Article and Photo by Anya Karagulina '17
***Trigger warning: emotional abuse
There’s a strange myth that queer relationships are free of abuse, emotional or otherwise. This article consists of a few half-answers as to why this myth persists.
Maybe this misconception exists because queerness can subvert cis/heterosexist norms. Maybe it’s because queer relationships are supposed to be impossible. In this world, to be with someone queerly goes against almost everything you’ve been taught. So what happens when you do find someone - someone queer who wants to be with you? What happens when your queer partner, who looks nothing like what you’ve been taught an abuser looks like, hurts you? What do you do?
When you first find this person, you have high hopes. You hope that they will treat you better than how you’ve been treated in the past, that what you’ll have will be unlike the (often abusive) cis/heterosexual relationships you’ve seen. You hope that you will be able to escape because your partner, like you, is transfeminine and/or non-binary and/or pan-sexual and/or genderqueer (and/or ad infinitum). This hope often turns into an assumption - you assume that because this person was probably also taught to make themselves pliant, they will know how small you’ve made yourself in the past. You hope and assume that this person will let you be as big as you can be without hurting them, that they will treat you with care. But what if you do hurt them? And what if they, even though they’ve also felt some of the pains you have, hurt you?
A lot of the time you might not know what to do. Partly, this is because there are few nuanced accounts of queer relationships. When you do catch the rare glimpse of queer people in a book or on TV, they are usually perfect and happy together. The narrative goes: look at the brave queers, together in spite of all the violence being queer brings their way. In this narrative, they care and love each other, perfectly. I want to be careful here, though - when I say “they,” it usually means white cis gay men with wealth and ability (with the occasional white lesbian tossed in for inclusivity’s sake). Most queer people cannot see themselves in that tiny demographic. Most queer people also don’t have perfect relationships, because it is not as if all the shit you internalized growing up suddenly disappears when you enter a queer relationship. Queer people can still be ableist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, classist (etc) to their queer partners. Queerness does not necessarily negate abuse, emotional or otherwise.
But still, the myth persists. This has to do with the pressure to hold up queerness as a valid option and identity. There is an idea that if you are in a queer relationship that has failed, you have failed queerness. This standard, of course, is deeply unfair. If you asked cis/heterosexual partners to live up to the same standard, it would be quickly apparent that cis/heterosexuality is a failed experiment. But that’s not how it goes.
The thing is, emotional abuse is everywhere. Some are more comfortable calling what they see abuse. Others reserve the word for extremes. The reasons for this are multifold (pain, denial, guilt, etc), but the fact still remains - emotional abuse is everywhere. You are more likely to know this if you are queer, given the higher rates of abuse (emotional and otherwise) queer people face (look it up if you haven’t read about it before). Despite all of this, though, you might still believe in a queer utopia.
I want to say that this utopia is impossible. That even if you evade what cisheteronormativity, capitalism, and white supremacy have kindly gifted you at a young age (in all of its global iterations), you have seen and practiced emotional abuse. That we have all seen and practiced emotional abuse. A lot of it is simultaneously visible and invisible. It exists on the periphery. It exists in the every day. It exists in some of your relationships and in some of your friend’s relationships, be they platonic, romantic, or any gradient outside and in between.
There are a lot of stories I can tell you about growing up with an emotionally abusive father. I could try to convince you that I am telling the truth, but I’m not interested in that because I need you to believe me when I say that someone is emotionally abusive.
The thing about emotional abuse is that you doubt yourself. You internalize everything the abuser has taught you. You learn to constantly question yourself and your intentions. When you are repeatedly gaslit, you don’t know what is real and what isn’t. You learn to dissociate to protect yourself. Please know this: if you are told something day in and day out, you will believe it. If you are emotionally abused day in and day out and no one around you says anything about it, you will take these words and honor them as your truth.
The thing is, I don’t have any siblings. My extended family - that is, everyone except my mother and father - lives in a time zone eleven hours away, so once we moved to the states, there was barely anyone to witness what my life looked like. There was no one to corroborate or validate my feelings. I did not have the language or resources to describe what was happening, so even though I partly understood that what my dad did was fucked up and that my family was not healthy, I could only try to cope. It was only in my second year at college, when I saw an infographic on Tumblr on the “common characteristics of abusers” that I realized that I could even call what I experience/d “abuse.”
Despite all of my wishes to the contrary, it is easy to be emotionally manipulated. You can be emotionally manipulated even when you’ve grown up with an emotionally abusive father and you think you know the ropes. The thing about emotional abuse is that no one talks about it because each person feels alone in how they feel. That’s the trick of it, it’s what makes it so insidious. No one can name it because they do not trust how they feel. People who emotionally manipulate are very good at making people feel isolated. This is what someone who manipulates wants. Their worst fear is being named for the person they are, for being seen as the things they do.
It’s even harder to spot emotional abuse when you’re in a queer relationship. My father might be emotionally manipulative but at least he looks like what an abuser “looks like” - he’s a white cisheterosexual man. I know to fear people like him and I know what to do with people like him. But it’s harder when it is your queer partner who is hurting you. Your partner probably doesn’t fit the mold of an abuser, and besides, the queer utopia asks that you don’t fail or betray queerness.
I only have half-answers for you. I don’t know what to do if you find yourself emotionally abusing someone or if you find yourself in an emotionally abusive relationship. I don’t think there’s a single solution, either, but I can say a few words on how to spot emotional abuse.
One of the only ways to recognize it is to talk about it with others. This looks like telling a friend you feel safe with that a lot of your interactions with X leave you upset, but you’re not quite sure why. This looks like trusting others if they tell you about their experiences. This looks like holding yourself and others accountable for their emotions and words. This looks like not using your pain or being upset so that someone does as you wish.
I often think about my alternative timeline. What if someone had named my abuse? What if someone recognized and named what was happening before I did? Because they must have seen (she must have seen) because it was right in front of them, pleading to be named. But they did not say what they saw, they did not name it. I’m going to tell you now the most painful part of all of this (this is the part where I really reveal something for you - store this away if you collect pieces of other people):
When the people who are supposed to love and care for you - your parents, your friends, your partners - do not speak, they aid the person who manipulates and abuses. Their silence means that it takes that much more to name what is happening and figure out how to deal with it in a way that leaves you with a solid understanding of reality.
Your silence aids and abets.
Queer spaces and queer relationships are rife with emotional abuse and it persists because no one names it for what it is - violence. The myth of a queer utopia is tantalizing but it is not real. Your friends and partners deserve to hear and know the truth. They deserve to have their experiences and feelings validated. If it’s safe for you to do so, please speak up.
Say what you see and trust those that speak.