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Mending Rainbows: Domestic Violence in the LGBT Community/Communities

Bianca Jackson and Lucinda Wicks, both barristers at Coram Chambers, consider an issue often disregarded when addressing DV in the UK.

Dr Bianca Jackson, barrister, Coram ChambersLucinda Wicks, barrister, Coram Chambers

Bianca Jackson and Lucinda Wicks, barristers, Coram Chambers


It is widely acknowledged that domestic abuse/violence1 is a devastating crime that can destroy the lives of victims and their families. However, the prevalent "script" of domestic abuse is gendered and heteronormative, whereby the abuser is always male and the victim always female. It is generally disregarded that approximately 25% of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community/communities experience domestic abuse, which is the same rate of domestic abuse perpetrated against heterosexual women.2  Likewise, in a recent study3 on domestic abuse in the transgendered community in Scotland, 80% of respondents stated that they had experienced emotionally, sexually, or physically abusive behaviour by a partner or ex-partner.4 

Yet, the vast majority of persons who seek legal remedies against domestic abuse are heterosexual women, against their heterosexual male partners or ex-partners. This begs the question of whether the legal system is equipped to deal with LGBT victims and perpetrators. Should there be an LGBT-specific statutory instrument? Or does the failure/inability of LGBT victims to access legal assistance lie elsewhere? This article will examine how the current Part IV, Family Law Act injunctions can be utilised to address LGBT-specific forms domestic abuse and some of the barriers to combatting domestic abuse in the LGBT community/communities.

The legal framework

As most family law practitioners will be aware, the main statutory provisions that provide injunctive relief from domestic abuse are found in Part IV of the Family Law Act 1996 ("FLA 1996"), in the form of non-molestation and occupation orders. There are no LGBT-specific regulations; Part IV of the FLA 1996 does not differentiate between men and women, heterosexual and same-sex relationships, or traditional and non-traditional families. Indeed, whilst the applicant and the respondent must be "associated persons" pursuant to s.62(3) of the Act, the definition of "associated persons" is broad and allows for many forms of relationships:

"(3) For the purposes of this Part, a person is associated with another person if—

(a) they are or have been married to each other;

(aa) they are or have been civil partners of each other;

(b) they are cohabitants or former cohabitants;

(c) they live or have lived in the same household, otherwise than merely by reason of one of them being the other's employee, tenant, lodger or boarder;

(d) they are relatives;

(e) they have agreed to marry one another (whether or not that agreement has been terminated);

(ea) they have or have had an intimate personal relationship with each other which is or was of significant duration;

(eza) they have entered into a civil partnership agreement (as defined by section 73 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004) (whether or not that agreement has been terminated);

(f) in relation to any child, they are both persons falling within subsection (4); or

(g) they are parties to the same family proceedings (other than proceedings under this Part)."

The legal definition of domestic abuse is equally wide-ranging, including physical, emotional, psychological, financial, and sexual abuse. Many of these behaviours manifest in the same way regardless of the sexual orientation and/or gender of the persons involved. However, it is important for legal practitioners to recognise that lesbian, bisexual, and gay men and women can experience unique forms of domestic abuse based on their sexuality or, in the case of transgendered men and women, their gender.

Some common examples of LGBT-specific domestic abuse are as follows:

Some other examples of domestic abuse that are specific to the transgendered community include:

Likewise, there are certain behaviours that are more common when the perpetrator is the former heterosexual partner of a victim in a same-sex relationship. Such abuse tends to take the form of stalking and harassment, attempts to make the victim behave in a certain way, stopping the victim from accessing LGBT spaces, and preventing the victim from seeing his/her new partner.

Challenges to addressing LGBT domestic violence

All of the aforementioned conduct falls under the rubric of "molestation" pursuant to s.42 (non-molestation orders) of Part IV of the FLA 1996, and "significant harm" for the purpose of occupation orders, allowing members of the LGBT community/communities to access the same legal remedies as those who identify as heterosexual and/or are in opposite-sex relationships.
However, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered men and women still struggle to access professional help, whether they are victims or perpetrators. The reason for this seems to be threefold: firstly, the refusal of many LGBT persons to acknowledge that domestic violence exists in the LGBT community/communities; secondly, the ignorance – including the heterosexist assumptions – of the professionals who address domestic abuse; and finally, the lack of adequate resources available.

1) The LGBT Community/Communities
According to Jo Harvey Barringer, the CEO of the LGBT domestic violence charity Broken Rainbow, one of the main difficulties in combatting domestic abuse in the LGBT community/communities is the lack of discussion around domestic abuse. As such, members might not believe that domestic abuse happens in LGBT relationships, recognise their experiences as domestic abuse, and/or know how to respond if they see one of their friends experiencing domestic abuse. There is also the tendency for victims (whether heterosexual or LGBT) to trivialise their experiences if abused.

Whilst some of this silence derives from the fact that most information on domestic abuse applies to the experiences of heterosexual women, there is also the sense amongst some members of the LGBT community that they should not be "airing their dirty laundry", not least because of the struggles that they have faced in accessing basic equality, such as same-sex marriage. For individual victims, vocalising their abuse could result in being ostracised from the LGBT community, which is particularly distressing where the community essentially functions as the person's family in lieu of a supportive family network.

2) The professionals
As intimated above, the common stereotype of domestic abuse is of a heterosexual, male partner or ex-partner perpetrating (physical) violence against a heterosexual, female victim. This script informs the ways in which the front-line professionals, including the police, medical profession, MARAC, and domestic violence intervention organisations, recognise, name, and deal with domestic abuse. Consequently, domestic abuse in the LGBT community/communities is often overlooked or misinterpreted. For example, the police are not currently trained to recognise same-sex relationships. As such, an officer may mistake a fight at a pub between two men as a general incident of assault, rather than domestic abuse between partners, or automatically assume that two women living together are roommates, instead of girlfriends. Jo Harvey Barringer cites the particularly harrowing incident reported to Broken Rainbow whereby a woman was attacked by her female partner to the extent that she was admitted to the hospital and the perpetrator was subsequently allowed access to the victim at the hospital because she claimed to be her sister; the medical staff having assumed that the victim had been assaulted by a male partner.

3) The resources (or lack thereof)
The vast majority of domestic abuse resources are aimed towards heterosexual, female victims, placing the LGBT community/communities in competition with the women's sector for funding. In consequence, key interventions to combat domestic abuse are non-existent in the LGBT community/communities. For example, there is only one LGBT-specific refuge in the entirety of the UK, in Brighton, which means that victims (and their children) often have no place to go if they want to escape the perpetrator. Likewise, there are no LGBT-specific perpetrator programmes. This has particularly problematic implications for children proceedings in the family court, whereby a perpetrator of domestic abuse often must complete a programme, such as DVIP, before contact may be unsupervised and/or progressed. At present, Broken Rainbow, together with Respect, has developed a perpetrator programme, but lack the funds to run it (approximately £175,000 per year).

Whilst victims and perpetrators can access resources aimed at heterosexual persons, often these resources are predicated on a heternormative model of domestic abuse and do not take into account the different manifestations of violence, power, and control specific to LGBT abuse. As such, their content may be irrelevant to LGBT users and/or expose them to homophobic/transphobic abuse from other participants.

What can legal practitioners do?

As noted throughout this article, one of the key challenges to combatting domestic abuse in the LGBT community/communities is a lack of awareness, both within the community itself and the general population. The statutory instruments enshrined in family law appear sufficient to protect LGBT victims (to the extent that they are able to protect heterosexual victims); however, they are futile if victims and the professionals who are meant to assist them are unable to recognise what the former are experiencing as abuse. It is key that whilst violence against heterosexual women must be acknowledged and eradicated, we must also recognise that domestic abuse is not just a gender issue and re-define who is a victim.

Broken Rainbow is currently facing closure; it needs to find £20,000 by the end of the month to cover the funding deficit created by the Home Office. If you would like to donate to Broken Rainbow to help fund their future projects, which include a refuge, a perpetrator programme for abusers, and a legal assistance programme, please click on the following link:

For further information about domestic abuse in the LGBT community or if you have an LGBT client whom you think is experiencing domestic abuse, you can contact Broken Rainbow in the following ways:



The UK government defines domestic violence and abuse as: any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, and financial abuse: accessed on 4 March 2016.
Domestic Violence Oxfordshire, "Domestic abuse in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community": accessed 11 October 2015.

[3] Scottish Transgender Alliance, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Transgender People's Experience of Domestic Abuse":  accessed 1 December 2015.
 It is important to note that sexuality and gender are two different concepts. As such, a person who is transgendered may identify as heterosexual, gay, or bisexual. Indeed, there are more trans-people in heterosexual relationships than in lesbian or gay relationships.