In the Name of Love?
Intersections of human and animal abuse in LGBT people’s lives.
Posted Sep 08, 2019
This post was written by Damien W. Riggs, Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser
Love is a term often misused. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the context of domestic violence, where abusive partners may make recourse to claims about love to justify their controlling behaviors. Abusive partners may claim to "know what is best" for their partner, and may use this to justify controlling finances, curtail social outings, limit friendship groups, tell someone how to dress, or otherwise justify behaviors that regulate a partner’s life. Abusers may (or may not) use physical force to get their way. Personal criticisms that cut deep are common and may be crude or subtle. This may (or may not) be interlaced with moments of generosity and fun.
In abusive intimate relationships, there is likely to be much confusion for victims as they try to decipher why their partner feel the need to be so coercive. Among this confusion, there is likely to be tension, fear, and a general sense of trepidation.
The above can be true in all relationships but can take specific forms in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Intimate partners may claim to know "what is best" in terms of how to present as lesbian or gay. They may claim to "teach" a transgender partner how to present "correctly" as their gender. Personal criticisms made in the name of love can be cruel and damaging, ringing in the heads of victims long after they have been made, diminishing victims’ feelings of self-worth. Abusers may also give instruction on "how the LGBT community works", claiming to know what is best. They may force or deny contact with LGBT community members in the name of care, concern, and protection. They may "out" victims or misrepresent their identities to significant others (family members, friends, neighbors, workmates) without regard for the consequences for victims, or to deliberately cause harm. These are all forms of control evident in research on LGBT people and domestic violence, especially where claims to love are used to justify abusive behaviors.
Yet claims to love in the context of abuse are not just limited to relationships between humans. The abuse of companion animals caught up in abusive households is now being recognized. There is a well-established link: the control and abuse of other humans, and the control and abuse of animals, such that one can be a ‘red flag’ for the other. The existence of abuse directed towards both populations can indicate greater severity and range of abuse(s). Animals may be abused through claims of love, just as humans may. Abusers may, in the name of love, seek to regulate the movement of animals, restrict contact between animals and their loved ones, physically or emotionally harm them, or deliberately end their lives through the claim that it is in their best interests. Sometimes it is the abusers who bring the animals into the family, in some instances, to win back the victims’ trust and affection. Often, these same animals will be used as pawns to further control human victims. In this coercive context, the bonds between human and animal victims can become even stronger than they might have if they weren’t having to survive abuse together.
In the context of relationships in which controlling behaviors are part of a continuum of violence, LGBT people may develop close relationships with animal companions as a means to mitigate isolation. This can place animal companions at risk of abuse, as abusive human partners may seek to control animals so as to further control their human companions. Young transgender and non-binary people still living with their families may be at special risk of being controlled by their parents, with close animal companions becoming targets for further control.
Important, then, are avenues for LGBT people to be supported while trying to leave abusive relationships. Too often, service providers are unaware of the prevalence of abuse in LGBT people’s relationships, presuming that the standard narrative of abuse (i.e., men abusing women) means that LGBT people do not experience violence in intimate relationships. Moreover, services that do provide support to people leaving relationships may not adequately take into account animal companions, and the need to provide inclusive services in regard to gender, sexuality, and animals.
Inclusive services are those that recognise the specific forms that abuse can take in LGBT people’s relationships. Inclusive services are those that do not perpetuate heterosexism and cisgenderism. Inclusive services recognise that inclusion takes work, which can include training, reviewing policies and documents to ensure they are inclusive, and outreach to ensure that there is awareness of the service within LGBT communities. Inclusive services also recognize that animals can be victims in their own right, and develop partnerships with animal welfare organizations to provide support to animals leaving abusive situations, or ideally develop affordable housing options for humans and animals to stay together when leaving abusive situations.
LGBT political rallying often makes recourse to the notion that "love makes a family", or that "all love is the same". These may be useful political claims, especially if extended to include animals. However, love should not be used to overlook abuse. This is true for all relationships. And for those who do not have a readily discernible voice in discussions about abuse, namely animal companions, narratives of love can serve to discount their needs.
Love and abuse can coexist in the homes of humans and animals. It is important to talk about love as positive affect, as close bonds, and as giving meaning in the lives of LGBT people. But it is also important to talk about what happens when the narrative of love is used to justify negative and controlling behaviors. To only speak about love in one way runs the risk of ignoring those LGBT individuals who may be most vulnerable.