Over recent years, the door is finally being pried open on the epidemic of domestic and family violence in Australian suburban homes. But, when it comes to this sort of violence within LGBTIQ communities, for the most part, this harm is hardly recognised.
Indeed, studies have found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are not only experiencing domestic violence at similar, if not higher, levels as their heterosexual counterparts, but they’re also less likely to recognise it or report and receive appropriate help for it.
And due to this situation, Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW) and ACON launched LGBTIQ Voices for Change, which is a program that involves LGBTIQ survivors of domestic violence sharing their stories in the media in order to raise awareness around the issue and in turn, effect change.
An advocate for change
Jayke Burgess is a happily married trans gay man. However, back when he still presented as female, it was a different story. Mr Burgess experienced long-term domestic abuse at the hands of his former partner, who he has children with.
And not only did Jayke find himself trapped in a violent cycle, but when he finally reached out for help, many of the people around him didn’t understand. And the real clincher came, when this carried over to mental health professionals and even the court system.
Mr Burgess found that specialists seemed to be more interested in his being transgender, than dealing with the fact that he’d been suffering serious abuse for around a decade.
So, these days, Jayke is speaking about his experiences of inmate partner violence and the bias in the system as an LGBTIQ advocate for change. And he does this not only to raise awareness in the broader community, but also to provide a path for others in similar situations.
Coordinator Renata Field explained that the Voices for Change program began in November 2018. However, last July, DVNSW partnered with ACON to establish LGBTIQ Voices for Change in recognition of the lack of media representation regarding violence within rainbow communities.
“What we have seen from the people in our groups is that they’re not necessarily feeling safe to report to police or access services,” Ms Field explained. “Certainly, there’s not so much discussion about the specific types of abuse that they’re experiencing in the media or the community.”
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Jayke Burgess about the difficulties he found in getting others around him to recognise he was suffering serious harm, the discrimination and marginalisation he experienced when seeking remedies, and why speaking out about his experience is beneficial.
Firstly, Mr Burgess, you were subjected to domestic violence for many years. Can you tell us about your experience? And how it affected your life?
I experienced domestic violence for 10 years. It included emotional, psychological, physical, sexual and financial violence. It was a hidden and confusing – and I guess I’d say pretty damaging – time of my life.
When I left this relationship, my abuser targeted my friends, and I had to cut pretty much everybody – including some family – out of my life.
Both of us grew up evangelical Christians. When we met, we were evangelical leaders. And my ex told me that God had called us to be together to show the Church that gay people were not evil or sinful. This added further to the abuse and my difficulty in ending the relationship.
When I did end it, she took all my belongings. And eventually, about a year later, I received four boxes of items and a couch that was my grandmother’s. When I opened the boxes, everything had been cut in half.
For a period of three months after I’d broken up the relationship, she continually emptied my bank account. And when I changed banks, she then emotionally abused and manipulated me to get money, which included blaming me for the fact that she was in debt or homeless.
She took my car and would not return it, even though she had her own car. And my father had to intervene to get my car back. It took about a year to get it.
I’ve ended up with PTSD. And while it’s been ten years since I left, I still continue to experience various forms of abuse. The examples that still happen are because we share children, and they include verbal abuse and threats.
I’ve had a great deal of counselling because I’ve been brainwashed and emotionally affected by it. And it took a period of five years to come to a place where I could begin rebuilding my confidence.
I still struggle with the lack of justice, and the feeling that I’ve failed my kids.
The Voices for Change project is about fostering a better understanding of violence in the community. What would you say were some of the barriers you faced that related to community attitudes whilst subjected to this violence?
I experienced lots of variations of community attitudes that affected my experience of domestic violence.
Some of the comments that were made to me were, “She’s a girl. Why don’t you just hit her back?” And when working with the police, the nuances of domestic violence weren’t truly understood.
I had to repeatedly out myself as transgender and then explain that I was in a relationship with a woman. People said things to me like gay relationships can’t involve domestic violence, and they suggested that gay relationships aren’t even real.
My family didn’t take the behaviour seriously for some time. For example, my mum said, “She’s just upset. You’ve broken up.” And when she was being extremely abusive and threatening, people would ask me if there was a way of being nicer, as that might help.
On one occasion she came to my parent’s front door, where my children and I were. She broke into the building. And when I answered the door, she physically attacked me, punched me in the stomach, and grabbed me, trying to punch me in the face.
My dad was there to protect me. But, once we got her out of the house, he turned around to me and said, “She’s just upset.”
Domestic violence is not well understood. And we often make excuses for unacceptable behaviour. I didn’t push for police to charge her, as I didn’t feel my family would be good as witnesses, as they didn’t understand what she was doing was not OK. And they excused it because she was a girl.
You’re a person with multiple sclerosis. What sort of factor would you say your condition played in this situation? And is there a need for a greater understanding about the way domestic violence affects people with disabilities?
Absolutely. It’s hard to know when multiple sclerosis begins. But, in my life, there were many signs, and my doctor’s identified that it probably started in my late teens.
People with disabilities experience domestic violence at incredibly high rates, and there are often multiple compounding factors and barriers that make it difficult for them to leave the violence, such as mobility issues, cognitive issues, or they’re under care and unable to leave.
In my relationship that didn’t have a great impact, because I was more often than not the only income. However, there was some impact. I continually had fatigue, a lot of pain, and I couldn’t get to the doctor’s because I didn’t have time.
My ex had decided that God had told her not to work. So, regardless of my medical needs, I had to work full time, and often overtime in order to make ends meet.
It was also difficult to address my own medical needs. And I wasn’t getting the treatment that I needed, as when I wasn’t at work, I was caring for the kids or the house, so it was not suitable for me to visit a doctor during the week.
While it had some indirect impact, I could have been diagnosed much earlier, and perhaps, I would not be as progressive as I am now, where I am taking about 15 tablets a day just to be able to function.
Today, you manage mental health and welfare programs. How adequate would you say the provision of such programs is in the community in dealing with the needs of people experiencing domestic violence?
We know the leading cause of homelessness in Australia is domestic violence. We know the leading cause for mental illness across the world is trauma, which is more often than not from violence in the home.
Yet, very few programs deliver support with counselling for the needs of those who experience violence.
We’ve moved a long way to include trauma informed care into most mental health and welfare programs in Australia. Yet, we haven’t actually addressed the violence that’s occurred.
And while most people who experience violence, don’t go onto commit acts of violence, we are still not seeking to break the cycles of violence within families and our communities.
We don’t take violence in the home seriously. We still view violence as stranger danger, which started in the 70s and 80s. It’s a false narrative, as acts of violence from strangers are incredibly rare.
It’s violence by people we know that’s common, yet we spend very little funding and research in understanding why this violence occurs and how we can stop it.
Providing support after the fact is fantastic. And there isn’t enough of it. But, the real issue isn’t fixing a problem that has already happened. It’s how do we stop it from occurring in the first place? And how do we address it, if someone is experiencing it.
And lastly, Mr Burgess, you’re an advocate for change as a part of the LGBTIQ Voices for Change project. How necessary would you say it is that there are more voices speaking out about this violence within rainbow communities?
I know many people in the community, who have experienced violence at the hands of a perpetrator, whether it’s emotional or physical. Most of these people have never connected with a program of support or with legal processes, and even less have been to the courts.
In my case, there were nuances of GLBTQI domestic violence cases that don’t come up in heterosexual relationships. My ex outed me to my mother as transgender. I had chosen not to tell her because she was in the middle of cancer treatment. But, my ex was seeking vengeance on me.
Every time I need help as a GLBTQI person, I have to out myself. Some people can’t do this, particularly in rural and remote communities, or in different cultural groups, where it’s not okay to be gay. They’re at increased risk of violence.
In my case, I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. Leaving this relationship would prove to my family that GLBTQI people aren’t their equal. And their relationships aren’t normal and valid. This might end their process of change and learning about GLBTQI people through me.
I’m not the only person who has experienced this, I am just one story. Our stories are similar, yet different. Each person has a different story, but there are specific complexities for us GLBTQI people.
Being outed, risk of further violence, not being believed, discrimination and stigma can create challenges to understanding.
The more of our stories that we share, the more knowledge is in the community and a culture of change towards GLBTIQ people and the understanding of domestic violence will occur.
I just want people to see our humanity. To see that hurt and understand we are the same inside.
Each time I share my story I hope that I might help one person, and I might build a steppingstone for another. And that matters.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.