Michele Mathis

What I Have Learned As A Queer Survivor Of Unhealthy Relationships

Queer youth are particularly unprepared for healthily handling sexual and emotional vulnerability

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I wasn’t exactly taught how to be a "good" lesbian. I was raised in the Mormon church, which rigidly groomed me for eternal companionship with a man. So I was caught off guard when I met Haley* the summer before my freshman year of high school at a fine arts camp the next state over from mine.

Haley was charming, sweet, and funny. I never thought I would imagine kissing a girl (instead of a boy) behind the trees during the final dance, but there I was, secretly daydreaming away in my cabin. I didn’t have celebrity lesbian role models and I definitely didn’t have any high school friends who identified that way at the time. I quickly realized that no one was going to sit me down and give me "the talk," and that navigating the exciting yet nerve-racking experience of my sexuality — learning about lesbian sex and love — would be my own responsibility.

My friendship with Haley grew after camp ended, and eventually we started dating long-distance. She was older than I was, and our conversations revolved around dirty text messages and naked pictures sent hastily from the privacy of our bedrooms and bathrooms. The church taught that masturbation is a grave and irreversible sin, so while I denied myself that pleasure and remained completely celibate, I couldn't help but have fantasies about Haley: I craved her body, and women’s bodies in general. Our sexting became constant.

When I denied Haley this communication, however, I was verbally punished — punishment that soon also became constant. The name-calling and insults I endured still haunt me: They appear on the pages of my journal and hover over therapy couches. But it got worse: I cut off my relationships with my parents and closest friends to appease her, certain no one could understand what was happening to my brain and soul. I cried myself to sleep most nights and started self-harming to deal with my emotions.

As soon as my parents discovered the sexual nature of the relationship, they put me into therapy and banned me from speaking to Haley. These therapy sessions — which were painful, triggering, and mostly involved me sobbing on a dusty plaid couch while the therapist watched helplessly from her chair — lasted about a year. Six months in, I discovered that Haley had been cheating on me, and I was thrown into the darkest place of my life.

It took me two years to gather the courage to start recovering from this emotional trauma, but even once I was convinced I was "normal" again, I found myself falling in love with Haley 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 — masculine women with God complexes, daddy issues, and anger problems. I gave my heart over and over to aggressive women who used harsh words, and sometimes their hands, to feel powerful. I was shoved into kitchen stoves and threatened repeatedly through blue text message bubbles. I experienced heartbreak so intense, it felt like organs in my body had actually stopped working.

This past year, during a spring break trip, I finally asked myself: "Why do you love people who hurt you?"

The answer, I think, is that society doesn't prepare any 14-year-old — whether straight or queer — to healthily process romantic and/or sexual relationships, but queer youth in particular are unprepared for healthily handling sexual and emotional vulnerability because our relationships are so often not seen as legitimate. Lesbians are particularly sexualized and fetishized: Holding my partners’ hands in public has often made young men think they can ask questions about what we do in the bedroom, and kissing a pretty girl in a bar often draws a crowd of eager onlookers. "Lesbian" is the no. 1 viewed category on PornHub.

And the emotional assaults I've experienced are not considered valid because women aren't thought to be capable of having the emotional or physical strength to hurt anyone. So often in our society, girls are raised to support someone stronger and braver than they are, so the idea that they could exert damaging strength over another woman is rarely recognized.

This does not justify anyone's actions, but it can help to explain the rampant and largely unnoticed disease of abuse in the LGBTQ community. For example, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey report revealed that 43.8 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women reported experiencing rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, as opposed to 35 percent of heterosexual women.

Intimate-partner violence between women has increasingly become a pressing issue. And it's one we can only stop once we recognize that the problem exists and decide to take action.

*Name has been changed

If you or someone you know is dealing with an unhealthy relationship, visit loveisrespect.org or call the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474.

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