As Romina Sevilla stood at the bus stop with her new girlfriend she was slapped in the face. At 18 years old, she experienced something 50 percent of lesbians have or will experience in their lifetime: domestic abuse at the hands of their same-sex partner.
For Sevilla, the physical violence didn’t stop at one act, it only got worse. “With my first ex I found myself in a situation where she would beat the crap out of me and I’d be too afraid to fight back,” she said. “I was really young and this was my first relationship.”
Not sure of what she was experiencing or who to talk to about it, Sevilla isolated herself from friends and family, though her family had already cut her off because of their disapproval of the relationship — not because of her homosexuality.
“I felt judged and was ashamed. I was also unaware that the issues we had were so bad. I was oblivious that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal, even though I never saw that in my household.”
Unfortunately for Sevilla, staying in that relationship meant the violence escalated from a slap to not being able to perform basic functions. “That person would beat the crap out of me to the point where I couldn’t swallow the next day or she would completely bruise me from the neck down.”
Today, Tishawn Meredith can admit she was emotionally and mentally abusive to her former best friend-turned-girlfriend, but back then she thought her behavior was normal. She and her ex moved in together with their children from previous heterosexual relationships and Meredith confessed, “I became the sole bread winner so I manipulated the situation to where she needed me financially. Once I got that control she did whatever I told her to do, and if she didn’t I would yell and abuse her verbally.”
The verbal and mental abuse eventually turned physical when Meredith started showing her ex-girlfriend pictures of the women she was cheating with.
“I was so abusive psychologically that I would show her pictures of other people and say ‘you wish you looked like this’ and in that situation she punched me in the nose. I didn’t expect her to punch me, but she did.”
Neither Sevilla nor Meredith ever reported the abuse to the police which is typical in same-sex relationships due to discrimination and a lack of knowledge by police, which often leads to both parties being arrested, especially if the one being abused fights back. Figures indicate as little as 17% of lesbian women report having been the victim of a least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a lesbian partner, the highest estimate being 45%.
In Sevilla’s last relationship they got into a fight after her abuser shoved and hit her, eventually punching her in the face. When the cops showed up, the first thing they asked when her violent ex-girlfriend who opened the door was “Where’s your boyfriend?” It’s a common assumption made on the part of law enforcement when responding to calls of domestic disturbances.
“I stayed in the room because I had a black eye, and didn’t want to go to jail because we would’ve both been arrested,” Sevilla explained. As she hid in the bedroom, her ex-girlfriend dealt with the police in their living room.
In same-sex domestic violence cases, you can’t assume the more masculine partner is always the abuser. Tamara,* who’s considered femme, became verbally abusive during her former five-year relationship. Entering her first lesbian relationship at 28, her frustrations led to constant berating of her girlfriend. Initially, she was unaware that she was being abusive because the relationship moved so quickly from a casual friendship to dating and living together. But eventually her trust issues came to the surface and abuse became the default.
“I’m a very nice person, but I turned into a different person when I dealt with her. I was very abusive, verbally, and doubting her all the time. I couldn’t trust anything she said, and I had no respect for her. I wasn’t thinking about if it was right or wrong. I started to realize what was happening and would apologize, and then it would happen again.”
For Meredith, once she broke up with her first partner and began a new relationship she realized bad habits die hard. This time, though, her abuse wouldn’t be tolerated. ”I tried to do the same thing with the other person, but her self-esteem wasn’t as low as my first partner’s. I wasn’t allowed to do things I was accustomed to doing.”
The allure of financial stability that Meredith held over her ex’s head is also what drew Sevilla to her first abusive partner who, at the time, was eight years older and much more established.
“I dated girls in high school, but that was it,” she said. “[My ex] was very much an adult with her own place, own car, and she was independent. She had qualities I wasn’t finding in people my own age. Her following girlfriend, who was 18 years her senior, appealed to her for the same reason, but she was also verbally abusive.
“She had cars, and things, everything you would want in a partner. I thought I hit the jackpot with that one, and felt like it was a come up.”
That feeling is exactly what allowed Meredith to turn her ex-lover into a victim. “When you’re self-sufficient you tend to attract certain types of women and they may stay there because they are benefiting and that plays a role in [the abuse] as well. That’s where the power and control comes from, you don’t have to hit them or be physical if you threaten to take their lifestyle away from them.”
Although Tamara didn’t knowingly use being the head of the household as a means to control her partner, the frustration she experienced as a result caused her to verbally abuse her ex-girlfriend on a regular basis. “I had a lot on my plate. I was in school, working, maintaining the household, and I had to deal with whatever she couldn’t do which was a lot.”
Now that’s it’s been several years since the abuse, Tamara can see the error of her ways.
“I’m in therapy and it helped me to realize what was going on, and what I need to do going forward I have to accept people for who they are and where they are in their lives, and if it doesn’t work for me that doesn’t give me permission to abuse them.”
Similarly, now that Meredith understands the psychology of her behavior she no longer finds women who accept her abuse attractive.
“Now, I meet the same type of women, but I’m turned off by them. It will make me revert back to my old behavior and I don’t want that. I don’t want to abuse anybody or manipulate them.
“For a long time I felt my lifestyle was wrong, but it was what I felt inside and it could’ve had a lot to do with my anger and how I treated women,” Meredith added, saying she believes a lot of lesbians feel this way, which may explain the high rate of abuse in these unions. “Some people have self-hatred because of that and who will you take it out on? The person closest to you, which is your mate.”
After three abusive relationships, Sevilla is finally in a place of healing, not only from the abuse but also several miscarriages she endured while trying to have a baby with her last partner. Being open with friends and family about her abuse has helped, and now she’s looking to start a support group in San Antonio, TX, for other lesbians who have suffered through domestic violence as well.
“We’re trying to pull together resources to create a space, specifically for women of color, to gather, talk, and share in a safe place. When stuff like this happens where do we go?”