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Improving understanding of and responses to domestic abuse within LGBT+ communities

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LGBT+ History Month, founded in 2004, takes place each February across the UK to commemorate LGBT+ history, raise awareness of inequalities, and celebrate LGBT+ communities. The theme for 2023, #BehindTheLens, encourages everyone to look behind the lens of current media coverage and listen to LGBT+ people’s lived experiences.

Through our National Systems Change work, we focus on domestic abuse within LGBT+ communities[1], yet there is a lack of specialist support, limited research and an urgent need for workforce development across existing domestic abuse services.

In the following blog, we explore the history of the LGBT+ rights movement, the unique forms of abuse and barriers that LGBT+ communities continue to face, and the Drive Partnership’s work to address this systemic gap.

History of the LGBT+ rights movement

LGBT+ people have faced persecution throughout history, and much of the progress for LGBT+ rights has only been won within the last 50 years. This progress can be largely traced back to the Stonewall Riots in New York City in the summer of 1969, with some of the key individuals involved being trans women of colour and lesbians, such as Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie.

The LGBT+ rights movement was predominantly focused on gay liberation, but expanded over time to encompass rights across LGBT+ communities. Despite some progress, LGBT+ communities continued to be denied the most basic human rights – for example, basic rights to family life and child custody within LGBT+ relationships, and basic rights to healthcare, as was evident during the AIDS epidemic in which the stigma around LGBT+ relationships impacted healthcare responses with devastating effects. Much of the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS still exists today, equipping perpetrators with the threat of disclosure as a tool for abuse. While there has been progress in the decades since, much of society still leans towards tolerance rather than inclusion, and LGBT+ people around the world still face persecution, imprisonment, and death for being who they are.

With this in mind, it’s important to note how recent much of LGBT+ communities’ rights progress is in the UK:

Key Dates

    • Consensual sex between men was a criminal offence in England & Wales until 1967[2].
    • Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1987, when it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)[3]. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declassified homosexuality in 1990[4].
    • From 1988 – 2003, Section 28 made it illegal to ‘promote homosexuality’ (talk about LGBT+ identities) in schools[5].
    • Until 2001, the age of consent for sex between men in Britain was higher than for heterosexual couples[6].
    • Same-sex couples were granted equal adoption rights in 2002, which came into effect in December 2005 in England and January 2007 in Scotland[7].
    • Discrimination against lesbian, bisexual, and gay people in the workplace only became illegal in the UK in 2003[8].
    • Trans people could not legally change their gender in England and Wales until 2005 (Gender Recognition Act 2004)[9]. However, spouses must give their consent for the legal gender change if the individual is married. If the spouse does not give their consent, an interim certificate is issued to enable an annulment, but does not have any other legal use[10].
    • The Equality Act 2010 added gender reassignment as a protected characteristic[11]
    • Whilst civil partnerships for same sex couples were introduced in 2004, same sex couples could not marry in England and Wales until early 2014, with Scotland following a few months later[12]. Same sex couples could not marry until 2020 in Northern Ireland[13].
    • The World Health Organisation announced it would be declassifying transgender as a mental illness in 2018; however, this did not go into effect until 1 January 2022[14]. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed gender identity disorder as a diagnosis in 2013 with the publication of the DSM-V[15].
    • For the first time, questions about sexuality and gender identity were included in the 2021 Census for England and Wales. The results released earlier this year show that around 1.5 million people (3.2%) are LGB+[16] and 262,000 people (0.5%) are trans+/do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth[17].

While these dates are milestones in western LGBT+ history, it is critical to remember that LGBT+ people have existed throughout history across the world, and that this history continues to be overlooked. In relation to domestic abuse, understanding both the history of and current climate for LGBT+ communities is essential to realising and breaking down the barriers that LGBT+ victim-survivors face – indeed, hostile environments have long prevented LGBT+ communities from being able to be open about their healthy relationships, let alone abusive ones. As such, when working with LGBT+ people, it is important to be aware of the collective trauma and violence the community has faced. Today, LGBT+ people continue to face discrimination and stigmatisation, and this can affect their experiences of domestic abuse and how they are responded to, both as victim-survivors and perpetrators.

LGBT+ communities and domestic abuse

Domestic abuse affects significant numbers of people across LGBT+ communities; with – across various surveys in the UK – 25% of lesbians and bisexual women[18], 40% of gay and bisexual men[19], and 28% of trans people reporting to have experienced domestic abuse[20]. Overall, LGBT+ people report experiencing domestic abuse at a higher rate than cisgender/heterosexual people, and the abuse they experience is often intrinsically linked to their identity within the LGBT+ community. For example, perpetrators can utilise the threat of revealing LGBT+ identities to wider networks as a powerful form of coercive control targeted at sexual orientation or gender identity[21], and the most frequent type of abuse reported by transgender participants (73%) was transphobic emotional abuse by a partner or ex-partner[22]. These unique forms of abuse can in turn be compounded by the isolation that many LGBT+ people experience from their family and community because of their identity.

Barriers to support for LGBT+ victim-survivors

LGBT+ communities are not only at high risk of domestic abuse, including unique abuse and control relating to their identity, they also face a range of barriers in accessing support because of their identity. As mentioned above, the threat of revealing LGBT+ identity can be a powerful tool used by perpetrators to ensure that victim-survivors do not seek support, which can be further compounded by either existing or potential isolation from family and/or community.

If victim-survivors are able to seek support, there are multiple barriers that could not only prevent effective support but actually risk further harm across wider networks and systems. For example, there is the risk of exposure to ‘conversion therapy’; with one in twenty LGBT+ people (5%) having been pressured to access services to question or ‘change’ their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services, and one in five trans people (20%) having been pressured to access services to suppress their gender identity[23]. Despite this risk and the barrier it creates for victim-survivors, there is still no UK-wide ban on conversion therapy despite Government commitments[24].

In turn, victim-survivors could also fear facing further harm or discrimination within services – with nearly half of LGBT+ people reporting a homophobic, biphobic or transphobic incident in a 12-month period committed by someone they did not live with, “there may be an assumption, based on past experience or anecdotes from others, that services will not be inclusive or even that individual professionals will be homo/bi/trans phobic”[25].

While these are just a few of the obstacles that LGBT+ victim-survivors might encounter, many of the barriers that LGBT+ communities face in accessing support for domestic abuse are intrinsically linked to the discrimination that LGBT+ communities face across society.

Barriers for practitioners

In addition to the systemic barriers that face LGBT+ victim-survivors accessing support, there are a range of barriers that can impact practitioners’ ability to effectively respond – such as limited knowledge of domestic abuse within LGBT+ communities, or of LGBT+ communities in general, resulting in reduced confidence and/or a lack of skills in responding to domestic abuse within LGBT+ communities. For example, practitioners can struggle to identify perpetrators within LGBT+ relationships due to the ‘public story’ of domestic abuse (cis-woman victim-survivor and cis-man perpetrator); which can lead to poor assessments of risk and an over-eagerness to label domestic abuse within an LGBT+ relationship as mutual abuse. Negative and harmful stereotyping of LGBT+ people can also impact judgement of individuals and create unconscious biases which can limit the support that they are able to access.

Limited knowledge is not only a barrier to effectively responding to domestic abuse, it can also be extremely damaging for LGBT+ communities’ confidence and trust in accessing support services – just one poor experience could impact a victim-survivors’ lasting belief in the ability of the system to support them. The lack of trust in professional services is not unfounded considering both the history of LGBT+ communities and ongoing inequality across society and systems.

Ultimately, systems have not historically evolved to respond to the needs of LGBT+ communities. While there has been progress, it is essential that this is systemic and not surface level: Services offering support to victim-survivors should create safe and inclusive spaces that meet a diversity of needs and do not cause, either inadvertently or directly, further harm. In turn, services working with those causing harm must have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to effectively respond; otherwise, the cycle of abuse cannot be stopped.

The Drive Partnership’s National Systems Change work

Many of the structural and systemic barriers to effective responses to domestic abuse within LGBT+ communities are both because of, and continue to contribute to, ongoing limitations to research and investment in this critical area of work. As such, we identified this systemic gap as one of four key focuses of our National Systems Change work, alongside racialised communities, housing, and children’s social care. While we focus on these four separate streams within our National Systems Change work, we also seek to highlight the importance of an intersectional lens across streams to better understand and respond to the multiple layers of structural and systemic inequalities that people can face.

Within our National Systems Change work on LGBT+ communities, we are undertaking multiple areas of activity: including running an LGBT+ victim-survivor consultation; convening an LGBT+ working group with by-and-for organisations; carrying out deep dive case audits of LGBT+ service users in Drive; hosting training workshops on dual allegations – the first of its kind in the UK – and collaborating with the University of Durham to build the evidence base on LGBT+ perpetrators currently accessing services.

Moving forward, we are developing practice guidance to support and improve how we engage with LGBT+ service users across both current and future Drive Project sites, and it is our ambition to work collaboratively through the working group to develop interventions that improve responses to LGBT+ perpetrators. Addressing this systemic gap is critical to not only the long-term safety and freedom of LGBT+ victim-survivors, but also to ensuring that national systems respond effectively to all perpetrators of domestic abuse and contribute to stopping domestic abuse for good.

Alex I., The Drive Partnership 

[1] https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Free%20to%20be%20safe%20web.pdf

[2] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/60/pdfs/ukpga_19670060_en.pdf

[3] American Psychiatric Association. (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., rev.)

[4] https://www.attitude.co.uk/uncategorised/the-fight-to-declassify-homosexuality-as-a-mental-disorder-403989/

[5] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/9/section/28/enacted

[6] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/love-wins-age-consent-equalised-gay-and-bi-men

[7] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/2002-same-sex-couples-free-adopt-adoption-and-children-act

[8] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/2003-freedom-discrimination-and-harassment-work

[9] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/contents

[10] https://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/the-legal-process-for-gender-change#.WxAM83PTU0M

[11] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents

[12] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/2014-i-do-marriage-act-means-same-sex-couples-can-tie-knot#:~:text=The%20first%20ceremonies%20took%20place,as%20the%20clock%20struck%20midnight

[13] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-51086276

[14] https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/20/health/transgender-people-no-longer-considered-mentally-ill-trnd/index.html

[15] https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/diversity/education/transgender-and-gender-nonconforming-patients/gender-dysphoria-diagnosis



[18] https://www.stonewallcymru.org.uk/help-advice/criminal-law/domestic-violence-0

[19] https://www.stonewallcymru.org.uk/help-advice/criminal-law/domestic-violence-0

[20] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/system/files/lgbt_in_britain_-_trans_report_final.pdf

[21] https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Free%20to%20be%20safe%20web.pdf

[22] trans_domestic_abuse.pdf (scottishtrans.org)

[23] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/system/files/lgbt_in_britain_health.pdf

[24] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/ban-conversion-therapy

[25] Free to be safe web.pdf (safelives.org.uk)