Trans and non-binary people and their animal companions living with and beyond domestic violence

Authors: Nik Taylor, Heather Fraser, Damien Riggs and Shoshanna Rosenberg

We’ve recently had a paper published outlining the results of two different studies that looked at the roles of domesticated animal companions in the lives of transgender and non-binary (TNB) people. In one of these studies we analysed survey responses from 23 people who were asked about the overlaps between human and animal directed violence. In the other we used data from interviews with eight TNB people who were asked a variety of questions about their relationships with their animal companions. This paper is the latest in a series of work we have done looking at TNB people and their animal companions, with a focus on how these strong, loving, relationships might help both the humans and the animals, especially if they are recovering from domestic and family violence.

In our research we found that almost a third of our participants had experiences where an animal was threatened as part of human-to human conflict/violence.  This was not only related to intimate partners, with participants discussing violence by other family members toward their animals. One person, for example, talked about how their father “used to take his anger out on the family dog”. This kind of violence had long lasting effects for some of our participants, who talked about how it still features in their flashbacks. People also told us how the abuse of their animals helped them see that they were living in an abusive situation and so their animals became a catalyst pushing them to leave their abusers. This was not always straightforward, though, with some of our participants explaining that they stayed in the abusive situation in order to protect their animals.

What was exceptionally clear from our participants was that their animals were very important to them. They told us that their animals offered stress-relief, comfort, and strength. One person told us “the love I received from my dogs helped me to endure the abuse more than I would have been able to do otherwise”. Participants also told us how their animals brought joy to their lives and offered them non-judgmental support. This was important in both recovery from abuse and in terms of their animals accepting them for who they were. As one person told us, “‘I can never be certain that [interacting with other people comes] without judgement, whereas I can with the dog.’

Our participants were also open with us about how their own behavior negatively affected their animal companions, acknowledging that witnessing human-to-human conflict often upset their animals. Some also told us how they took their own trauma out on their animals. While we acknowledge that for many people leaving abusive situations, remaining with their animals is important (for both species), we also see that sometimes the animals can be further harmed and that in some situations their humans are not able to care for them. While it is difficult to discuss this, we feel that this is an area that needs a lot more research.

Overall, the picture that is emerging from the series of research we have conducted is that TNB people encounter many issues that are similar to cisgender people in terms of domestic violence and the effects it has on their animals. But, they also have specific gender-related abuses in addition to this. Relationships with their animals offer a buffer to this kind of treatment, offering joy, relief, non-judgmental companionship and sometimes the ability to see that they are caught in abusive situations as well as to reflect on aspects of their own behavior toward animals that may not be ideal.

Picture by Heather Fraser

Queering Queerer and Family Violence

On the 1-4 of December 2020, our project held the first workshop ‘Queering Family Violence: setting agenda for queer wellbeing’. This event brought together scholars from all over the world. Colleagues from Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and Australia joined us to think queerer about family violence not by simply including LGBT people into the scope of studies of family violence, but also by looking for original ways of rethinking major concepts in the field.

The first session ‘New Theoretical Approaches’ was devoted to re-conceptualisation of currently dominant approaches to the study violence. Dr. Esra Umak, visiting scholar at the University of Oslo, opened up the panel with their presentation on psychological intimate partner violence (IPV) affecting lesbian and bisexual women in Denmark and Turkey. They approached the subject of her study using the concept of internalised heterosexism.
The second presentation by Dr. Grønli Rosten from Department of Youth research, Oslo Metropolitan University, scrutinised the phenomenon of consent in BDSM. Drawing on her qualitative interviews with BDSM practitioners, Dr. Rosten questions whether or not ‘yes’ really means ‘yes’ in complex relationships of power and authority within the studied community.
Finally, Dr. Kris Clarke and Dr. Mona Livholts, University of Helsinki, presented a research plan aimed at unpacking queer intimate partner violence. They approach ‘violence directed against and between queer people as symptomatic of cis-hetero and white patriarchal colonial frameworks.’

The second session ‘Queer Violence at Intersections’ looked at complex experiences of victims and perpetrators of violence. The presentation by Dr. Jen Marchbank from Simon Fraser University (Canada) discussed queer vulnerabilities and ageing. Dr. Jen Marchbank presented troubles and controversies around the social project on LGBT elder abuse which brought together queer youth and queer seniors.
The presentation of Nicole Ovesen, Uppsala University, continued discussion on intersection of queerness, vulnerabilities, violence and time. She talked about queering as disruption of time. Based on conversations with 25 people who have experienced violence in intimate lesbian and/or queer relationships in Sweden, Ovesen explores how IPV in lesbian and queer relationships disrupts temporalities.
Finally, Stephen Azarian, University of Roehampton, presented his project aimed at exploring public articulations of vulnerabilities expressed by the people who experienced violence based in both gender and sexuality. The project is a catalogue of all stories of violence aired during more than a decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race show where queens compete for the title of America’s next drag superstar.

The final session ‘Approaches to Queer and Violence’ highlighted the diversity of ways to address violence in queer relations. The presentation of Helga Eggebø and Elisabet Stubberud, Norland Research Institute in Bodø (Norway), revealed the experiences of violence among queer migrants in Norway. The researchers discussed how ‘vulnerability to violence is related to the wider patterns of discrimination and juridical, economic and social marginalisation’
In another presentation, Dr. Damien Riggs, Flinders University (Australia), Nik Taylor (University of Canterbury, UK) and Heather Fraser (QUT) focused on pets and other animals when looking at domestic violence (for more details see their post in our blog). On the one hand, the research revealed practices of speciesism, but also highlighted that ‘where there is violence against domestic animals, there is more extreme violence against humans.’ Moreover, violence against animals can be a form of violence against humans (in the logic of ‘I won’t feed your cat unless you sleep with me’).

These conversations have paved the way of thinking about violence in new original ways. The studies to date show that there are many queer approaches to violence in general and family violence in particular. Yet, there is also room for even queerer queer approaches that we intend to develop over the course of future workshops.