By Tori Marlan
On the morning of January 31, 1995, 25-five-year-old Patricia Phillips was left for dead on the pavement outside a near-west-side nightclub. She’d been intentionally run over by a Cadillac three times. All attempts to save her failed.
Known as the “Cadillac case” in the state’s attorney’s office, the murder garnered attention from the dailies and television news. The story had an extra element of sensationalism: the driver of the car was Willette Benford, Phillips’s girlfriend.
It was one of the few times that Ellen Meyers, liaison for lesbian and gay issues at the state’s attorney’s office, had seen mainstream press coverage of same-sex domestic violence. But to her the murder was no surprise. A few years ago she was part of a coalition of law-enforcement agencies, social-service organizations, and community groups that identified same-sex domestic violence as a serious problem in Chicago, a problem that wasn’t being acknowledged. The coalition members decided to do something about it, and it recently became clear that their efforts were paying off.
The coalition was formed after Horizons Community Services, an organization that had been providing services for gay men and lesbians since 1973, noticed a steady increase in domestic-violence calls to its Anti-Violence Project crisis line–which had been set up primarily to help victims of hate crimes. The project only began documenting the nature of the calls in 1991, but according to Jerri Lynn Fields, the project director, domestic-violence calls had been coming in since day one. “I think that a lot of people didn’t know that what they were calling about was domestic violence. So if a man was being battered by his lover he didn’t call to report domestic violence–he was calling to report getting beaten up. But most people who work in the Anti-Violence Project are pretty familiar with domestic violence, so the people here obviously recognized it as that.” According to Fields, 8 to 12 domestic-violence calls now come in each month–from callers who aren’t sure if they’re in an abusive relationship as well as from those who know their safety is in jeopardy.
When people think of domestic abuse they usually assume that men are the abusers and women the victims. Yet Meyers points out, “No community owns sick behavior. Unfortunately I think domestic violence is part of human behavior.”
The dynamics of abuse in gay relationships are often similar to those in straight relationships–the victims blame themselves and have low self-esteem, the abuse gradually escalates and is cyclical. Maureen Feerick, the prosecutor on the Cadillac case, says Phillips and Benford had been entangled in a classic abusive relationship: there had been a history of violence, on several occasions the police had intervened, and Phillips’s family had tried to persuade her to leave Benford. Feerick presented that pattern of violence as evidence that Phillips’s death was no accident. Benford was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Same-sex domestic violence also has unique elements. “The abusers in same-sex relationships use the concept of homophobia over the person they’re battering,” says Fields. “Meaning, if you tell anyone, I’ll tell your parents you’re gay. If you tell anyone, I’ll tell your ex-wife you’re gay, and you’ll never see your kids again. I’ll come to your workplace, and I’ll tell them. So for many people who are being abused, they won’t call the police, they won’t try to get out, because they’re afraid of the ramifications. The homophobia–if someone isn’t out in all aspects of their life–is a very powerful tool.” Fields has also seen abusers threaten to disclose the HIV status of their victims. But it’s often just as difficult for openly gay men and lesbians to extricate themselves from abusive relationships, because they tend to be more alienated from their families than their straight and closet counterparts and can’t depend on them for support.
In December 1992, the second year the Anti-Violence Project officially kept records of its calls, Horizons and the Evelyn Hooker Center for Gay and Lesbian Mental Health convened a meeting to discuss domestic abuse in the gay and lesbian community. Representatives from the Police Department, the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, the state’s attorney’s office, and the Department of Health attended, and they formed the ad hoc coalition Chicago Area Lesbian and Gay Domestic Violence Project to study the problem. Almost a year later the coalition went public with a report, Tragedies Unspoken: Domestic Violence Involving Lesbian and Gay Adults and Youth, which found that “lesbians and gay men are as likely as heterosexuals to be caught within [the] cycle of violence in their relationships,” though they were less likely than straight people to report the crimes, fearing, among other things, “derision or victimization” from the police.
Understanding that the AIDS crisis slogan “silence equals death” could also pertain to the issue of domestic abuse, the coalition’s members came up with a series of recommendations that would make domestic abuse more visible and provide victims with services. As a consequence the state’s attorney’s office began conducting workshops for social-service providers, bar owners and staff, and religious organizations. Horizons began discussing the problem with police officers and battered women’s shelters.
Not everyone in the gay and lesbian community embraced the coalition’s efforts to expose the problem. “This report was the first time that anything was written down or anything was discussed about it,” says Meyers. “There is a reluctance in any community to talk about domestic violence. This is never a popular topic. The denial level was amazing.”
Fields adds, “When this report came out we wanted everyone to know about it. Obviously we wanted the gay and lesbian community to know about it, because we wanted them to be safe and seek legal remedies. But other people needed to know about it–people who are not gay who are prosecuting cases or making arrests. There were many people in the lesbian and gay community who didn’t want the nongay population to have one more thing to hold against them.”
It was also soon apparent that gay and lesbian victims were often reluctant to pursue their abusers in court, even though the law was on their side. The Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 is clearly applicable to gay and lesbian victims; written in gender-neutral terms, it was amended in January 1993 to redefine “family” to include people who are in a dating relationship but not living together. “You’re looking at a community group that doesn’t participate in the criminal justice system historically at all,” says Meyers, “and there’s a lot of reason for that. The laws in the past were used against us, selectively enforced specifically against the gay and lesbian community.”
So the state’s attorney’s office created a position for a gay and lesbian victim/witness specialist, a job that’s now held by Vernita Gray. Often the first person to consult with victims, she helps them get through the legal process, laying out their legal options and accompanying them to court to get an order of protection or go to trial. She’s even gone to the police station with victims to help them make reports.
Gray–who back in the late 60s and early 70s turned her home into a crash pad for gay people who’d left abusive lovers or had been rejected by their parents, which Gray considers another form of domestic abuse– works on all gay-related crimes, but her workload consists of mostly domestic-violence cases. And she gets new cases every week. She says she can promise that the police will be held accountable for any mistreatment of victims, that the victims won’t be laughed out of court, and that the state’s attorney’s office is committed to prosecuting abusers regardless of their sexual orientation, but she can’t promise that the abusers won’t out them. “I say, ‘If you do nothing, then you’ll continue to be victimized. And I really think you should go ahead with getting the order of protection, because this is just another threat and another issue of power and control.’ It may happen, it may not. I’ve had people whose abusers have called the job, written to clients–the whole nine yards.”
By all indications domestic abuse is no longer what the Windy City Times once called the gay and lesbian community’s “dirty, little secret.” In the five years that Horizons has been quantifying calls for the Anti-Violence Project, the number of people reporting domestic violence has nearly doubled. Last year, for the first time, the number of callers reporting domestic violence (129) surpassed the number of those reporting violent hate crimes (111). “The Horizons numbers were pretty startling,” says Roy DeLaMar, the paper’s managing editor. “They did a great service and woke everybody up.”
An anonymous letter to the editor published in the Windy City Times served as bittersweet confirmation: “My girlfriend has hit me, hard sometimes….I’m not going to call her anymore or talk to her anymore….Reading about domestic violence–that it happens in lesbian couples–helped me to decide to break up with her.”
Gray, Fields, and Meyers acknowledge that there’s still work to be done. Two obvious needs are for support groups (Horizons is planning one for lesbians in the fall) and for a gay men’s shelter (lesbians can blend into a battered-women’s shelter by changing pronouns when they talk about their abusive partners, but men have nowhere to go).
The burden of fulfilling those needs, says Fields, shouldn’t fall entirely on the gay and lesbian community. “There’s a whole larger domestic-violence community out there that already has the resources. So instead of us reinventing the wheel, they should have a more encompassing definition of domestic violence and acknowledge the responsibility.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ellen Meyers, Jerri Lynn Fields, Vernita Gray, by Randy Tunnell.