By Greg Hernandez
When psychology student Susan Holt began a mental health internship in 1987 at the Center, then known as the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, she had no idea she had found her life’s work.
Holt’s internship occurred at the same time the Center was collaborating with the California School of Professional Psychology on a groundbreaking survey focused on domestic violence within the gay and lesbian community. Within a year, she found herself managing and co-facilitating the Center’s first for domestic abuse and violence and abandoning any plans to become a general practitioner.
In 1996 the Center launched the STOP Violence Program with Holt at the helm. STOP (Support, Treatment/Intervention, Outreach/Education and Prevention) marks its 25th anniversary this year as the largest and most comprehensive LGBTQ-specific domestic violence program in the nation.
“This is truly a specialty,” said Holt. “LGBTQ domestic violence is not the same as domestic violence in the heterosexual community. There are really significant differences. If you don’t understand those differences, then you’re not going to be helpful, or even safe, as a service provider for those who need help.”
As common among same-sex couples as it is among heterosexual couples, domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in which an intimate partner or former partner attempts to control the thoughts, beliefs, and/or actions of the other. It may include physical, sexual, psychological, and/or financial abuse.
The STOP Violence Program helps an average of 300 people per month by offering a wide variety of services including crisis intervention, counseling, therapy groups, safe housing, and basic necessities such as food, clothing, and transportation for members of the LGBTQ community who are affected by domestic violence and other crimes.
“It’s help that’s specialized for the LGBTQ community,” said Holt. “Not for their non-LGBTQ neighbors, not for their non-LGBTQ friends—but for themselves—because that’s the way it’s been developed. We’re able to assess everyone who comes in for any mental health issue for risk of domestic violence—and that goes a long way. Other providers generally don’t do that.”
Giving a Name to the Problem
There had been a lack of visibility around LGBTQ domestic violence. People in the community didn’t even realize that’s what they actually were experiencing.
“Clients kept coming in with those experiences, but it was not getting named and certainly not being addressed,” recalled Holt. “I was there repeatedly when services and advocacy were needed. I saw this as such a huge problem. It was really concerning, and no one had any information about this….no one.”
The program staff has grown from the early days and is currently comprised of 13 members who include clinical psychologists, social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, and pre-licensed associates working toward a license with a specialization in domestic violence.
The program works in concert with the Center’s Legal Advocacy Project for Survivors which has attorneys trained in LGBTQ-domestic violence issues. It has also broadened its services to address LGBTQ family violence.
Mental health clinician Iordana Gamiz describes the work as hard but fulfilling. She is impressed with the program’s impact which Holt has managed to build over the years.
“She created categories to understand domestic violence through an LGBTQ lens because there are so many differences,” said Gamiz. “There are primary aggressors, secondary aggressors, defending victims, primary victims…not only male abusers and female victims. It’s really accurate when you look at the complexities and the dynamics of the relationships.”
LGBTQ people are more apt than heterosexuals to fight back in self-defense which can lead to confusion among providers, law enforcement and the court system. A domestic violence incident might, for example, simply be classified as a fight between two men or two women which sometimes results in batterers being assessed as survivors and vice versa.
“Horrible ramifications come from that,” Holt points out. “Adequate assessments are not being done in the mainstream community. They see it as a fight. It’s minimized as such, and it’s always conceptualized as a gender-based problem. We don’t have services as a result for the people who need them. A lot of the services available, if they are not LGBTQ-specific, can do real harm. We still have a very long way to go in that regard.”
Helping Victims and Abusers
Holt learned the only way to tackle the problem was not only to work with victims but also to work with the abusers. This led to the Center developing one of the first court-approved LGBTQ-specific batterers’ intervention programs in the nation.
“I work with people who are the abusers,” said Gamiz. “This has been the richest experience for me because providing assistance to batterers has helped me to become a better therapist and also understand the complexities of humans in a better way. They need a lot of help.”
While plenty of batterers are court-ordered into therapy, a greater number seek help with what they describe as an “anger management problem.”
“People will come in for services when they think they have an anger management problem,” explained Holt. “When you label it as domestic violence, then it gets much, much more difficult for people to accept that’s what they are actually experiencing.”
Envisioning The Bigger Picture
Not content with only helping Center clients, Holt has been committed to contributing to permanent community and policy change. She has made it a goal of the STOP Violence Program to bring attention to the lack of appropriate services and to develop effective strategies to ensure broader availability of LGBTQ-affirming survivor services.
It bothered Holt greatly that graduate students were coming into the agency’s internship program with absolutely no training in domestic violence. She considered this very dangerous to clients and played a major role in creating California legislation signed into law in 2004 requiring domestic violence education in all graduate programs of behavioral and mental health. The law also requires that clinicians have knowledge of LGBTQ abuse dynamics.
“I am really proud and thrilled of the work we’ve been able to do in California,” said Holt. “I want to make sure that increasing numbers of people are trained in this so, as we go on, more and more people are getting appropriate, non-damaging, and effective treatment and intervention.”
The Center’s STOP Violence Program can be reached at 323-860-5806 or [email protected].
The Center’s Legal Advocacy Project for Survivors (LAPS) can be reached at 323-993-7649.