Alumna Explores Domestic Violence Among LGBT Youth
January 05, 2011
by Rachel Kossman
The Northeastern student examines community violence in the wake of youth suicides.
Leandra Smollin, a 27-year-old lecturer and PhD candidate at Northeastern University, has been drawn to sociology since her days as an undergraduate at Stonehill College. Although she graduated in 2005 with a double major in English and gender studies, it was her decision to enroll in a handful of Stonehill's sociology courses that ultimately led to the discovery of her passion.
"I really liked how I was looking not just at individual people but at the community, at society in general and how everything interacts," explained Smollin of her decision to study sociology in graduate school. Beyond just general topics, Smollin wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community.
"As a member of the queer community, I know that there's not a lot of research on topics relating to this population," she explained. "I felt really invested in addressing that."
After working at Northnode, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Roslindale, Mass., Smollin discovered that very little attention is paid to LGBTQ people in domestic violence situations. Her thought process extended specifically to LGBTQ youth, and when an extensive round of research dug up close to zero results on that exact topic, she knew she'd found the topic for her dissertation.
Chai Jindasurat, Director of Organizing and Education at The Network/La Red, echoes Smollin's sentiments that very little research on this subject is available.
"It is difficult to find comprehensive studies on LGBTQ domestic violence, let alone for LGBTQ youth dating violence specifically," said Jindasurat.
According to information from the "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Domestic Violence" study, conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in 2001, 20 to 50 percent of LGBTQ relationships may be abusive, a statistic that is eerily similar to the rates of domestic violence in heterosexual relationships.
The Massachusetts Department of Education's "Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results" of 2003 and 2004 found that LGBTQ youth reported a 30 percent rate of dating violence, compared to the much lower 9 percent rate reported by heterosexual youth.
Beyond these studies, Smollin wanted to discover what LGBTQ adolescents and young adults were thinking about teen dating violence and how they responded to issues like dating conflict amongst their peers.
As part of her research study, which she has been working on since March of 2010, Smollin has conducted 12 interviews with LGBTQ youth. Her ultimate goal is to speak with 25 adolescents and young adults between the ages of 14 and 21 whom identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. In addition, she hopes to conduct a number of focus groups on her topic. Smollin expressed the importance of hearing directly from youth in the community and not just from the adults who serve them.
"I think a lot of times, research is done and the voices of the people who are experiencing things are not what is placed in the center," she said. "Doing that is really important for me. Hearing firsthand how youth think about this issue has shed a lot of light on things I wouldn't have necessarily thought about."
As she is in the midst of her research, Smollin does not have any concrete results to share. She did, however, note a number of general themes she has seen emerging. One major issue is the limited number of models of healthy, queer relationships that exist in the American public.
"Because they're not taught healthy relationships, specifically in the context of the way they're experiencing relationships, it's hard to know exactly what is normal or what is healthy," she said.
In addition, many queer youth are in relationships that aren't acknowledged by parents, friends, other family members, or adults at their schools. A lack of support makes broaching sensitive issues -- like dating violence -- incredibly difficult.
In addition, Smollin noted the unfortunate stereotypes surrounding domestic violence -- particularly the notion that only heterosexual women can be abused.
"Because of such stereotypes, it seems like youth might not use words like 'teen dating violence' or 'abuse' to describe their experiences," explained Smollin. "If you don't use those words, if you don't recognize that as a possibility, you might not necessarily go to a domestic violence organization."
Jindasurat also agrees with this sentiment, taking the discussion a step further by noting the lack of information and education around these issues.
"I think that because of the silence around partner abuse in LGBTQ communities, and the silence around talking about healthy relationships with queer and trans youth, that sometimes people may not recognize they are in an abusive relationship," he explained.
In the wake of recent media attention surrounding the suicides of LGBTQ youth, Smollin noted that while the suicide rate among this population has consistently been disproportionately higher, she hopes that more coverage of the issue is a good thing.
Smollin spoke of the "It Gets Better" project, noting that the campaign can be a bit deceptive.
"It's kind of misleading, because it doesn't always get better. Your life doesn't just get perfect because you get a little bit older and leave high school. I think it's missing the point that youth need things now, they need tangible things now," she said with frustration.
Smollin believes concrete solutions, like the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the state's non-discrimination statute, recognizing the existence and contributions of LGBTQ people in our schools, and implementing policies that protect youth from bullying, are a few things that will help create a safer environment for LGBTQ youths. "These are things that need to happen to make their lives better, now." It is with that goal in mind that Smollin is conducting her research and obtaining her PhD.
"Ultimately my goal is to be able to share information about how youth and young adults who are queer identified experience their relationships and conceptualize dating conflict, dating violence and abuse. That way, organizations and other people who are helping queer youth navigate their lives are able to better serve them."
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