Promiscuous Gay Nerd: Black Eyed Pink
I held up my hand to shield my eyes from the policewoman’s flashlight. She was inspecting me like evidence, noting the bruises that had begun to form around my neck; the tattered state of my clothes; and more generally the emotional wreckage that sat in front of her, crumpled. She accused me of provoking him, noting the marks on his neck. “Well what would you do if someone was holding you down and choking the life out of you?” I snapped.
In hindsight, I’m glad that my neighbor listened to my screams for help and called the cops; although in the moment—being treated like a suspect in my own home—I felt violated for a second time. That’s the thing about being a man and getting beat up: Most people think you probably had something to do with it. And after months of emotional manipulation and abuse, I was almost ready to believe them. But in perhaps a moment of reckoning, Tim1 fessed up and blurted out that he didn’t know what he would do to me if they didn’t arrest him. Handcuffs. Squad car. Jail.
It was nearly 3 a.m. when the sounds of the police car disappeared into the distance. I collapsed on my couch, bewildered and distraught. I tried calling everyone I knew in town. Nobody answered. So I reached out to my best friend on the West Coast, where it was just before midnight. As soon as he answered, I fell into an indecipherable puddle of snot, tears, and gasps. He was on a plane six hours later and next to me on the couch in 12.
I spent the next few months piecing together a strategy for healing so that I could move on with my life. I had a million questions about intimate partner violence, but most resources I found were targeted towards women. I vaguely remembered trying to get my roommate to ditch his controlling and abusive boyfriend in college. I recalled rumors about another friend of a friend and his boyfriend’s nasty habit of giving him black eyes—a fact we all delicately avoided facing with the gravity it deserved. Despite having worked as a gay men’s health advocate for nearly a decade, I was utterly clueless about intimate partner violence.
This column—in part a response to readers’ concerns that I had glossed over intimate partner violence in my last column—is about how I got out, how I rebuilt my life, and the lessons I learned along the way. I’m not a therapist or a lawyer. I’m just one gay guy who made it to the other side of intimate partner violence. This is my story.
I knew something wasn’t right with Tim early on in our relationship. He was usually upbeat and energetic, ready to party on any school night. But his peaks of bubbly excitement would snap into dark, vicious valleys of anger. Anyone in his way would regret it.
It was an enormous, glaring red flag. I didn’t exactly ignore the problem. How could I? We’d be bouncing around, having fun, when suddenly some trigger would send him into a spiral of manic anger. I knew something was deeply broken in him. But like a kid bringing a mauled bird home to mend, damned if I couldn’t help myself from wanting to fix him.
I begged Tim to see a therapist for ages. At first he accused me of making him out to be sick when he believed he was normal. But as his outbursts grew more aggressive and erratic, it wasn’t realistic for him to play his anger off as the product of stress or a figment of my imagination. Eventually, he admitted he had a problem.
Over a year into the relationship, I thought I had scored a major victory when Tim finally agreed to see a therapist. Upon arriving for his appointment, he learned that the provider didn’t accept my employer’s insurance plan (which we had signed him up for after getting “domestic partnered”). After a brief consultation, he walked away, ending the conversation on therapy. I was exhausted and felt defeated.
It’s obscenely cliché, but if there is any lesson I learned in my relationship with Tim, it’s that you can’t fix people. They’ve got to do it on their own terms, for their own reasons. Not for you. Not for the sake of the relationship. For themselves.
Another six months passed before the abuse became physical.
With my best friend at my side, I was able to start putting together a plan of action. I knew that the relationship was probably over, but I still clung to a fantasy that perhaps we could reconcile. After Tim was released on bond after 24 hours, I told him that he needed to find another place to stay. I had the force of law behind my request, of course, since his bond required that he stay away from me and our home.
But as anyone familiar with protective orders knows, they are not an electric fence. I found this out the hard way a few days after my best friend left, when Tim came bursting through the door, screaming. I was taking a shower—and ran out of the bathroom naked, wet, and again, violated—screaming at him to get out or else I would call the cops.
He was furious that I had begun to pack up his things, throwing them in trash bags (a symbolic act if there ever was one). He knew because I had texted him to ask that he find a time when I wasn’t going to be there to pick up his things. I knew that it would piss him off, but I did it anyway because I was hurt, angry, and grieving. It was a series of poor choices. After that terrifying encounter, I filtered all communication between us through a neutral third party.
While the police ensured that I was in touch with the local domestic violence agency, the check-in phone calls came from a straight woman. She was perfectly nice, but I needed to hear a familiar gay voice on the other end of that line. Stuck in the Midwest, I was hesitant to seek help from anyone after hearing so many horror stories of gay men being pathologized, scolded, and categorically mistreated by their providers.
By some kind of cosmic miracle, I discovered that a good friend in San Francisco was out of town for the next month—leaving his gorgeous one bedroom apartment in the city empty. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, not only to escape Michigan, but also to spend time in a city rich with resources for gay men. A few days before I left town, I booked an appointment with a gay male therapist who wrote his master’s thesis on intimate partner violence among gay men.
As it turned out, putting 2,000 miles between me and my ex was the single best decision I made in the weeks following his arrest. It gave me the space I needed to think carefully about my future and our relationship. My therapist mostly listened to me talk, providing a helpful space to check-in and track my thinking and emotions during a roller-coaster month of healing and introspection.
The city of San Francisco provided another form of therapy, fucking me back to life. I don’t just mean the sex, though there was plenty of that. Slogging through grad school in the Midwest, it’s easy to forget that there are other promiscuous gay nerds in the world. San Francisco offered me a platter of potential sex, love, and friendship. I drank deeply.
When I returned to Michigan, beyond the emotional and psychological challenges, the issue of the pending criminal case against Tim remained unresolved. I had a decision to make: Do I show up in court to try to make the charges against him stick? Technically the state files charges in intimate partner violence cases, but I knew my participation in the case as the victim would be critical.
I knew that Tim was seeing a therapist regularly. I also knew that he had already spent a sleepless night on the concrete floor of a jail cell. Any desire I felt to show up and press charges felt connected to feelings of spite and a desire for revenge.
Perhaps I would have been more inclined to participate in the legal process if the prosecutor offered a restorative justice approach to sanctioning Tim, a less punitive and more rehabilitative response to his offense. Though Tim would likely have been sentenced to probation as a first-time offender, I knew that minor technical probation offenses (a failed drug test, a missed appointment) could land him in jail further down the line. A stint in jail could cost him his job, his apartment, his therapy appointments. None of these seemed like fair outcomes to me.
I knew that in order to move on, I had to find a way to forgive Tim for his actions. I did not want to be consumed by anger and resentment. After a month of soul-searching, I asked the prosecutor to drop the charges against him—much to the chagrin of many friends who understandably wanted to see him locked up. I know that it’s difficult for many people to understand my decision as empowering, but it felt like I was taking charge of the situation for the first time. I was my way of taking a first (giant) step towards forgiveness.
Every intimate partner violence experience is different, of course—and no two paths to healing and recovery will be identical. There are many things about my experience that are decidedly unique. For starters, I’m under no illusion that every victim of intimate partner violence can escape to the magical fairyland of San Francisco for five weeks. I am extraordinarily blessed to have an amazing and supportive network of family, friends, and lovers. It is a privileged position that I recognize is not shared by most people.
There are some things that, in retrospect, I can share with others about my experience that may be helpful.
1. Tell a friend what you’re going through: I was deeply ashamed to admit to anyone that my relationship with Tim was anything but perfect—that the Instagram feed filled with beaming selfies and loving glances wasn’t the full story. It took the cops busting through my front door to get me to pick up the phone. It shouldn’t have.
2. Don’t ignore the red flags: If your boyfriend tells you that he punched his last boyfriend for cheating on him, he’s probably not joking—and even if he is, what does that say about how he deals with his emotions? There are many signs that can help you identify a potential abuser, check out a few examples here, here, and here.
3. You can’t fix him: I didn’t know it at the time, but holding out hope that your partner will change is perhaps the quintessential reason abused partners decide to stay. In my case, I believed that if I could just get him to see a therapist, it would all be better. But the truth was that he was in a state of deep denial about his problems and was not ready or willing to get help.
4. Reach out and ask for help: This is a tough one for gay men, in part because many of the resources out there are tailored for straight women. Many local LGBT resource centers can help you navigate the services available to you and do so in a way that makes your experience feel valid and normal (see, for example, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago). New York, Boston, and San Francisco even have their own LGBT-specific anti-violence agencies. Don’t have an LGBT center where you live? Try phoning an LGBT resource center in the nearest big city and ask if they have any contacts in your area.
Men in our society are trained to see intimate partner violence as a “women’s issue,” and gay men often view intimate partner violence as a hetero problem. But as I began to tell my story, I heard from countless gay friends who had either experienced intimate partner violence themselves or knew someone who had. Raising awareness is a first step towards recognizing intimate partner violence for what it is, and helping those affected by it to break the cycle of violence.
How have you been affected by intimate partner violence? Share your story in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Names have been changed.
Jake Sobo is a pen name used for anonymity. Jake has worked in the world of HIV prevention for nearly a decade. He previously published a 19-part series documenting his experiences on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), “My Life on PrEP,” for Positive Frontiers magazine, which was picked up by Manhunt, translated into French, and widely read in the HIV prevention world. He has spent the better part of his adult life having as much sex as possible while trying to avoid contracting HIV.