Not So Different, After All

CELIA VENABLE KNEW THAT HER daughter Laura was a lesbian. Over the years she had met and liked several of Laura's lovers. But her last one, Roseann Peterson, left Celia very upset. As she recalls it now, Celia saw the women fight and well remembers Laura's black eyes, broken nose and shattered finger. When Laura and Peterson visited Rogue River, Ore., last Christmas, Celia threatened Peterson. Laura got mad--and afraid. "Now look what you've done," Laura told her mother. "I have to go home with her." Laura did. Five months later her decayed body parts were found in a wicker basket in a field near the apartment she shared with Peterson in Vallejo, Calif Laura Venable had been decapitated.

Prosecutors say Peterson confessed to the crime and explained that Laura provoked it by hitting her with a baseball bat during a nap. Peterson pleaded not guilty. But before a trial could be held, a judge ruled that police had violated Peterson's Miranda rights and threw out the confession. Prosecutors had to drop the case and detectives are now trying to collect other evidence to implicate her. Peterson, meanwhile, is in jail on unrelated charges that she butchered a dog and threatened a neighbor and police; Peterson has pleaded not guilty. Celia waits and wonders, still shocked and grieving. "I can't understand why Laura didn't get away from that situation," she says. "You can see it with men fighting each other. I can't fathom this."

"This" has been called the second closet. Talking about domestic violence in lesbian, as well as gay, relationships has long been considered taboo in those communities--lest their discussion spark more homophobia in society. "In a sexual minority, there's always resistance to airing dirty laundry," says Terry Person, program director of San Francisco's Community United Against Violence. That may be especially true for lesbian activists. "It messes up their rhetoric," says Sandy Lundy, a Boston lawyer. "it makes you see domestic violence as an issue of power, not gender."

There aren't many places to turn for aid. Lesbians often don't feel welcome at shelters set up for battered heterosexual women. Gay men have even fewer resources. In Boston, the Victim Recovery Program at the Fenway Community Health Center was established seven years ago for victims of gay-bashing. Now half the phone calls concern domestic violence.

The law often is of little help. A recent study found that same-sex couples in nine states cannot get a restraining order against a batterer. In other states, existing domestic-violence laws may not be as strictly enforced. "When lesbians are involved," says Claire Renzetti, a sociologist at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, law-enforcement officials "think of it like a cat fight or two women going at it." In the courtroom, lesbian defendants tend not to invoke the "battered women's defense" that has been used successfully to defend heterosexual women. The problem: they would have to acknowledge their homosexuality, which could prejudice a jury.

The legal system may also have a difficult time distinguishing victim from aggressor in same-sex abuse cases-unlike heterosexual relationships, where 95 percent of batterers are male. Physical attributes can be misleading in investigating same-sex violence, particularly for lesbians. "If one of them is taller or heavier, somebody's going to be painted as a hutch and somebody's going to be painted as a femme," Lundy says. And sometimes, somebody's going to be painted dead.