For Gabrielle Spierer, just being herself didn’t come easily.
The 62-year-old North Bellmore resident recalled growing up in a household where she said she was emotionally and physically abused by her mother.
Spierer also struggled with her gender identity growing up. She said relationships would end as soon as she would discuss feeling female, and she later found herself in a marriage that became emotionally abusive.
She identifies as a woman who is transgender.
“I always had a feeling that something was different — I didn’t really understand, didn’t really know. Whenever I tried to understand or express it, I did it in private,” she said.
“I was never accepted for how I was even born, so how could I have been accepted if I came out and say, ‘Hey, this is me’?”
Spierer finished transitioning in 2013. When she started seeking domestic violence services last year, she realized she was re-experiencing patterns of domestic violence she had since childhood.
“That’s what led me to understand: I’ve been going through that my whole life,” Spierer said.
She shared her story and experiences with domestic violence in front of about 50 people on Oct. 17 during L.I. Against Domestic Violence’s annual Commemoration Day in Hauppauge.
The event brought people together for Domestic Violence Awareness Month to honor those who have survived and to remember those who have died. This year’s theme was domestic violence within the LGBTQ community.
Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, no matter the gender identity or sexual orientation, said Colleen Merlo, executive director of L.I. Against Domestic Violence.
“People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer continue to face widespread violence, harassment and discrimination,” Merlo said. “ … Love is love, but unfortunately, domestic violence is also domestic violence.”
Newsday previously reported that on Long Island last year, police statistics showed the total reports of domestic violence fell about 20% in Suffolk and over 6% in Nassau.
People within the LGBTQ community experience domestic violence at the same or higher rates than people who don’t identify as LGBTQ, said Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, deputy executive director for programs at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. The organization aims to prevent and address violence among LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities.
“When we think about domestic violence or intimate partner violence, we think about cisgender men abusing cisgender women, because that’s what we’ve been taught and raised to understand,” Shugrue dos Santos said. Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
“It certainly represents a large part of the story, but when we only use that narrative and that paradigm, then LGBTQ folks are invisible, they’re erased, they’re silenced," she added. “ … That’s deadly."
There are often barriers specifically related to sexual orientation or gender identity that might make it difficult for people within the LGBTQ community to seek help in a violent situation, experts said.
They might have a fear of being outed when choosing to seek help, face discrimination from agencies or encounter a lack of services, Merlo said.
People might also be hesitant to contact law enforcement or first responders out of fear of discrimination, fear of not having their situations taken seriously, or the possibility of inappropriate pronoun use, Shugrue dos Santos said. There also could be concerns that some shelters would be for “women only,” she said.
“Those are all experiences that do not make someone disclose that they’re in danger or feel that they can get help,” she said.
Spierer says it’s hard to understand how “family [can] really hurt us that way,” but finding counseling and services have helped her cope.
“Growing up in a house where you’re never heard or respected or really seen as your own person, you don’t have your identity or your sense of self," she said. "It really draws you to people that are not positive and supportive.”
Now, she said she is trying to “break the cycle” and find healing in speaking about her journey — especially for her relationship with her 27-year-old son.
“I am healing,” she said. “Everybody needs to be acknowledged for their own authentic self, whatever that is. … We need supportive, caring people to do that.”
HOW TO GET HELP
L.I. Against Domestic Violence
New York City Anti-Violence Project
The NYS Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline