Domestic violence – small town prejudices can make things more difficult

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Living in a small town can be difficult for victims of domestic violence. Not only does the whole town know you and your business, but biases and prejudices come into play. More than two years ago, Tomeka Ellis learned what these prejudices were when things got difficult between her and her girlfriend when she lived in Columbia, Tenn.

“I met her in high school. We were friends that became more than friends. Her family was supportive but mine wasn’t,” Ellis said. “We had a good relationship. It was like high school puppy love. I joined the Army, and when I came home, that’s when her attitude changed.”

Ellis soon found her life was being controlled at every level.

“She didn’t like a lot of things, simple things like lip gloss with color in it, wearing perfume, having long hair. She wanted to control who I was friends with, who I wasn’t friends with. If I wasn’t with her, she had to know where I was at. We had cell phones and she checked the bills to know who I was talking to and what about. She checked caller ID constantly. Even down to watching TV, It had to be off at 8 p.m. because she went to bed. All the lights had to be off when you left the room. She was like my mother, but worse.”

Eventually things escaladed into violence.

“I called the police where I lived. They would come to the house and it would be obvious we had been into it. They want you to feel ashamed because they ask you dumb questions like are you two girls roommates, are you sleeping with each other, and how are you sleeping with each other. This was before they even determined the situation. They told me there was nothing they could do because the laws didn’t recognize same sex relationships as far as domestic violence.”

Ellis ended up in the hospital several times.

“I continued to go back. I guess because I felt like nobody would love me because my own family wasn’t there for me,” she said.

“I realized it was time for me to go because it was affecting my daughter. I did not want my daughter to see her possibly kill me. There were times she struck me in my face and my daughter was there. The last time it happened I had become really sick. I have Systemic Lupus. I called her at work and asked her if she could come pick me up when she got off and take me to the hospital. She said no, she had something to do. I fell asleep on the couch with the lights on and the TV on. Instead of coming in the house and asking me if I was ok, she woke me up by punching me in my face. My body was just numb and she continued to kick me and punch me, and she didn’t stop. My daughter (who was two years old) was sitting there screaming and crying. She didn’t stop until my face started bleeding. She told us to get out and she started throwing our stuff outside. She drug me outside in the driveway and just left me out there and left my daughter sitting there crying. I don’t know how long it was but my neighbor got home and took me to the hospital. My daughter thought I was dead. That’s probably the only reason why I left. I wouldn’t want my daughter going through that as well as her thinking that’s how someone who loves you is supposed to treat you.”

After she finally decided to get out, she found new obstacles.

“I tried to get an order of protection. The judge denied me one because the judicial laws didn’t allow him to give same sex relationships an order of protection. All he gave me was a no contact order. And then on my court packet, it had the address of where I was currently staying. I didn’t have any privacy zone or protection against her because she was a woman. He said I would have to prove to the court that she and I were in a sexual, intimate type relationship. And there was still no guarantee he could give an order or protection.”

Kathy England Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against domestic and Sexual Violence, was shocked when she heard Ellis’ story.

“It is very clear in the statute about who a victim of domestic abuse is,” Walsh said. “It is clear in there it is current or former family or household members. It is people in dating relationships. It is people who lived together at some point. It is people who might have a child in common. There is a whole list, but nowhere in there does it say that the person that has been abusing you has to be of the opposite sex.”

Small towns and rural areas present extra problems to the victims, Walsh continued.

“I think that (people in these places) feel trapped because they are not out in the community. I think it challenges our programs to figure out how to do outreach in these communities and how to provide services. I do know some programs have made efforts.”

There are some concerns about the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and how it will affect prosecution of domestic violence cases. With judges and police officers misinterpreting the current statutes, it is feared that this will get worse if the amendment passes. One thing is certain, more education is needed.

“There is a training issue for the police departments about the power and control in a relationship,” said Nicole Gordon, founder and executive director of Cole Solutions, a non-profit that works to educate on issues of race, class, gender, and sexual expression. “I think the departments not only need information about the dynamics of the GLBTQ community, but also how violence happens in these relationships. Without information, the cycles will continue and we will lose people’s lives.”

Some departments do have the proper training. Ellis found out when her perpetrator showed up in Nashville.

“(The policeman) asked me why I didn’t have an order of protection against her if she was that type of person. I told him Maury County wouldn’t give me one because they said the judicial law didn’t allow them to give same sex relationships orders of protections. He told me that was a lie, and I could get one here, but she would have to do something to me. He left me his card and he was professional and didn’t ask the same questions (the other officers did).”

Tomeka Ellis is currently going to school to become an elementary school teacher. Ellis has come a long way from the violence she experienced in Columbia.

“I am going to reach my goal as a teacher. Love is unconditional and I deserve it, and so does everyone who so desires to have it. I learned to love myself and know love is a good, painless feeling that doesn’t break ribs, call you names, or bruise and blacken eyes.”

Still to come in this series: How to get help, outreach, and how the laws work.

There are places that can help in times of need. If you or someone you love is a victim or you feel like you may be victimizing someone, the YWCA crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the metro Nashville area, the number is 615-242-1199 or 1-800-334-4628 everywhere else. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.