"ONE TIME I DEFENDED MYSELF AND THE NEIGHBORS HEARD--they called the police," says Kortney Ryan Ziegler, 25. The police came but arrested Ziegler. "I guess because I was not considered the more femme in the relationship, I was the aggressor," she says. "I spent the night in jail on felony charges of domestic violence ... It was the only time I had been in jail. And I still went back to her."
Ziegler was 22 when she met her girlfriend, and later abuser. They were both new to San Francisco and had met each other through friends. Her girlfriend, an Asian-American woman, was 24 at the time. After a few months of dating, Ziegler began noticing how aggressively her girlfriend behaved when she was drinking.
"Most of the time, we would go out, drink way too much and get into an argument. Every single time we went out, there would be an argument," recalls Ziegler. Once the two women got home, it would turn violent. "She would beat hard on me--push me around, hit me." The next day, her girlfriend had no recollection of what she'd done.
Ziegler ended the relationship a year later but never told her family, who also don't know that she's a lesbian.
A brutal pattern of domestic violence and secrecy exists among queer women of color, but community organizers and researchers say that the combination of homophobia and racism keeps the problem under the radar. Because they are a marginalized group, queer women of color may also find that their friends don't believe another woman of color could inflict such abuse.
"I always say we will never know how big a problem it is," says Val Kalei Kanuha, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. "It has solely to do with invisibility. Until it is safe for us to come out, we will never know how big a problem it is."
Kanuha has been doing anti-violence work for 30 years and has conducted multiple studies on queer women of color around identity and violence. She points out that most studies on queer women of color are conducted in urban areas, leaving the possibility of extensive undocumented violence.
How a survivor identifies also plays a role in the lack of documentation of domestic violence in queer communities. Many women, Kanuha says, would never identify as lesbian--making it all that much harder to understand how extensive the problem is. Ironically, some of these women would have no problem going to the police--but they would not report the violence as domestic. This conclusion is based on Kanuha's study of queer Asian Pacific Islander women, in which half of the respondents said they would call police or a shelter. The other half said homophobia and racism would prevent them from accessing the services they need. "They wouldn't feel afraid. They just kind of feel, 'You know what, I'm in trouble, and who do I call?--I call the police.' It doesn't even occur to them that the police would treat them in a homophobic manner," adds Kanuha.
For some queer women of color who live in communities that have a long history of bad relations with law enforcement, calling the police is an issue.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer activist, didn't want to call the cops on the queer guy she was dating at the time. He was assaulting her, but he was Latino and on probation for assaulting a police officer. The two were living in Canada, where she didn't have permanent residency.
"I think 9 times out of 10, as women of color, and people of color, if the perpetrator is somebody who is of color--even if they are a woman--you don't want to call the cops on your queer or trans partner," says Piepzna-Samarasinha.
Her neighbors eventually called the cops on them one night. And although her boyfriend was kicking her in the head while she was curled up in their closet, she wasn't really grateful that her neighbors had made …