Western Mass. Lesbian Murder Trial Raises Awareness of Domestic Violence
After four days of jurors’ deliberations, a Hampshire Count Superior Court judge declared a mistrial due to a hung jury in the state’s first case of murder between a same-sex married couple. Massachusetts lesbian Cara Rintala, 37, was tried for allegedly murdering her late wife, Annemarie Cochran Rintala, who was found beaten and strangled in the couple’s Granby home in March 2010. Rintala has been returned to jail and is being held without the right to bail.
"This trial is being highly covered and sensationalized," said Mary-Elizabeth Quinn, director of Education for The Network/La Red, a survivor-led support and education group, "both because it is the first murder case involving a legally married same-sex couple and because it is a woman who is charged with killing another woman."
As the first case of domestic violence-related homicide between two legally married lesbians, the trial has brought to light a tumultuous and abusive relationship between the two women, each having filed restraining orders, and each filing suit for divorce, all of which were subsequently dropped.
While women murderers (alleged or proven) always seem to shock the general public, this case seems to be even more shocking because of a general lack of knowledge about domestic violence within the LGBTQ community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and the subsequent Special Reports Findings on Victimization based on Sexual Orientation, the prevalence of partner abuse or sexual violence in LGBQ people is at levels equal to or higher than the heterosexual population. One in three self-identified lesbian women, and one in two bisexual women reported having experienced severe physical abuse by an intimate partner at some point. This includes being beaten, kicked, choked, or even having a knife or gun used against them. And 16.4 percent of gay men experienced one of these types of severe physical violence at the hands of intimate partners. Moreover, approximately one in eight lesbians and one half of bisexual women has been raped in their lifetime, and about half of bisexual men and four in ten gay men have experienced sexual violence other than rape.
"We at Jane Doe have been working at this for 20-plus years. It is not a new phenomenon," said Toni Troop of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. But, she admits that there have been some roadblocks to this discussion gaining greater momentum.
Homophobia and Stigma Keeps LGBT Abuse Victims in Closet
In some states where LGBT people do not have the same legal rights as the heterosexual population, it is far more difficult for victims to come forward and be kept safe and for abusers to be prosecuted. Further, homophobia, regrettably still a prevalent issue, has caused many victims of domestic violence to feel ashamed or afraid to report abuse and to be truthful about their situation.
"We’ve worked with folks who have gone to straight support groups, and felt compelled to lie about their situation, naming a hetero partner because of fear of homophobia," said Quinn.
The Network/La Red is a peer-led support system for LGBTQ people experiencing or working against partner violence. They provide support groups, safe homes and education about the abuse cycle both for victims and for other domestic violence and survivor-related organizations.
"There is nothing like being in a room with other people and hearing your own life story come out of their mouths," said Beth Leventhal, executive director of The Network/La Red. "It is so moving hearing other people with very similar experiences."
This bringing together of people going through similar hardships works to combat the two areas of judgment which, Leventhal said, survivors often face. One is homophobia or misunderstandings about LGBTQ relationships, and the other is the question from friends and family "Why don’t you just leave?"
La Red, explained Leventhal and Quinn, doesn’t attempt to convince anyone to leave his or her partner, but rather works to empower the survivor so they can determine what it is that they want and to provide information and any tools necessary to make it happen as safely as possible.
Another reason many stay silent is the fear of tarnishing the reputation of the LGBT community just when marriage equality and general civil rights issues for non-heteroes are at the forefront.
"There’s always been fear in any social movement that if we show any blemish it will be used against us," stated Troop, citing the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation as examples. "In all arguments for marriage equality, no one ever made the assertion that same sex relationships would be any different from heterosexual ones. It comes with the good, the bad, and the ugly."
"There is the desire to make our lives and families look perfect," said Leventhal. "We’re fighting back years of being portrayed as bad."
This mentality and striving for perfection actually works against LGBT victims, setting the standard for their relationship higher than achievable, giving the false idea that abuse doesn’t happen in their community, and furthering the feeling of isolation that is prevalent in all victims of domestic violence.
"We need to be honest about what relationships look like, heterosexual and LGBT," said Troop. "It’s not about suggesting any community is perfect, it’s about saying we have the same rights."
These rights will be addressed in the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, which includes specific protections for LGBT people as well as immigrants and Native Americans. VAWA aims to tackle the issue of domestic violence in the LGBT community (and others) by codifying the law, making it easier for law enforcement to serve, and by removing roadblocks for victims of abuse and violence.
"There previously was confusion for law enforcement," said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. "They were asking for more clarity. This updated version codified the law so enforcement is able to engage in proper practice with issues of (LGBT) violence."
"It has always been a barrier for people to have to come out before they get the services they need," said Troop. "VAWA faces this proactively and makes an affirmative statement of our values throughout the country that we will not discriminate."
While the bill was held in limbo for the past year due to partisan bickering and the GOP-majority House presenting its own less inclusive bill, the Senate-version of this Act eventually passed with bipartisan support.
"When it came to issues of law enforcement, the senate version was a better bill," said Angelo. "It passed with strong bipartisan support, and marked the first time that a GOP Congress has passed LGBT-inclusive legislation."
This was a small victory for conscientious GOP House members and a large one for the many women and men who will benefit from having protection under this law.