The second closet: Silence rules a violent world

Intimate partner violence against men is heavily under-reported, and still little discussed.

By WADE ZAGLAS

David lay there motionless and in excruciating pain, blood pouring from his head after being struck by the cold steel of a vacuum cleaner pipe. 

Knocked out and disoriented – a blur of images around him – he could have been forgiven for believing it was all over. But with one powerful kick of James’s* boot, David’s head was punctured through the plasterboard wall of the ageing housing commission unit.

As the fight escalated, David’s 13-year-old daughter was upstairs in her room. She did not see what happened; David was successful in shielding her from the fighting, the dysfunction and the constant drug use.

David had been trying to provide a stable, safe and loving household for his child, one that was the complete antithesis from her mum’s, where she had watched her mum get beaten too many times to count. For a while he achieved it, but not for long.

That fight changed many things. David chose to leave James that day, after 3½ years of psychological, emotional, financial and physical violence. His daughter moved to a relative’s house and the merry-go-round of her life, moving to different homes, continued.

The decision to leave was a difficult and brave decision for David. Like so many men experiencing same-sex intimate partner violence, he did not ask for help from the police or same-sex friendly safety or shelter houses. In fact, he wasn’t even aware they existed. That day, he relied on his older brother to help. 

After coming out of the “closet” relatively late in his life (mid-30s), David was smitten by the lavish attention James poured upon him.

“I was new to the gay world and this person paid a lot of attention to me,” David said. “He was sweet and nice and came across as a genuine person.”

But while the beginning of the relationship seemed promising, around the six-month mark red flags began to emerge.

“He was ringing me constantly at work and asking why I wasn’t seeing him at night, despite me working night shifts.”

“[James] was skilled at manipulating my feelings and would often say, ‘But I’m feeling all alone and lonely’.” James also suffered from substance abuse issues and David recalled one time when he claimed he would be killed if he didn’t pay a drug debt.

What David later discovered was that James had not only covered his drug debt – exploiting David’s generosity and love-filled blindness – he took enough money so he could also to buy more heroin.

Intimate partner violence within male same-sex relationships is surprisingly common, although it has received such little coverage it has been coined “my other closet” and “the second closet”.

It was arguably Dr Philomena Horsley’s address to Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015 that drew attention to the extent of the problem in Australia. 

“We know from the very limited research we’ve done, both the state research and national research, that it [intimate partner violence] is at least the same if not higher than among heterosexual couples in Australia,” Dr Horsley told the commission.

“So that’s one in three couples [that] have told us that they have had an experience of being in an abusive same-sex relationship.

“We hear stories where abusive partners have said to their partners, ‘Oh, this isn’t violence, this is just what happens in a relationship when two men get together,’” she said.

Russ Vickery( right) with his new partner Matthew Parsons.

That view was highlighted by same-sex violence victim Russ Vickery, who told his story in The Sydney Morning Herald. 

“After the first time he was very apologetic and it was never going to happen again,” he said. But it happened repeatedly, with Vickery finally being thrown down a set of stairs in front of his children.

“He kept telling me that when two men get involved in a relationship, things turn physical,” said Vickery, who had previously been married for 17 years. “I had no barometer so I just assumed that was how it worked.”

Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Matthew Ball, whose work focuses on understanding same-sex intimate partner violence, said one of the difficulties of statistics on this subject was looking at what they actually measured. 

“Are we focusing on physical or financial abuse? Or are we talking about family violence?”

QUT senior lecturer Matthew Ball

Dr Ball also highlighted the difficulty in drawing conclusions from broad-based surveys. For instance, there are only a couple of large-scale surveys by health organisations or universities that look specifically at male same-sex intimate partner violence.

Many focus on the entire LGBTIQ community, and that does little to improve  understanding of the complexities of same-sex male intimate violence and tailoring support services for them specifically, he said.

Another problem is getting accurate police data, since both victims and perpetrators have a tendency to avoid telling the truth about violence in a relationship.  

Considering the “historical distrust” gay men have had towards law enforcement, Dr Ball said he wasn’t surprised. And, at least in Queensland and Western Australia, the data capture system isn’t specific enough to identify this issue. 

According to Dr Ball, the biggest barrier facing the acknowledgement of male same-sex intimate partner violence in Australia (and the broader LGBTIQ community in general) is that domestic violence has historically been seen as male-female. It’s certainly important, but it has little application to the violence that falls outside those traditional relationships. This is why “intimate” has replaced “domestic” in referring to same-sex experience.

Those traditional views are difficult to break down. Part of it is the view that men cannot be victims. This “impacts on how victims understand what’s happening to them and how police and other services respond. Anecdotal evidence is that police think men can’t be victims,” Dr Ball said.

While essential women’s crisis shelters are slowly being built across the country and the advocacy of Rosie Batty has improved the reporting rates, outcomes and living options for Australian women, the outlook for men in same-sex intimate relationships is bleaker. 

The One in Three Campaign – based on the statistic that one in three victims of violence intimate relationships is male – acknowledges how few men will ask for help. 

According to research from the 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey and Australian Institute of Criminology, men were two to three times more likely than women to not tell anyone about the physical abuse happening to them.

They were also more than 40 per cent less likely to contact the police if they felt their safety was threatened by their partner.

Another clear area of concern was the lack of crisis accommodation services listed under the Get help section of the IIN3 website. “Unfortunately there aren’t many tailored services and resources available for male victims of family violence and abuse,” it states. 

OUTinPERTH managing editor Graeme Watson.

LGBTIQ publication OUTinPERTH managing editor Graeme Watson said he didn’t think same-sex male partner violence had become more of a problem over recent years. 

“What is different about it is that we don’t talk about it enough,” he said. “The debate seems to have dropped off the radar in the last 10 years.

“Police are aware that they have a big catch-up job to do. We really don’t see much messaging about same-sex violence against men.”

Watson said a change in our advertising approach could be effective.

“Overall we’re very conservative in our health messaging in this country. We think of very dry ways of getting things across,” he said.

“We need more confronting, less text-based advertising to evoke the responses we want.”

Watson gave WA Police a positive review for the initiatives he has seen them implement, such as appointing diversity officers who are trained to not only respond to assaults in ways that make no assumptions about individuals’ relationships, but by also educating community members on the different types of sexualities and genders in the community.

But to me, they remained unhelpful and uncommunicative. And until that mindset shifts, nothing will change.

*James is not his real name.