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Can a feminist tech collective help end the silence around LGBTQ+ domestic abuse?

The Supernova Project is a new online platform that aims to provide crucial information and support to those in queer relationships.

The Supernova Project. / supernovaproject.orgMarco (a pseudonym), had always been confident, talkative and strong-minded. So, when he first told his friends that he thought he was experiencing domestic abuse, he says no one could believe him. “At the beginning, they think you're crazy,” Marco told me. “Everybody was like, that's not true, it's impossible that someone is doing that to you.”

The abuse started with "stupid things...so I was accomodating," he said. Soon, “I had to ask him what to do all the time, because I was afraid something was going to happen after. I stopped going out, [I was] at home all the time," he continued. "At a restaurant, I had to ask him what I wanted to eat, just in case he would getting angry.”

Marco, now 36, was living in Spain in 2009 when, two years into his relationship, he realised that he needed help. He searched for support online, but came up empty-handed.

Everything, he said, appeared targeted to people in heterosexual relationships. “I was in a male-male relationship. I couldn't find anything related to me, where I was like 'oh yeah, this is what is happening to me', I'm going to call this place, or something, to see if they can help me.”

“Everybody was like, that's not true, it's impossible that someone is doing that to you.”

But Marco was far from alone in what he was going through. Stonewall – a British charity campaigning for LGBT equality – reports that nearly 50% of gay and bisexual men in the UK, and up to 80% of trans people, have experienced some form of domestic abuse. 

One in four lesbian and bisexual women have experienced domestic abuse, it adds, with two thirds reporting that the perpetrator was a woman.

In the US, other figures suggest that more than 40% of lesbian and 60% of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, and 30% of lesbian and 50% of bisexual women have suffered “severe physical violence” from a partner.

It's difficult, with the data available, to tell whether such abuse is more common in queer or heterosexual relationships. The UK government estimates that 26% of women and 14% of men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16, without specifying sexual orientation.

What is clear, is that domestic abuse and violence is an LGBT issue too – despite the fact that most of the stories we hear are about a woman facing abuse at the hands of a man. While there is growing awareness that men may also experience abuse, at the hands of women, such issues in queer relationships are still rarely spoken about.

‘If no one’s talking about queer relationships, how do you know you’re in a healthy one?"

Why is this the case, and what can be done about it? These are the questions that a unique, feminist, open-source tech collective called Chayn (pronounced Chan) has set out to address. Their Supernova Project launched in July to tackle the silence and lack of information around abuse in queer relationships with a new online platform.

In the UK, Broken Rainbow, a charity offering specialist support to LGBT victims of domestic abuse and violence, shut down in 2016. LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity Galop has compiled domestic abuse resources and details about services, but it has little information beyond London.

This summer, Supernova Project team member Maryam Amjad described the problem like this: ‘"f no one’s talking about queer relationships, how do you know you’re in a healthy one?"

Marco has first-hand experience with the silence around these issues. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Spain in 2005, “but it’s still a Catholic country,” he said. “Talking with some people, just saying that I was gay, they would look at me differently, so obviously… I'm not going to continue, saying I think I'm having domestic abuse.”

Screenshot of The Supernova Project's 'Queer Abuse' section. / supernovaproject.orgChayn is entirely volunteer-run. Michelle Parfitt has been leading the planning and coordination of the Supernova Project, from working on ways to gather content to building and designing the site. 

“If you don't hear about something, and if you don't think that people are talking about something, it's also a lot harder to identify it,” she said, about the problem the project is trying to address. Certain abusive patterns only occur within queer relationships, she added.

“Using the threat of 'outing' as a way to control someone, isolating someone within the queer community, or hiding your relationship as a way to manipulate your partner – if you find content online about heterosexual relationships, you won't come across these things.”

“Using the threat of 'outing' as a way to control someone…if you find content online about heterosexual relationships, you won't come across these things.”

The Supernova Project hopes to combat this using Chayn’s ‘design with, not for’ principle; the platform is working with queer domestic abuse survivors to directly inform its content.

Different pages on the online platform give in-depth information about different queer identities, so that it is specialist and tailored to different LGBTQ+ experiences of abuse.

On the page for female-female relationships, it debunks the myth that “butch” or "masculine" women are more capable of abusive behaviour. In content dedicated to transgender experiences, it warns that “intentionally triggering gender dysphoria” is a potential form of emotional abuse.

The project invites users to share their own stories. This means that it will evolve and expand, Parfitt said. “We want to make sure that there isn't too much distance between us and the people who we're trying to help.”

At Durham University, PhD student Kate Butterworth has been researching police response to same-sex partner abuse in England and Wales. She said officers tend to be “unaware of LGBT-specific support for victims … and would refer them to non-specialist organisations.”

A platform like the Supernova Project, she suggested, could be useful in this context, and “could be used by the police, to suggest to victims.”

Parfitt says the project wants to work on search engine optimisation along with offline outreach, “to organisations who are going to be in contact with people on the ground; universities, support systems, and wellbeing centres.”

“You want the right people to find it at the right time,” she explained. Though this is not a simple task.

“You want the right people to find it at the right time.”

Marco heard about the Supernova Project through a friend. He agreed that was an important initiative, and wanted to support it.

He says it had taken him years to realise unequivocally that he was in an abusive relationship. By that point, his partner was so controlling, that “there was only one friend I was allowed to talk to. And by allow I mean allow – because he had a list of people I couldn't talk to.”

“He had all my passwords, he was checking my emails continuously, when he was arriving home he was getting onto my phone to see what I was texting, who I was texting, everything,” Marco said. “I feel like I lost four years of my life.”

Could a new online platform actually make a difference to those struggling with such abuse? Marco suggests the answer is yes. If there had been more discussion, and information, about these issues, he says, "I suppose for me it would have been easier, from the beginning, to be stronger.”


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