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«GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? When She Fights Back Leigh Goodmark† INTRODUCTION I. THE ...»

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INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE 760, 764 (2002) (“The major stereotypes most often mentioned in the context of same sex domestic violence include[s]... violence minimized as ‘cat fights.’”).

207. See Hart, supra note 202, at 186 (describing how the confusion battered lesbians experience when trying to escape violent relationships may make it difficult for service providers to assist them).

208. Linda M. Peterman & Charlotte G. Dixon, Domestic Violence Between Same-Sex Partners:

Implications for Counseling, 81 J. COUNSELING & DEV. 40, 44 (2003).

209. Hart, supra note 202, at 185; see also Dziggel, supra note 172, at 64-65 (describing being abused by her partner despite being “a lot stronger than she is”). See generally Alma Banda Goddard & Tara Hardy, Assessing the Lesbian Victim, in SAME-SEX DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE, supra note 79, at 193 (outlining a model process for assessing who is the victim in an abusive same sex relationship).

210. Ricks et al., supra note 188, at 453-54.

211. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 105; see also Hammond, supra note 181, at 195 (“It is hard for our friends to see us, strong and tough-minded women that we are, as victim of abuse from partners who may be physically smaller.”).

212. RISTOCK, supra note 176, at 50.

GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM

–  –  –

3. Access to Resources To End the Violence Battered lesbians may have difficulty accessing resources to address interpersonal violence. This lack of viable options may force them to remain in abusive relationships and fight back to forestall further violence.

Battered lesbians often face tremendous challenges in their attempts to access resources to address the violence they experience. Nomi Porat explains, “No single group of battered women has been as rejected from services, disbelieved, and labeled ‘divisive’ as battered lesbians.”213 Despite increases in federally funded services for battered women,214 resources like shelters are still scarce in many communities.215 Some shelter residents and staff express discomfort at the idea of living and working with lesbians.216 Even professionals who are open to assisting battered lesbians may feel precluded from doing so by the homophobia of the residents or the organization.217 As a result of these attitudes, many lesbians stay away because they perceive mainstream domestic violence services and shelters as the province of heterosexual women.218 Service providers often buy into a gendered theory of violence—the idea that violence done by women cannot be as serious as that perpetrated by men— and the myth of mutuality.219 Service providers may be less willing to expend scarce resources on women whose victimization seems trivial to them.

Providers may also make judgments about a woman’s need for assistance based on her outward appearance. In her study of battered lesbians, Janice Ristock found that “service providers are more likely to respond positively to battered women if they conform to stereotypes of ‘respectable femininity.’”220 Butch lesbians, then, need not apply for assistance.221 For African American lesbians, race adds an additional layer of complexity to this problem. Some African

213. Porat, supra note 172, at 80.

214. Press Release, Nat’l Network To End Domestic Violence, Incredible VAWA and VOCA Funding Victory (July 26, 2007) (on file with author).

215. Press Release, Nat’l Network To End Domestic Violence, New Report Shows Large Demand for Domestic Violence Services and Short Supply of Resources to Meet Victims’ Needs (Jan. 30, 2008) (on file with author).

216. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 96. Mainstream shelters may also “deny lesbians protection for fear of losing funding, out of ignorance of the dynamics, belief in myths, and/or hesitation of lesbian staff being outed.” Joan C. McClennen, Partner Abuse Between Lesbian Couples: Toward a Better Understanding, in PROFESSIONAL’S GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING GAY AND LESBIAN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, supra note 81, at 77, 86. For a discussion of how service providers can better serve battered lesbians, see generally Christine A. Helfrich & Emily K. Simpson, Improving Services for Lesbian Clients: What Do Domestic Violence Agencies Need To Do?, 27 HEALTH CARE FOR WOMEN INT’L 344 (2006).

217. Hammond, supra note 181, at 196.

218. Girshick, supra note 83, at 1509; Ricks et al., supra note 188, at 455. Claire Renzetti describes an ironic situation in which lesbians have negative shelter experiences despite the fact that so many activists in the battered women’s movement are lesbians. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 93.

219. Giorgio, supra note 74, at 1240; VanNatta, supra note 19, at 428.

220. RISTOCK, supra note 176, at 101.

221. GIRSHICK, supra note 80, at 55.

GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 111 American lesbians have found that professionals use race as a proxy for masculinity when assessing violence between women. Because African American women are perceived as stronger and rougher—more masculine than their white partners222—African American lesbians battered by white partners may find persuading service providers of their need for assistance difficult.





Being a woman can enable the lesbian batterer to prevent her victim from accessing services. The batterer, using her gender to claim victim status, may have already applied for or be receiving services from the sole provider in the area.223 The batterer who, after separation, learns that her victim is living in shelter or participating in a program may use her gender to gain entry to the victim’s safe space.224 Worse yet, the batterer may be employed by that service provider.225 All of these obstacles can reinforce the battered lesbian’s belief that her options are limited and prevent her from seeking outside assistance.

According to Joan McClennen, “The inability to receive helpful, responsive professional services and protection contributes to victims’ maintaining longterm relationships with their perpetrators, as they remain silent about their abuse.”226 Fighting back may further jeopardize the battered lesbian’s ability to access services. Admitting to the use of violence may lead to the recharacterization of the victim as a batterer, rendering her ineligible for shelter, counseling, and other assistance.227

4. The Legal System and Battered Lesbians

In her landmark study of domestic violence in the lesbian community,

Claire Renzetti tells the stories of two women who sought police assistance:

[O]ne woman wrote... that the officers who responded to her call for help insulted her by calling her a “queer devil.” She wrote that they told her she deserved trouble because she is a lesbian.... During the interviews, another woman said: “I called the police, but nothing was done about it. I kept thinking, ‘No one cares because I am a lesbian.’ The police basically took the attitude, ‘So two dykes are trying to kill each other; big deal.’”228 Battered lesbians may not perceive the police as helpful. Given the history of homophobia within the police community, battered lesbians may be

222. Eaton, supra note 78, at 205; Giorgio, supra note 74, at 1243.

223. RISTOCK, supra note 176, at 99; Ricks et al., supra note 188, at 455.

224. Sandra Lundy notes that “few shelters seem willing or able to provide the careful screening required to ensure that the lesbian batterer will not gain access to the victim.” Lundy, supra note 176, at 288.

225. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 93.

226. McClennen, supra note 201, at 151; see also Robinson, supra note 202, at 128-29 (explaining that lack of resources may prevent battered African American lesbians from terminating relationships).

227. VanNatta, supra note 19, at 432.

228. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 91.

GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM

112 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 20:75

understandably wary of requesting police assistance.229 In Renzetti’s study, only nineteen of the one hundred women she surveyed called the police; of those nineteen women, fifteen characterized the assistance they received as “a little helpful” or “not helpful at all.”230 Studies suggest that police are less likely to intervene in same-sex domestic violence cases.231 Police may be unwilling to intervene because they perceive the violence as mutual or because they minimize the violence that women commit.232 Lesbians may be even less likely to seek assistance through the courts than they are to call the police; in Renzetti’s study, only two percent of the women surveyed said they would find the legal system or courts helpful in resolving their problems.233 This reluctance to turn to the courts reflects both a general sense that the courts are not helpful to battered women (even straight women) and specific concerns about the treatment of lesbians.234 Renzetti’s inquiry presupposes that lesbians can access civil remedies. As previously discussed, some state laws explicitly exclude lesbians from protection order laws; others do so implicitly, by virtue of the relationships covered by the statute.235 Even where court remedies are available, however, the prospect of appearing in a civil court can be daunting. Sandra Lundy, an attorney who frequently represents gay and lesbian clients, recounts, “I know from experience that litigating openly queer cases in civil court is never easy.

You can be sure that somehow, somewhere, when you least expect it, homophobia will rear its ugly head in the courtroom, derailing your arguments, upsetting your client, making it impossible to be heard.”236

229. Burke et al., supra note 188, at 234. Fear of both racist and heterosexist responses may prevent battered lesbians of color from asking for help. Waldron, supra note 54, at 48.

230. RENZETTI supra note 77, at 91; see also McClennen, supra note 216, at 86 (describing law enforcement as “neither empathetic nor helpful” for abused lesbians). Recognizing this problem, some communities have worked diligently to improve police response to same-sex domestic violence. The District of Columbia created a special unit to respond to such calls, headed by an openly gay police officer. Carl A. Fillichio, The New Beat: The Washington Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit Is Transforming Law Enforcement and Redefining the Concept of “Community” Policing, PUB. MANAGER, Sept. 22, 2006, at 56; see also Amy Shomer, Lesbian Domestic Violence: Our Tragic Little Secret, 22 LESBIAN NEWS 24 (1997) (discussing improvements in the treatment of victims after training West Hollywood and Los Angeles police departments on same-sex domestic violence).

231. Sheila M. Seelau & Eric P. Seelau, Gender-Role Stereotypes and Perceptions of Heterosexual, Gay and Lesbian Domestic Violence, 20 J. FAM. VIOLENCE 363, 364 (2005).

232. RISTOCK, supra note 176, at 99. But see Younglove et al., supra note 206, at 770 (concluding that “despite any one individual police officer’s stereotypes and prejudices about gay men and lesbians, as a group the officers were at least aware of the necessity to appropriately characterize an incident of in-home violence.... [T]he gay and lesbian community need not automatically assume that law enforcement can never serve as a resource in combating domestic violence.”).

233. RENZETTI, supra note 77, at 124.

234. Id. at 123.

235. See supra notes 79-81 & accompanying text.

236. Sandra E. Lundy, Equal Protection/Equal Safety: Representing Victims of Same-Sex Partner Abuse in Court, in SAME-SEX DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE, supra note 79, at 43.

Lundy continues:

Yet in the years that I have been representing same-sex victims in Massachusetts civil courts, I have witnessed countless abominations: the judge who addresses the butch lesbian victim as GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 113 Because of most courts’ unfamiliarity and discomfort with same-sex domestic violence, judges may demand more evidence of the violence,237 proof that may be impossible to provide given the private nature of battering. Others minimize the violence, or treat victims in a patronizing manner, as did one San Francisco judge, who allegedly told a battered lesbian and her attacker, “[N]ow ladies, that’s no way to have a relationship.”238 In Massachusetts, the myth of mutual abuse frequently leads to the issuance of inappropriate mutual restraining orders,239 sending the victim the message that the judge does not believe her story and that she is not entitled to any greater protection than her abuser. When orders are granted, those orders may not be strictly enforced, making their worth questionable.240 Even when judges and courtroom staff are respectful of the victim, battered lesbians may nonetheless be “subjected to snickers, jeers, or worse by others in the courtroom.”241 Court staff may also be unwilling to acknowledge lesbian battering. After being attacked by her former partner, Mary Lou Dietrich sought legal assistance. Desperate for protection, she found the experience draining and disappointing: “Monday, I went to the office of the district court clerk to fill out papers for a protective order. The clerk went into a small tizzy when she realized this was not a conventional case of domestic violence.”242 Faced with those challenges, it is unsurprising that may battered lesbians do not see the court system as a viable source of assistance.

IV. THE IMPORTANCE OF OWNING NARRATIVES

Notwithstanding the dominant image of the paradigmatic victim, battered women do fight back. The theories about why battered women fight back are neither comprehensive nor applicable to every woman. They provide a sense of the range of possible stories that women who fight back could tell if given the space to do so, and contrast sharply with the stock victim narrative that “sir”... the countless times that battered lesbians... who seek a civil protective order encounter just one more experience of humiliation and abuse.... I understand why some in our community urge queer people to bypass the court system entirely....



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