Battered men come out of the closet

Domestic violence is not confined to men against women; men abuse men, too. Nick Kirby reports and, below, Beverly Kemp looks at two cases in which one male partner was battered by the other

While the subject of battered women is depressingly familiar, we rarely hear of battered men. It is not just that men are supposed to be strong: gay domestic violence is a taboo subject. Victims feel, with some justification, that they will be the subject of disbelief and ridicule by the police, the legal system and society at large.

There is also denial within the gay community itself - beleaguered groups are often unwilling to wash their dirty linen in public. Yet American studies suggest that violence within same-sex relationships is in proportion to heterosexual relationships (though precise figures are impossible to obtain).

Understanding the causes of gay men's domestic violence is tricky, simply because of a lack of research in this country.

However, in their book Men Who Beat the Men Who Love Them (Haworth), David Island and Patrick Letellier stress that there is a distinct pattern of violence, based on a warped assertion of power, common both to same- sex and to heterosexual domestic violence. At the start of the relationship, everything appears perfect; then, gradually, the batterer will start to show violent behaviour, which tends to increase in severity. The trigger may be alcohol- or drug-related, or it may be nothing more than a bad day at the office.

Violent incidents almost always occur suddenly, and without prelude. This usually puts the victim on a knife-edge, not knowing when violence will break out. And it is rare for violence to take place in public; to most observers, the relationship may seem quite normal. It is rare for the batterer to be violent with people outside the relationship: he sticks to an established territory, where he has built up control over a considerable period.

Physical violence is only one aspect of the abuse that may take place. Island and Letellier define gay men's domestic violence as "any unwanted physical force, psychological abuse, material or property destruction, inflicted on one man by another".

Still, in all battering relationships, a time will come when the victim finds he has to escape from his assailant. In some cases, it may be a matter of life or death. But how does he do this? In very few cases of gay men's domestic violence will it be possible for the victim simply to walk away from the batterer and never see him again.

Unfortunately, there are no organisations or helplines that deal specifically with this phenomenon, as they do for battered heterosexuals and battered lesbians. There are, however, organisations that can and do advise gay men on domestic violence, such as the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and Survivors (an organisation originally set up to help victims of male rape).

The advice that these helplines give may be extremely valuable, but sometimes the only recourse is to take legal action. Unfortunately, this is hard for the victim. As solicitor Simon Woods points out: "There is no legislation in place to protect same-sex couples from domestic violence. The only remedy a victim has is to take action for assault, battery, trespass or nuisance in County Court, during the course of which injunctions can be obtained to restrain the other party from further acts of assault."

And, indicative of the difficulties facing victims, Mr Woods continues: "We do receive inquiries, but they usually don't get very far because people often change their minds."

A County Court injunction can cost anything up to £800 and may be enforceable for only three months. Hardly surprising, then, that Mr Woods reports: "For the most part, this kind of litigation is very rare. People are worried about going to the police because they don't think they will be taken seriously."

The situation is beginning to change. Last year, London's Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush police divisions targetedsame-sex domestic violence and included it in the newly formed Domestic Violence and Community Support Units (DVCSUs) - confidential, plain-clothed specialist support teams.

However, these units are still in their infancy. Stephanie Knight, of the Hammersmith DVCSU, says: "There has not been a great response so far, and the vast majority of incidents go unreported." She also feels that there is a "real lack of training to deal with the different dynamics within same-sex relationships".

There is a long way to go in bringing gay men's domestic violence out of the closet. The gay community must overcome its denial, and the rest of society has to confront its prejudices and stereotypes.

There is a domestic violence Bill due to be put before the Commons later this year, which includes an extended category covering "associated household members". The Law Commission has indicated that this may cover same-sex relationships. The lesbian and gay lobbying organisation Stonewall is pressing hard for clarification and will table amendments should same- sex relationships not be included in it. Without a doubt, this recognition will be an important step forward in dealing with this frightening issue.

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard: 0171-837 7324; Survivors: 0181- 509 1760.

`I would never have gone to the police in a million years'

Jamie Taylor is 35 and a mature student reading politics, philosophy and history. He has experienced physical violence in three previous relationships.

"Violence is not something I grew up with. I have never seen my father raise his hand to anyone in his entire life and he has certainly never hit my mother. The first time I was punched I just buried the incident and put it down to the fact that my partner was very depressed at the time. But it happened again and again.

Drinking was the panacea for all Mark's ills. When he got drunk, he became extremely violent and it escalated to the point where he was knocking me senseless. Black eyes, fat lips and my hand broken twice. The reason we split up was that after two years I finally snapped and knocked him unconcious defending myself.

Joe seemed such an intelligent and sensitive man. He was horrified when I told him about the violence in my previous relationship. But as soon as he realised that I wanted to be myself and not just an extension of him, he started to hit me, too. One night I just stood there and watched him trash my flat. The place was a sea of broken bottles, cups, plants and lamps that he had chucked everywhere.

I made excuses for David's violence because of the things that were going on in his life. He had lost his job, been burgled twice and discovered that he was HIV positive all in the same year. He managed to convince me that I was a very bad person and responsible for all his pain. We would go where he wanted to, talk about subjects he wanted to and I would shut up when I was told to. I became whoever he wanted me to be at any particular time.

The gay community doesn't like to hear about failure or have its dirty linen washed in public. We're ashamed to admit the level of physical violence that goes on. So many people supported what David was doing by turning round and telling me that all I needed to do was give him more reassurance. The whole thing somehow got bounced back as my problem instead of his. It's impossible to talk about something like this if the person on the other side of the table doesn't wait to hear what you are saying.

The only support you can rely on if you are a gay man in an abusive relationship is that of your good friends.

I phoned Gay Switchboard and the Gay Legal Advice Line and they both told me exactly the same thing: there was nothing they could do. My opinion of the police is the same as that of most other gay men: I'd never have gone to them in a million years. They treat gay violence as a huge joke. There is simply no legal framework to protect yourself unless you are prepared to take an injunction out against someone.

It's taken me three broken relationships to learn to put myself first. When you are in an abusive relationship, it becomes very difficult to see the dynamics of what is going on between you and what your options are. One day you find yourself looking into a mirror and saying, `This feels awful. I don't want to be here any more.' To walk away is going to hurt. To stay is going to hurt. You end up really despising yourself for not being able to find the strength to tell the bastard to go."

`He came at me with a knife as I cowered behind a chair'

Alex is a 26-year-old lecturer. His relationship with Peter lasted 18 months.

"I remember going into work one day and lifting up my shirt to show a colleague my chest, which was black and blue. He looked really embarrassed and I thought, `My God, what am I doing telling people at work?' There were bruises all over my arms and torso where I had been kicked. On another occasion I ended up cowering in a corner of the lounge trying to defend myself with a chair while Peter stabbed at it with a steel kitchen knife.

The big mistake I made at the beginning was in thinking, `Perfect relationship! Goodbye friends!' Peter was very beautiful and extremely charming. I was attracted to his irreverence and the fact that he was so single-minded about his career and goals in life. I found him an inspirational person. Gradually, I began devoting all my energy to the relationship and seeing less of my friends, so when it all started going terribly wrong it was very difficult to phone people I hadn't spoken to for months to ask for help.

There was a prelude to the physical violence. Peter began to undermine my self-confidence with a barrage of criticism countered by lots of flattery. Then he started sabotaging things that represented me. In the midst of an argument about something trivial, he would throw my clothes out of the window. Or he would go through my wallet and pockets, destroying things like credit cards, keys and my watch. Work that I had brought home to do in the evening would be ruined.

To hit back at Peter would only have provoked him more, so I began to avoid doing certain things. Gradually, I started to shed those bits of myself that were at all opinionated or pro-active. Thinking became a dangerous activity. Peter would get into a ferocious temper if little things weren't right, so I'd spend huge amounts of money making sure there was always nice food and hours tidying his place up. I became a sort of domestic slave.

But the punching and kicking continued. Mostly he would hit me on the body rather than the face where people could see, but not always. Sometimes I would get whacked around the head. Peter's outbursts were not just directed at me. If someone on the Tube stared at him in a way he didn't like, he would get into a huge row with them, and once threatened to open someone's cheek with a key.

People always say: `These kind of things don't happen to me.' My difficulty was accepting that the last thing I thought would happen to me was happening to me. In his lucid moments there was always a lovely apology and a promise that it would never happen again. I stayed with him because I couldn't understand why something that had seemed so promising at the outset could be going so horribly wrong. I couldn't bring myself to give up on it.

There was an increasing feeling of danger. It got to the point where I was living on a knife-edge of terror, unable to think my way free from Peter. Our relationship ended the day I was held captive and naked in a room for nine hours while he walloped me, scratched me and made me have sex with him when it was the last thing I wanted to do. There was no going back after that.

The threats started as soon as I left. My phone would ring up to 60 times a day from 7am until 2am. I have nine hours of answerphone cassettes filled with obscene messages. I was lodging with a family at the time and he ripped up their rose bushes and terrified their small son by turning up in the small hours with a knife. Then he phoned my parents and told them I had given him HIV, even though we had both tested negative.

For two years I avoided the area where Peter lived. I would walk around Soho constantly looking behind me, expecting to see him bearing down on me with a knife. Then last summer I came round a corner and literally bumped into him. He just looked at me and said, `Sorry.' It took an enormous amount of effort not to show I was still terrified of him. Afterwards I felt as if I had been run over in a car crash."

With the exception of Jamie Taylor, all names have been changed.

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