simpson, 2006).

While cultural competency training on LGBT issues is a necessary tactic for enhancing the sensitivity of service providers to issues of gender and sexual diversity, it alone is not sufficient. Helfrich and Simpson (2006) note that diversity trainings and antidiscrimination policies become meaningless if organizations have no standards in place for ensuring compliance with such policies or consequences for failure to practice in culturally sensitive ways. Based on their interviews with staff members of domestic violence service organizations, they recommend that all organizations have in place formal policies pertaining to work with LGBT clients, as well as written procedures outlining the consequences for violating these policies. Other recommendations that emerged from their interviews include the following:

The need for all staff to be trained on LGBT issues and expected to provide services to LGBT clients (as opposed to designating a specialized unit or person to address LGBT IPV).

To challenge the marginalization of LGBT services within domestic violence agencies.

Promote an LGBT positive culture for the agency as a whole,

Ongoing training for all agency members.

The necessity for regular program evaluation to monitor effectiveness of services provided to LGBT clients.

Explicitly informing LGBT clients of their rights within the agency and the protocols for filing complaints or resolving conflicts with staff members (Helfrich & Simpson, 2006).

These strategies echo many of the findings and recommendations made a decade earlier by Renzetti (1996) in the first national study of services for lesbian survivors of IPV. Importantly, in this survey of 556 domestic violence service organizations, Renzetti found that many service providers indicated that they provided no services for lesbian women by saying that they received too few requests for such services to justify their implementation. She points out, however, that organizations may be receiving few requests because of either the perceived insensitivity of traditional IPV organizations to LGBT issues or the failure of such organizations to actively market their services to LGBT clients. As such, she recommends that it is not enough for domestic violence service providers to say that they are open to LGBT clients but, rather, they must actively create agencies that are inclusive of LGBT persons (including challenging homophobia within the agency itself) and engage in active outreach efforts to rainbow communities.

Efforts to reach out to LGBT communities, however, must be sensitive to the diversity within such communities. Waldron (1996) notes that efforts at LGBT inclusion, which focus solely on homophobia ignore the salient role of racism in the lives of LGBT people of color. As such, she argues for the importance of addressing both homophobia and racism within organizations. Waldron also notes that efforts at outreach must move beyond those explicitly targeted to LGBT persons. For example, she contends that advertisement of services for LGBT clients should not occur solely in LGBT publications, newsletters, events, etcetera , but should also be targeted to those outlets in communities of color, even when they are not directly tailored to sexual minority groups, as some LGBT people of color may be more connected to their racial-ethnic community than LGBT communities. Further, as many lesbian and bisexual women of color may not identify with those labels, Waldron highlights the importance of inclusive language such as “women who have relationships with women” (Waldron, 1996, p. 47). She also urges against hiring designated staff people of color who carry sole responsibility for outreach to LGBT racial minority communities and provide services to LGBT survivors of color. Rather, she recommends that inclusion be modeled in the organization by having a diverse staff inclusive of LGBT persons and persons of color at all levels of the agency.

Goldberg and White (2011) note that while some organizations have specific trainings and policies pertaining to same sex LGBT IPV, such efforts often exclude explicit consideration of gender identity for transgendered identified survivors. They note that the sexuality focus of many LGBT IPV training sessions may not sufficiently address the unique complexities of violence for transgendered identified individuals; however, many organizations may feel that they have “covered” issues of trans inclusivity simply because they have provided LGBT IPV training. As such, issues unique to transgendered survivors of IPV may be ignored or marginalized. To address these concerns, they recommend separate trainings specific to transgendered IPV. Further, they endorse the importance of having such trainings be cofacilitated by a dyad consisting of transgendered and cissexual cofacilitators to model solidarity between transgendered people and cissexual allies (Goldberg & White, 2011).

Finally, the importance of community networks has been cited as essential for the creation of a holistic system of care for LGBT survivors of IPV. As not all LGBT persons are open about their sexuality and/or gender identity (or may not choose to involve themselves in LGBT specific organizations or communities even if they are out about their sexuality), it is essential that efforts to support survivors of LGBT IPV do not exclusively focus on LGBT or IPV specific organizations. Hamberger (1996) notes the significance of including a vast array of service providers who may come into contact with LGBT survivors of IPV, including medical professionals, legal professionals, or any social service provider that may meet a specific need of survivors (for example, housing, employment), into broader coordinated networks in recognition that LGBT survivors of IPV may access formal services from an array of different entry points.

Given the role of police officers as potential first responders in cases of LGBT IPV, ongoing professional training of law enforcement officials to provide sensitive and effective services to survivors is critical. Research has suggested that the concerns LGBT persons express about a potential lack of sensitivity from law enforcement is not unfounded. In an analysis of 1,731 incidents reported to an LGBT advocacy group hotline in Minnesota that involved police contact over a 10-year period, Wolff and Cokely (2007) found that even though ratings of satisfaction with police improved over time, individuals were still more likely to rate their interactions with police as negative (58%) or mixed (22%) than positive (20%). In a study of 747 police chiefs in the state of Texas, Lyons, DeValve, and Garner (2008) found that over half believed that being gay or lesbian was a choice (58%) and/or a perversion (56%). Research with transgendered individuals by Jauk (2013) also found that individuals felt unsafe and harassed by police in incidents where the gender on one’s official identification documents did not match one’s gender of presentation or expression. These findings collectively highlight the need for ongoing outreach and training with law enforcement officials to reduce disparities in policing and increase sensitivity to LGBT issues.

Even though LGBT IPV survivors are most likely to utilize counselors for services and to rate them as among the most helpful service providers, research suggests that mental health professionals and social workers still receive insufficient training in the area of LGBT IPV. Research with mental health counselors who self-identified as having served sexual minority survivors of IPV conducted by Hancock, McAuliffe, and Levingston (2014) documented a trend among respondents that most believed their Masters programs did not provide them with sufficient content or experiential opportunities to develop knowledge and skills specific to the provision of services to LGBT IPV survivors. Research with Masters of Social Work (MSW) students specifically has found that even though students generally report positive attitudes toward LGBT persons, they report low levels of preparedness to provide culturally competent services to rainbow populations (Logie, Bridge, & Bridge, 2007). Further, when social workers turn to the evidence based literature to guide their practice, they may encounter difficulty in accessing high quality materials. A content analysis of LGBT articles in social work journals in the 10-year period from 1998 to 2009 conducted by Johnston and Stewart (2013) found that of the 1,867 articles published in four top social work journals during this period, only 50 addressed LGBT issues (with no articles identified explicitly on IPV within LGBT relationships). As such, practitioners may face barriers in trying to navigate the literature on their own to find resources to inform their practice. Collectively, these findings highlight the importance of strengthening the preparedness of future social work professionals to serve LGBT survivors of IPV through infusing educational content in this area into social work educational curriculums and through the further development and offering of continuing education initiatives on LGBT IPV for working professionals.

Implications for Social Work Practice at the Micro Level

Research has highlighted the complexities of service provision to LGBT survivors of IPV who experience violence in the context of same sex relationships. Ristock’s (2002) research found that many women were unable to access victim services because their partners had already gotten to such service providers first and identified themselves as victims. Similarly, in her interviews with service providers, Ristock (2003) found that when organizations are confronted with both partners presenting as victims, both of whom may have enacted violence, they may make determinations regarding who to serve by defining as the victim the person who initiated the violence. Other service providers resolved the issue by only serving women who never used violence, even in self defense. Due to the complexities of the situation they felt ill prepared to decide who the victim is in cases of mutually enacted violence. Ristock problematizes both approaches for reinforcing stereotypes about the construction of victimhood and the failure of these strategies to address the complexities of violence in lesbian relationships (which may involve violence on the part of both parties).

Strategies have been offered in the literature to address the issue of service when both parties present as victims to a service provider. For example, Goddard and Hardy (1999) have recommended the importance of getting the partner’s name when a victim makes an initial call for service so that the organization can be sure to not schedule both parties for appointments on the same day and to ensure that they are not placed in the same group setting. Based on his experience running support groups for gay male survivors of IPV, Johnson (1999) notes the importance of the initial phone screen to address the potential for both partners to end up in the same group. He recommends that no one be given the information about the group on the spot and invited to be a member until a subsequent screen occurs. This allows time for the organization to assess the applicant in the context of others seeking services to thoroughly evaluate the specific dynamics of the relationship to ascertain if someone presenting as a victim is actually a perpetrator.

Finally, as minority stress may simultaneously increase the vulnerability of LGBT persons for IPV while creating barriers to receiving help, scholars have highlighted the necessity for addressing minority stress and ameliorating its negative consequences when working with LGBT survivors of IPV. Alessi (2014) contends that it is not enough for practitioners to be accepting of LGBT identities; rather, they must engage in what he characterizes as LGB affirmative practice. Such a practice goes beyond simply acknowledging a survivor’s sexual identity but engaging in active efforts to reinforce the validity of LGB identity. This is done through highlighting the positive aspects of membership in sexual minority communities, exploring the impacts of heterosexism and homophobia on LGB persons, normalizing LGB persons’ anger at systemic barriers and cultural oppression, and confirming the validity and importance of LGB relationships (Alessi, 2014). Similarly, Balsam (2003) notes that the context of “cultural victimization” experienced by LGBT persons can result in the creation of unique strengths and resiliencies on the part of LGBT individuals. Affirmative practitioners should strive to identify and name such resiliencies, as they may become resources that can be drawn on by LGBT survivors of IPV to cope with their experiences of trauma.


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  • Turell, S. C., & Herrmann, M. M. (2008). “Family” support for family violence: Exploring community support systems for lesbian and bisexual women who have experienced abuse. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 12(2–3), 211–224.
  • Waldron, C. M. (1996). Lesbians of color and the domestic violence movement. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 4(1), 43–51.
  • Walters, M. L., Chen J., & Breiding, M. J. (2013). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
  • West, C. (2012). Partner abuse in ethnic minority and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender populations. Partner Abuse, 3(3), 336–357.
  • Willingham, A. B. (2010). Forgotten victims: A qualitative study of familial and intimate partner abuse of male to female transgender individuals in central Kentucky. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Eastern Kentucky University.
  • Wolff, K. B., & Cokely, C. L. (2007). “To protect and to serve?”: An exploration of police conduct in relation to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Sexuality & Culture, 11, 1–23

Further Reading

  • Bridges, S. K., Selvidge, M. D., & Matthews, C. R. (2003). Lesbian women of color: Therapeutic issues and challenges. Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development, 31, 113–130.
  • Brown, C. (2008). Gender-role implications on same sex intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Violence, 23, 457–462.
  • Byrne, D. (1996). Clinical models for the treatment of gay male perpetrators of domestic violence. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 4(1), 107–116.
  • Cruz, J. M., & Peralta, R. L. (2001). Family violence and substance use: The perceived effects of substance use within gay male relationships. Violence and Victims, 16(2), 161–172.
  • Cruz, J. M., & Firestone, J. M. (1998). Exploring violence and abuse in gay male relationships. Violence and Victims, 13(2), 159–173.
  • Hanson, B., & Maroney, T. (1999). HIV and same-sex domestic violence. In B. Leventhal & S. E. Lundy (Eds.), Same-sex domestic violence: Strategies for change (pp. 97–109). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Kanuha, V. K. (2005). Compounding the triple jeopardy: Battering in lesbian of color relationships. In N. J. Sokoloff & C. Pratt (Eds.), Domestic violence at the margins: Readings on race, class, gender, and culture (pp. 71–82). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • McClennen, J. C. (1999). Prevailing theories regarding same-gender partner abuse: Proposing the feminist social-psychological model. In J. C. McClennen & J. Gunther (Eds.), A professional’s guide to understanding gay and lesbian domestic violence: Understanding practice interventions (pp. 3–11). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press.
  • Miller, A. J., Bobner, R. F., & Zarski, J. J. (2000). Sexual identity development: A base for work with same-sex couple partner abuse. Contemporary Family Therapy, 22(2), 189–200.
  • Nowinski, S. N., & Bowen, E. (2012). Partner violence against heterosexual and gay men: Prevalence and correlates. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 36–52.
  • Seelau, S. M., & Seelau, E. P. (2005). Gender-role stereotypes and perceptions of heterosexual and gay and lesbian domestic violence. Journal of Family Violence, 20(6), 363–371.
  • Smith, D., & Mancoske, R. (1999). Contributing issues to violence among gay male couples. In J. C. McClennen & J. Gunther (Eds.), A professional’s guide to understanding gay and lesbian domestic violence: Understanding practice interventions (pp. 63–75). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press.
  • Tigert, L. M. (2001). The power of shame: Lesbian battering as a manifestation of homophobia. Women & Therapy, 23(3), 73–85.