LGBT people and their relationships with animal companions
In this article Damien Riggs, a contributor to The Palgrave Handbook of the Psychology of Sexuality and Gender, discusses research into the relationships between LGBT people and companion animals.
Relatively early in the lesbian feminist movement, women spoke about the close relationships that they shared with animal companions who lived in the home. Cats specifically were spoken about as much loved family members and as possible sources of tension or distress should a human couple separate. Cats were also spoken about in terms of the politics of animal ‘ownership’, and what it meant for lesbian political organizing to fight against the oppression of women, whilst remaining silent on the oppression of animals.
Since these early forays into the intersections of lesbian feminist and animal rights, relatively little has been discussed publically about the role of animals in the lives of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) people. Certainly in academic circles, until very recently animals were only alluded to in the context of LGBT people’s lives. Primarily this occurred in research on intimate partner violence in lesbian women’s relationships, where early research in the field noted that in some women’s relationships animals were used as tools of coercion and control.
More recently, however, academic attention has turned to focus more closely on the intersections of human and animal lives in the context of LGBT communities. Researchers have explored how close kinship relationships with cats may help give meaning to the lives of older lesbian women, helping to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
A research team, comprised of Nik Taylor, Heather Fraser, Tania Signal, Catherine Donovan, and me, has recently published on the role of animal companions in the lives of LGBT people who experience either intimate partner or family violence. Our research found that for LGBT people who experience intimate partner violence, and whose animal companions were also subjected to violence, this was associated with lower levels of social support and higher levels of psychological distress as compared to people whose animal companions were not subjected to violence.
In terms of our research on family violence, we found that relationships with animals appeared to play a protective role, potentially buffering violence perpetuated by family members. In our analysis of the qualitative data collected as part of the survey, we found that animal companions were seen as offering unconditional positive regard in the face of violence perpetrated by intimate partners or family members. Participants made comments such as:
"My cat at my parents’ house was always a good friend through hard times and the emotional abuse I received."
Importantly, and reminiscent of early lesbian feminist research, our participants also raised concerns about the rights of animal companions to protection and safety, as noted by another of our participants:
"I had a dog at the time and she stayed at my home whilst I went between my own home and the home of my abusive partner. I would not take my dog to her home as I would not have put my dog at risk of abuse. My dog was a great source of comfort to me. I did sometimes deliberately deflect my partners anger towards her own animals or her children onto myself (by deliberately goading her) in order to protect them."
Stemming from this research, Nik Taylor, Heather Fraser, Shoshana Rosenberg and I are now undertaking a second project focused on the forms of kinship that lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender (LBT) women share with animal companions, and the human service needs that such women might have with regard to their animal companions. In this project we are particularly interested in whether or not human service providers understand and appreciate the meaning of animal companions to LBT women, and whether they incorporate such understandings and appreciation into their engagements with LBT women.
Concurrently, we have been heartened to see a number of other studies being published internationally that focus on LGBT people and animal companions. With some of these studies animals have been a central focus of the project, whilst for other studies we feel it positive to see animals at least included as a source of meaning to the lives of LGBT people, even if animals are not central to the research project itself.
Returning to the early lesbian feminist work mentioned above, it is perhaps timely, given the erosion in certain countries of the rights of LGBT people, and the fierce opposition that many LGBT people face in their daily lives, that we return to focus on the intersections of human and animals lives. Perhaps like the proverbial canary in a coalmine, the rise of research on LGBT people’s relationships with animal companions tells us something about the increasing need that many LGBT people experience to extend their kinship circles beyond the human. Different to the canary, however, hopefully animals are valued as sentient beings in their own rights, rather than simply as portents of further challenges that may lie ahead for LGBT people.
Damien W. Riggs is Associate Professor in social work at Flinders University, Australia and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. He is the author of almost 200 publications in the fields of gender and sexuality, family, and mental health, in addition to working as a Lacanian psychotherapist in private practice where he specializes in working with transgender young people. He is a contributor to The Palgrave Handbook of the Psychology of Sexuality and Gender.
Muraco, A., Putney, J., Shiu, C., & Fredriksen-Goldsen, K. I. (2018). Lifesaving in every way: The role of companion animals in the lives of older lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults age 50 and over. Research on Aging.
Putney, J. (2014). Older lesbian adults’ psychological wellbeing: The significance of pets. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 26, 1-17.
Renzetti, C. M. (1992). Violent betrayal: Partner abuse in lesbian relationships. Thousand Oaks,CA: Sage.
Reti, I. (Ed.) (1991). Cats and they dykes. New York: Herbooks.
Riggs, D.W., Taylor, N., Signal, T., Fraser, H., & Donovan, C. (Online First 2018). People of diverse genders and/or sexualities and their animal companions: Experiences of family violence in a bi-national sample. Journal of Family Issues.
Riggs, D.W., Taylor, N., Fraser, H., Donovan, C., & Signal, T. (Online First 2018). The link between domestic violence and abuse and animal cruelty in the intimate relationship of people of diverse genders and/or sexualities: A bi-national study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.