Molly Hermann, a Madison-area LGBT activist, says domestic abuse is common for both LGBT and straight students.[/media-credit]

An expert in domestic violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities said Tuesday that victims of sexual assault often encounter difficulty in seeking assistance and encounter stigmas associated with the community.

Molly Herrmann, a LGBT activist in the Madison community, spoke at the Break the Silence Around Violence event as part of Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month series. 

The University of Wisconsin LGBT Campus Center hosted the event as part of Out and About Month, according to a PAVE statement.

Herrmann said the LGBT community faces an uphill battle against societal norms that classify domestic violence as an issue only among heterosexual communities. 

Enforcing power and control over a partner, Herrmann said, occurs within the LGBT community as frequently as it does among heterosexual couples, with instances of violence taking place in about one-third of all relationships.

Herrmann said ignorance surrounding intimate partner violence comes from both the LGBT and heterosexual communities. This makes it especially difficult for victims to step forward for help, she said.

“The theme we hear from lesbian women we ask [about intimate partner assault] is that there’s some kind of lesbian utopia,” Herrmann said. “They say, ‘This isn’t happening in our community, and if it was we’d stop it.’ If a victim within that community hears no one is getting abused, they’re much less likely to come forward.”

Herrmann added heterosexual and LGBT communities do not know about intimate partner violence because both tend to think of hate crimes as the only form of violence against LGBT individuals.

Herrmann said intimate partner violence can take many forms. While abusive partners can be physically violent, they can also leave threats, break and steal possessions, and involve children or pets in a conflict.

Perpetrators of violence in a relationship often thrive off the social stigmas against homosexuality and the transgendered, she said. The threat of outing their partner to those unaware of their orientation gives an abuser control over his or her partner.

The ignorance of both communities allows abusers to continue to harass a victim without the fear of persecution, Herrmann added. 

Perpetrators also know their partners are not likely to come forward, fearing misunderstandings or homophobic responses from family or friends.

Gay men often do not come forward when abused by a partner, Herrmann said, because they worry about appearing less masculine. She also said despite what society believes about homosexual men, most male victims are too embarrassed to come forward when abused by another man.

Mindy Eggebeen, peer facilitator for PAVE, said most people tend to picture domestic violence as a man abusing a woman because statistically these are the most common types of attacks. Little research has been done on intimate partner violence, making it difficult to inform people about the scope of the problem, she said.

“It’s hard to even define LGBT communities and when you add how underreported these crimes are, it’s clearer why these abuses aren’t talked about,” she said.

UW sophomore Ashley Thorpe said LGBT individuals lack the rhetoric to describe abuse, which is predominantly constructed in a heterosexual framework. 

Thorpe said while most sexual assault services on campus acknowledge violence among LGBT individuals, the greater campus community is largely unaware of its existence.