Closeted violence: abuse between queer women of color stays under the radar.
Ziegler was 22 when she met her girlfriend, and later abuser. They were both new to San Francisco and had met each other through friends. Her girlfriend, an Asian-American woman, was 24 at the time. After a few months of dating, Ziegler began noticing how aggressively her girlfriend behaved when she was drinking.
"Most of the time, we would go out, drink way too much and get into an argument. Every single time we went out, there would be an argument," recalls Ziegler. Once the two women got home, it would turn violent. "She would beat hard on me--push me around, hit me." The next day, her girlfriend had no recollection of what she'd done.
Ziegler ended the relationship a year later but never told her family, who also don't know that she's a lesbian.
A brutal pattern of domestic violence and secrecy exists among queer women of color, but community organizers and researchers say that the combination of homophobia and racism keeps the problem under the radar. Because they are a marginalized group, queer women of color may also find that their friends don't believe another woman of color could inflict such abuse.
"I always say we will never know how big a problem it is," says Val Kalei Kanuha, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. "It has solely to do with invisibility. Until it is safe for us to come out, we will never know how big a problem it is."
Kanuha has been doing anti-violence work for 30 years and has conducted multiple studies on queer women of color around identity and violence. She points out that most studies on queer women of color are conducted in urban areas, leaving the possibility of extensive undocumented violence.
How a survivor identifies also plays a role in the lack of documentation of domestic violence in queer communities. Many women, Kanuha says, would never identify as lesbian--making it all that much harder to understand how extensive the problem is. Ironically, some of these women would have no problem going to the police--but they would not report the violence as domestic. This conclusion is based on Kanuha's study of queer Asian Pacific Islander women, in which half of the respondents said they would call police or a shelter. The other half said homophobia and racism would prevent them from accessing the services they need. "They wouldn't feel afraid. They just kind of feel, 'You know what, I'm in trouble, and who do I call?--I call the police.' It doesn't even occur to them that the police would treat them in a homophobic manner," adds Kanuha.
For some queer women of color who live in communities that have a long history of bad relations with law enforcement, calling the police is an issue.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer activist, didn't want to call the cops on the queer guy she was dating at the time. He was assaulting her, but he was Latino and on probation for assaulting a police officer. The two were living in Canada, where she didn't have permanent residency.
"I think 9 times out of 10, as women of color, and people of color, if the perpetrator is somebody who is of color--even if they are a woman--you don't want to call the cops on your queer or trans partner," says Piepzna-Samarasinha.
Her neighbors eventually called the cops on them one night. And although her boyfriend was kicking her in the head while she was curled up in their closet, she wasn't really grateful that her neighbors had made that call.
The police, Piepzna-Samarasinha says, "didn't really focus on the domestic abuse aspect of it. They looked up his record and were like, 'Oh, you're on probation for assaulting a police officer.' I was like, 'Oh my gosh! He's going to get killed!' Then they asked me about my immigration status."
Another barrier Piepzna-Samarasinha had to confront in her battle with domestic violence was that her perpetrator was a progressive activist, who still speaks regularly against violence against women on a community radio station. She not only lost the relationship and several friendships in the activist community, but also found that her progressive friends didn't believe her lover was capable of domestic violence.
"What I got was anything from 'It's a personal issue,' to 'It's really complicated, we heard you were talking shit,' to--this is a direct quote--'You're a strong woman of color, you can take it.' I had women coming up to me asking me if I had tried healing him with love."
Hediana Utarti, who coordinates services for queer women at the Asian Women's Shelter in San Francisco, faced a similar domestic violence situation, and she was a domestic violence counselor in Hawai'i at the time.
"The disbelief was very strong. This is another person of color working on social justice," says Utarti. "On top of that, there's also homophobia. How am I going to tell? I only talk to my close friends who are also queer, and some of them have also not seen healthy relationships."
Utarti points out that not many queer women are out of the closet in Hawai'i. "We don't know how many lesbians are out there, and so we think our partner is everything. She's the replacement of our sisters and brothers, our parents, our aunties and uncles. The whole community we're hiding from ... she becomes the center of your life. It's a crazy obsession almost. Because of homophobia, our partner becomes everything. And if something is wrong, we're not going to tell anyone."
Utarti was also a green card holder at the time, and her girlfriend was a U.S. citizen. She definitely did not want to risk being deported and having her sexuality discovered by her family back home. According to Utarti, what saved her was that her partner left her. Utarti now acknowledges that queer women of color need to have specific social services. Immigrants, says Utarti, whose own family is Muslim, often insist more on traditional values when they move to the United States.
"Once they're here, because there are so few of us, all of a sudden we need to be more Muslim--and therefore as a result, more homophobic. On top of that, we [women of color] always have to show the world that we are doing good. That we're paying bills. That we don't do criminal stuff. In general, we have to dress up double in comparison to white women--just to be and to be treated well. So when you're a queer woman of color, it's a double whammy. We have to cover up even more."
This "dressing up" can cause domestic violence to remain invisible. Utarti knows first-hand that many women she knows call the shelter, but they specifically call other women at the shelter in hopes that Utarti will not find out.
Some activists also point out that domestic violence remains invisible when communities don't acknowledge verbal and emotional abuse.
Candice Boyce, a founding member and current board chair of African Ancestral Lesbians United for Social Change based in New York City, has confronted and helped with a lot of domestic violence situations throughout her 30-year tenure. Boyce was also battered by one of her partners. At the time, she was attending large anti-violence conferences while at home her female lover was screaming at her.
"There's not someone saying, 'I don't know if you know this, but you're in a domestic violence relationship whether she hits you or not'," Boyce says. "That's the kind of stuff we need to talk about. Some of us see it only as physical fighting or pushing or battering. But emotional domestic violence is one of the worst to me."
Boyce points out that queer women of color are inclined to excuse their lover's behavior. "You can't make excuses for people--they need help, and you need to get out of there!" she says. "Enough with lesbians living these happy lives and everything is wonderful! That's crap! And it's hurting us. We really need to bring this out. It's happening more than we know."
Celina R. De Leon is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.