Violence in same-sex relationship misrepresented by media

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Lesbian relationships, like those that do not appear to adhere to the white heterosexual middle-class norms, have been misrepresented by the mainstream in the United States for decades.  Similarly, sexual violence has also been grossly misrepresented by the media.  Violence within lesbian communities more so.

The U.S. mainstream media features stories about lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) communities through such mediums as:

(1) characters on scripted and reality shows;

(2) marriage for same-sex couples has become a rallying cry for mainstream LGBTQ organizations (which is not indicative nor reflective of the diversity of behaviors and opinions around state regulation of queer relationships) and;

(3) legislative efforts suggest the United States provides legal protections for individuals that self-identify as or are perceived to be LGBTQ when targeted in acts of violence

An article in The Washington Post describing an abusive relationship in the political circle of Washington, D.C. reminds us of the tremendous work we have in dismantling stereotypes and re/constructing narratives.  Judge Russell F. Canan sentenced Taylar Nuevelle, 41, to the maximum sentence under the court’s guidelines of 5 1/2 years for domestic violence of a her former partner, Judge Janet Albert.  In February 2010, a jury found Nuevelle guilty of stalking Judge Albert.

Merely having media representation of queer individuals and/or relationships mirrors what Sarah Schulman in Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences refers to as “falsely cod[ing] that work as progressive.  But, if the actual meaning and content of the specific representation is examined, many of these representations are retrograde” (2009).

What does the media articulate as suitable for public consumption?  The article lacks context surrounding domestic violence and stalking in lesbian relationships.  Such a gap further reinforces the second-class treatment the media deploys by portraying queer* relationships and/or individuals as pathological or lesser than heterosexual rather than using the opportunity to draw attention to unhealthy and unsafe relationships.  Mentioning the emotional trauma experienced by Judge Albert as a result of the abusive relationship does not make up for the lack of context, especially when choosing to end the article by quoting Nuevelle’s attorney, “The lesson of this is don’t have a bad breakup with a lesbian judge. It means you go to jail for 5 1/2 years.”

In other words, abusive relationships go unnoticed unless one person in the relationship holds a position in court?  Abusive relationships are the norm and should continue to go unnoticed, unreported, and therefore unchanged, otherwise people are punished?  Latif Doman, Nuevelle’s attorney, seems to discourage readers/public from challenging relationship norms.  For those of us in the field of ending gender-based/sexual violence, Mr. Doman reminds us of the importance in developing partnerships with allies including attorneys, judges, law enforcement and journalists so as to counter the victim-blaming narrative so often portrayed in the media and legal system.  Reframing the narrative of relationship violence is critical work when prosecuting perpetrators/abusers and protecting survivors as a means of intervention.

*In this post, I used queer as an umbrella term to refer to individuals and/or relationships that are not defined or self-identified as heterosexual.

Livia Rojas, MSSW, is the Training and Resource Coordinator in the Campus Program at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) where she provides training and technical assistance to recipients of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) Grant to Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking on college and university campuses across the United States and territories. Livia has eleven years of working to advance human rights and student organizing through practice and research.

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