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By: Allison R. Quinlan

Content Warning for Rape and Sexual Violence, References to Abuse and Violence, and Victim-Blaming

Intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual abuse (SA), and domestic violence (DV) are pervasive and dangerous; in the United States, 41% of women and 26% of men experience a form of partner abuse in their lifetime. 7 LGBTQ+ individuals also face high risk of partner violence, at times experiencing higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ individuals. 31 Therefore, it is imperative that support services are accessible for all survivors. Delegitimization of an individual’s’ survivorship when disclosing abuse is often a barrier to support; there are several social expectations applied to ‘real’ survivorship that don’t reflect the reality of survivorship. Often IPV is expected to only exist between heterosexual couples with cis-male perpetrators. 15, 22, 50 My research examined the experiences of LGBTQ+ survivors of abuse and support service providers, and showed how heteronormative ideals created barriers to accessing support. 

Heteronormativity is a concept describing how heterosexuality (and cisgenderness) are considered normal, right, and natural 41 and so are the only acceptable sexual practices and ways of living. 29 Because heteronormativity is considered legitimate, any non-heteronormative identity risks delegitimization. Heteronormativity dominates perceptions of victim legitimacy and inherently serves as a barrier by contributing to victim-blaming, abuse comparisons, and failures in support provision for LGBTQ+ survivors. 6, 17, 20, 25,  Heteronormativity can result in beliefs within the dominant culture that LGBTQ+ survivors are illegitimate or fake survivors because they don’t conform to normative social views of survivors. 27 One way heteronormativity excludes all non-normative survivors is by reinforcing gender roles and ideals as indicators of valid survivorship. 16, 41, 50 Heteronormativity is notably connected to patriarchy, particularly in the gendered aspects of who are considered abusers or victims. 2-3, 24, 39  

Patriarchy is “a system of social structures, and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women”. 49 Within a patriarchal society, sex differences are used to maintain cis-male power and cis-female exploitation, so heterosexuality is presumed necessary to continue patriarchal dominance within relationships. 28 Violence is often a gendered issue due to the power imbalances in a patriarchal society giving one group (cis-men) more power over others. 14 Patriarchy and heteronormativity overlap, especially in defining victimhood as a gendered concept. 44 Survivors’ gender identity and performance was relevant in the support seeking process, particularly in relation to their abusers’ identity. My research collected data from interviews with survivors and providers discussing identity, survivorship, and service provision. Responses were analyzed with two theoretical frameworks in mind, intersectionality and queer theory, to help explain the findings.

Intersectionality is an examination of how identities connect and create different experiences within oppressive, marginalising, and discriminatory systems.10 Though this research is centred on identity discrimination concerning LGBTQ+ survivors, other identity-related factors influence experiences, particularly race and class. 45 Survivors of IPV, DV, and SA are diverse individuals with several intersecting identities influencing the violence they experience and the support service they receive. 9

LGBTQ+ identity can influence the abuse experienced; to clarify, abusers can use an individual’s identity as a threat of violence, i.e., threats to ‘out’ victims, telling victims their identity is illegitimate, gaslighting surrounding identity, or withholding identity-affirming items and services. 4, 21, 40, 48 Trans individuals experiencing abuse often experience abusers weaponising gender identity, and survivors face barriers to reporting abuse due to social expectations for survivors to be cisgender, heterosexual women. 21, 32 Not only can abusers use a survivor’s LGBTQ+ identity as a tool for violence, but other identities like ethnic and racial identity may also be used by abusers to hurt survivors. 13 Survivors can face barriers to seeking help in many ways- fears of fulfilling negative racial stereotypes, deportation threats, or being kept from help due to language barriers where they rely on the abuser for communication. 11, 34, 37  

Queer theory is the effort to deconstruct implicit biases and assumptions surrounding sexuality and gender by using queerness in all forms as a theoretical framework to challenge societal notions of normativity associated with heterosexuality. 30 Heteronormativity is a term often discussed within queer theory, especially on how it’s interwoven with broader social ideas of legitimacy. This framework enabled the complication of gender and sex (understanding them as social constructs), and helped clarify how heteronormativity harmfully constructed norms for cisgendered heterosexual individuals and LGBTQ+ folks. 5, 8, 18

Providers and survivors may feel the survivorship is illegitimate based on social ideals of normativity, particularly when the abuse doesn’t align with social understandings of survivorship and abuse. 3, 16, 23, 36 Because heteronormativity views abuse through its ‘normative’ lens, it reinforces centralisation of cisgender male and female relationships and roles in the intimate partner, domestic, or sexual aspect of violence; heteronormatively, sexual assault is only feasible when a cis-man is the dominant aggressor against a subjugated cis-woman victim. 16, 51 Social conceptions of who qualifies as a survivor of abuse are based on heteronormative definitions of gender and its performance. 26, 44. Societally, intimate partner, domestic, and sexual violence is understood as gendered, e.g. cis-male perpetrators and cis-female victims, 27, 47 and the gendered nature of violence often results in victim-blaming ideologies removing perpetrator accountability. 19 

Heteronormativity inherently acts as a barrier by eliminating realities of non-normative survivorship and is reinforced by exclusively showing only one type of abuse, perpetrator, and victim. 20, 25 This is not to say more normatively-aligned survivors, like cis-women, are believed and escape victim-blaming; indeed, patriarchal expectations of legitimate victim behaviours ignore the realities of abuse as a power dynamic and instead vigorously focus on survivor behaviour, intentionally deflecting responsibility from cis-male perpetrators to cis-female victims. 46 


Data was obtained through seven interviews, four survivors and three service providers within the United States, helping to draw out themes reflected in the literature; however, findings could not be generalized due to limited sample size.

This research used data collected from semi-structured interviews covering disclosure experiences when seeking support services, specifically perceptions of identity and related treatment for LGBTQ+ survivors. Four semi-structured interviews, lasting 40 minutes to an hour and a half, took place with adult self-identified LGBTQ+ survivors who disclosed to a service provider to receive services. Participants were asked a series of questions surrounding perceptions of their identity and experiences disclosing their abuse to receive assistance. In addition to survivor interviews, three service providers in the United States were interviewed with the same methods but different questions. Service providers included victim-advocates, victim-advocate trainers, and counsellors. Service provider questions covered what types of services they provide, their thoughts on survivor legitimacy, and their thoughts on dismantling barriers for survivors in their field. 

Calls for survivors listed the following criteria: “Participants must be LGBTQ+ identifying adults, a survivor of any IPV, DV, or SA, and have reached out to provider agencies for support services.” LGBTQ+ relationships included any relationship wherein at least one person identified as LGBTQ+. Calls for providers listed the following criteria: “Participants must have provided any support service for adult LGBTQ+ survivors of IPV, DV, or SA and must provide services in the United States.” Interested participants were emailed a description of the project, information about participant rights, and a meeting link when applicable.

Data were coded thematically with ATLAS.ti Web (Version 3.15.0-2022-03-09). Open coding was used during the initial review of transcripts to identify initial themes and concepts within the data. After the establishment of themes within the data, a thematic analysis was used. During thematic analysis, the presented themes were reviewed in association with the broader context of descriptions and experiences, which reflected concepts connected to heteronormativity, and concept-driven code categorisation was used to organise and assess findings in ATLAS.ti. 


Heteronormativity appeared as a significant barrier, generally in providers and support services dismissing, blaming, and delegitimizing LGBTQ+ survivors’ identities as legitimate survivors.

  1. Gender appearance and performance that didn’t align with heteronormative expectations led to multiple survivors feeling dismissed and blamed by providers. Survivors felt that the way they dressed, the activities they did (such as sports), their height, weight, and physical appearance as feminine or masculine influenced the responses they received from providers during help-seeking. Heteronormativity’s dictation of the appropriate gender appearance and performance for ‘genuine’ survivorship leads to traumatic experiences of delegitimisation for LGBTQ+ survivors. 3, 16, 24 
  2. Heteronormative gender expectations were applied immediately to survivors by service providers. Survivors were labelled either as cisgender and straight or as potential abusers because they didn’t align with the providers’ gendered expectations. Survivors noted that this assumption often occurred immediately upon reaching out for help and they had no chance to explain their situation or identity first. Heteronormative ideals dominate social understandings of survivorship and contribute to poor service provision due to discrimination or ignorance, preventing survivors from receiving necessary support. 17, 32, 35 
  3. Victim-blaming, which is applied to nearly every survivor, was uniquely positioned against LGBTQ+ survivors. Survivors were blamed for their abuse on the basis of their LGBTQ+ identity; some were blamed for being non-feminine (for female identifying survivors), and some as too feminine (for male identifying survivors). Several had their LGBTQ+ identity leveraged against them as a tool to dismiss their abuser, e.g., the abuser was the wrong orientation therefore couldn’t be abusive, or the abuser was a cis-woman therefore couldn’t be abusive. LGBTQ+ identity was weaponised against survivors in the help-seeking process, placing them at fault for their abuse through heteronormatively-supported victim-blaming. 21, 32, 40 

Lastly, poor understanding of abuse presentations and experiences due to heteronormativity contributed to abuse comparisons and institutional failure to provide adequate support. 13, 16, 38, 43, 52 Some survivors’ understanding of the legitimacy of their experiences of abuse centred on the severity and type of abuse they experienced; this understanding was reinforced by providers for the participants who discussed their experiences. Providers often utilised heteronormativity and stereotypes in their provision which created barriers for survivors. Adherence to heteronormative ideals is widespread across institutional provision services and leads to regular dismissal of non-normative survivors.

Dismantling Barriers

Survivors and providers suggested short and long-term goals for deconstructing barriers which included improving resource access, improving provider education, centring support and validation, and engaging in action-based change.

Methods for positive change included improving accessibility to informed, connective therapy, reiterating the necessity for providers to provide support and validation for clients, providing resources for a broader range of identities, creating safer spaces, and improving provider education. Agencies instituting training must also implement policy or accountability requirements. 6 Advocate training should utilise and incorporate non-heteronormative materials into service provision. 6, 35-36 Improvements must be backed by policy change and seek to abolish harmful systems. 12, 33, 42 

Survivors and providers presented listening as major support during disclosure and as continually needed throughout the healing process. Merely listening is not enough support but should be a baseline for providers- a bare minimum for provision.1 Validating LGBTQ+ survivors is essential to dismantle heteronormative barriers. 6  Survivors found therapy helpful, but often inaccessible, though connections with longer-term counselling enabled establishment of effective coping mechanisms and feelings of validation in survivor identity. Provider suggestions included using identity wheels with clients to form connections and help understand clients’ intersecting identities, using affirming stickers or décor in spaces to improve clients’ comfort, and having staff use inclusive, affirming language and paperwork, particularly regarding gender. 

Heteronormative expectations applied to survivors to determine legitimacy create barriers to accessing support and must be dismantled through education and accountability. Broadening understandings of violence, treating LGBTQ+ identities as distinct and unique rather than homogenous, and rejecting heteronormative ideals will increase positive support for survivors of any background.


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