By ERIN ROOK
Today (Oct. 17) is Spirit Day, a day on which allies of LGBTQ youth wear purple to raise awareness about bullying. When Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan started the observance in 2010, she probably didn’t know that October is, in addition to LGBTQ History Month, also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. While Spirit Day adopted the color purple because of the symbolism of the colors in the original Pride flag, purple is also the color used to represent domestic violence awareness. The similarities in the awareness raising campaigns may be coincidental, but it is still meaningful.
Growing up, I experienced virtually no bullying. My high school classmates poked gentle fun at my hairy legs and close-cropped coif, but it never felt particularly mean-spirited and so it didn’t phase me. My difference was a badge of honor; they called me their “favorite non-conformist.”
It wasn’t until college that I first experienced harassment — at the hands of an abusive partner.
Bullying is described as aggressive behavior (typically repeating) that may include threats, rumors, verbal and physical attacks, and acts of social exclusion. In many ways, domestic violence is like being viciously bullied by someone who claims to love you. It makes sense — kids who bully have often experienced abuse and are more likely to go on to abuse others, including their intimate partners.
Bullying and domestic violence are cyclical – those children who witness domestic violence are at a much higher risk of becoming both bullies and victims of bullying. Conversely, those children who bully or are victims of bullying (without any resolution or intervention by adults in their lives) end up learning social norms in relationships that can look a lot like domestic violence. In other words, if a bully learns that there are no consequences for his or her negative treatment of other children, they learn that this behavior is OK in all of their relationships, including relationships with dating partners or spouses later in life. Also, if a child always falls victim to bullying, with no outside help or intervention, this child may grow to feel that this is the best they deserve to be treated in their relationships – hence making them more vulnerable to domestic violence later in life.
Both bullies and abusers are often people who have been mistreated in the past and who, in an effort to regain a sense of personal power and control, dominate others. This is not to say, of course, that everyone who experiences abuse early in life (or every schoolyard bully) will grow up to be an abuser — but many will.
Because Spirit Day focuses on LGBTQ victims of bullying and because society tends to assume perpetrators of domestic violence are heterosexual men (assaulting heterosexual women), we don’t always make the connection between this type of bullying and domestic violence. But a recent study shows that even in their teen years, LGBTQ individuals are more likely to experience dating violence than their peers (while some of their aggressors may still be heterosexual, cisgender male partners, many are LGBTQ identified themselves).
And a number of studies show that LGBTQ adults are at least as likely to be victims of domestic violence as heterosexual women — that is, as many as one in three report being abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
While the domestic violence experienced by LGBTQ folks is similar in many ways to the abuse that occurs in heterosexual relationships, there are some differences. (Just as the bullying of LGBTQ youth is both similar to and different from the harassment experienced by other children deemed social outcasts.) You can learn more about the ways domestic violence can manifest in relationships with LGBTQ individuals here and read personal stories from queer survivors here. (I’ve also written about my own experiences as a survivor of domestic violence here, here, and here.)
As the media continues to shine a much-needed light on the bullying experienced by LGBTQ youth, let’s not forget the serious social ill tied up in its causes and effects — domestic violence.
If you or someone you care about needs help dealing with domestic violence, reach out to an LGBTQ-friendly/focused domestic violence agency, such as Bradley Angle, The Network/La Red, or Northwest Network.