Same-Sex Domestic Violence Numbers Are Up in Tennessee 

Experts say increase may be due to rise in reporting.

Overall domestic violence numbers dropped by four percent in Tennessee since 2008, according to the latest Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) numbers. But for same-sex couples, those numbers actually saw a 44 percent increase since then.

That may not actually reflect an increase in incidents but rather an increase in reporting due to changing attitudes by the general public about homosexuality, said Phillis Lewis, a witness coordinator for the Shelby County District Attorney's office's domestic violence unit.

"I think people have become more comfortable reporting," Lewis said. "I think before people were afraid of letting officers know their status and that [the perpetrator] is their significant other."

In 2012, Lewis started the "Love Doesn't Hurt" fund, which provides emergency funding to same-sex domestic violence victims. The money can be used to help victims with anything from housing and relocation to food and gas.

"In the first case we dealt with, the person had completely left the home and needed somewhere to go," Lewis said. "We housed that person in a hotel for a week, and then they decided they wanted to leave Memphis. So we helped that person get out of town. We want them safe from violence. The last thing we need is another homicide."

They also collect hygiene products to hand out to victims.

"When you're running from your wife, you're not going to think about grabbing some deodorant," Lewis said.

When she started the fund two years ago, Lewis had begun noticing an increase in reported cases. But she said there was nowhere she felt comfortable sending LGBT victims for help.

"A lot of the agencies [that deal with domestic violence] are faith-based, and I sent one client to a place where, instead of focusing on the trauma she'd been through, they were focusing on her sexual orientation," Lewis said.

Enter the Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County. The one-stop shop for domestic violence victims opened in 2012, and various agencies that assist victims, such as the Shelby County Crime Victims Center and the Mid-South Sexual Assault Resource Center, are now located in one building on Madison.

The center's executive director Oliette Drobot-Murry said she has worked to make sure the Family Safety Center is LGBT-friendly. Her staff has trained with the Tennessee Equality Project, and they partner with the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC) and HIV/AIDS nonprofit, the Red Door Foundation.

"We go to [Mid-South] Pride, and we sponsor Red Door events. And now through word of mouth, we've had more LGBT folks coming through here," Drobot-Murry said.

The Family Safety Center is now in charge of doling out money from the "Love Doesn't Hurt" fund on a case-by-case basis to same-sex victims who file reports there. Although the fund is primarily raised at an annual benefit each March, Lewis said anyone can donate to the fund at any time by sending a check to the Family Safety Center and specifying that the donation should go into the "Love Doesn't Hurt" fund.

To help prevent same-sex domestic violence, the MGLCC hosts a twice-monthly support group called Cultivating Priorities in Relationships to help people identify toxic relationships.

"I thought we should call it something other than a support group for victims because that scares people," said Martavius Hampton, MGLCC's HIV Services Manager. "We promote it as a healthy relationship group, so it's like prevention rather than waiting on something to happen. We talk about what's a positive partner and what's abusive and controlling."

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