Conversations about intimate partner violence among heterosexuals are usually not free from uncomfortable emotions and social taboos. Yet public discussions about intimate partner violence among non-heterosexuals are even more problematic. This is because heteronormativity and gender norms work in intricate ways to prevent a clear and respectful understanding of how intimate relationships between non-heterosexual individuals can also go awry.
With increased interest by government, media, academics and civil society in the specific issues of LGBT people, recent Belgian history is one of several symbolic victories for the LGBT movement. Homosexual relationships have become more publicly visible, more widely accepted and more positively portrayed. Even so, it was almost a decade after marriage equality before the Flemish part of Belgium conducted its first large-scale study into violence between non-heterosexual intimate partners.
Heteronormative world views hadn’t only shaped our laws, but also academic and popular understandings of homosexual relationships. The legal recognition of homosexual relationships was only one step in the process of reshaping these dominant world views and beliefs. The fact that homosexual relationships were once publicly condemned, much more looked down on, and discouraged by our lawmakers still shapes discourses on non-heterosexual intimate partner violence today.
First of all, many people in homosexual relationships feel there is a lingering stigma, even if it is not as pronounced as it once was. Many non-heterosexual people have also had to convince their families and friends that they too can have a normal love life. To these people talking about intimate partner violence can easily feel like a confirmation of the stigma they experience and a disappointment to the people close to them. It is not the love, but the violence that dare not speak its name.
Secondly, gender norms shape our expectations of which people are likely perpetrators of violence and which people are not. They effectively render a part of intimate partner violence invisible. As a result, they undermine the chance of explaining the specific dynamics behind non-heterosexual intimate partner violence and, ultimately, the chance of improving the lives of the couples involved.
Heteronormativity and gender norms are harmful in very subtle and unpredictable ways. Opening up about intimate partner violence in non-heterosexual couples can only be facilitated by reshaping these prevailing norms.