When I found myself as the victim within an abusive relationship, one that was marred by queerness, blackness, and a profoundly turbulent love resonating between the two of us, I was stunned into submission.
[TW/CW: descriptions of emotional abuse and physical violence.]
Last month while sitting in a smoke lounge on the westside of Atlanta, a friend leaned over to speak directly into my left ear, trying to whisper under the music. “Speak in my other ear, I’m partially deaf in that ear,” I said, as I have to often.
“Wait, really? I didn’t know that.” She responded. “Why are you deaf in that ear?”
Such a simple question leads me to the painfully uncomfortable conversation, by which I spend several minutes thinking to myself how to tell her, or even if I should tell her, that I am deaf because I used to date a super villain. And he beat the shit out of me.
The first time it happened, he left my right cheek with a red tint over brown skin; an awkward silence dwelt within our kitchen in that moment. He no longer looked quite like an honest man, especially the man I’d fallen in love with, rather he resembled one of the grotesque villains I’d watch my favorite cartoon characters fight when I was a child, The Joker maybe.
“Why did you embarrass me in front of my friends?” he would say, then a push, one strong enough to knock me off my balance and onto my knees.
“I didn’t mean to,” I’d reply, not even remembering what I did wrong in the first place. I would say whatever to make the moments when the super villain was in my kitchen stop, or at least slow down.
I thought I was seeing past it, always telling myself it was my fault, blaming myself for the speed and the force with which I was hit. The thoughts that raced through my mind this time were fleeting embarrassments and angering confusions that left our kitchen in an awkward silence for a moment: this wasn’t normal, this doesn’t happen to our kind; these types of violences are surely rare for us, and I’m now feeling as if I am a part of an anomaly within a sea of already demonized love. Here I was months deep into a love which was once all power and puff, now saying and doing whatever I could to defuse a situation I thought I was to blame for.
When I found myself as the victim within an abusive relationship, one that was marred by queerness, blackness, and a profoundly turbulent love resonating between the two of us, I was stunned into submission. The person whom I was giving so much to, and borrowing so much from, became the very person who made a mess of me; the one who swore he wanted to build a nest up high with me began clipping my wings.
Sure, I knew abusive relationships were bad and often end in deathly turmoil, but I was not yet convinced that I was even really in one. He was the Joker, after all: a charming, albeit off-putting, crooked smile, with a big boisterous laugh, someone who loved attention and making grand entrances. And I, the opposite; small, both in frame and personality at the time, afraid of attention, and only smiling when pressured to. His ability to manipulate was masked underneath his ability to excite, and I confused that for charm.
He did not start off as the Joker; when we met, everything was roses and romantic cinema. A few months in, what began as him talking down to me eventually turned into constant explosive arguments, the kind where the shouts make you jump a bit and the specs of spit splashing across your face make the hairs rise on the back of your neck.
When we were out, the moment we got to the car I would be bombarded with things like “why the fuck were you looking at that guy at the restaurant!” and “you were flirting with the bartender, I’m not fucking stupid!” I was always to blame for something at any given time, his insecurities and jealousies rested on my shoulders as if I birthed them.
The arguments eventually turned into something much more frightening, they moved being explosiveness into pure villainy. The Joker, with his searing, beady eyes and a fiery hate behind them would say whatever to hurt me. All of my deepest insecurities, which I’d once entrusted with him, were now constantly weaponized. One time, in the Walmart parking lot, I became a “depressed little faggot” who “has to go to therapy because his life is so shitty,” all because I didn’t buy the right something or another.
“All couples get into arguments,” I would tell myself, rationalizing the demise of my self-worth. I refused to believe that the person who I’d plucked roses for and taken to my favorite lavender fields had the capacity to be an abuser. I tried to convince myself that his 6’2, muscular frame was still filled with more love for me than anger.
I was very young, too young to see the manipulative nature of our age difference — me being 17 years old and him 24 — despite thinking I knew everything about love, the good and the bad. Knowing my sexuality fell somewhere on the queer side of the spectrum at an early age meant knowing silence, and secrets, and anonymity from an early age.
This was my first serious relationship with another man, or at least the first one that mattered, and from what I knew of the world around me, it had to be kept in privacy. I was not yet out to most of my friends and all of my family, so the inner dwellings of my love life remained quiet and often unspoken, which meant this souring relationship did as well.
All of the advice on dating, relationships, sex, abuse, and abusers had been steeped in such a strong hetero-patriarchal normativity, that by the time I was old enough to be in the midst of these things I had no clue what I was doing. More than just not knowing what I was doing, I thought that since I’d never really heard much conversation on these things from a queer perspective or been immersed in a world where queer relationships were discussed, that I couldn’t talk to others about my relationship.
I thought I had watched enough Tyler Perry movies, like the one where Kimberly Elise unleashes a series of vengeful antics on her abusive husband, or had seen “Enough” in theaters enough times to know that I would kick ass like short-haired Jennifer Lopez had someone ever put their hands on me. I convinced myself that seeing my mother cry handfuls of tears so many times, or overhearing my aunts in the living room loudly discussing how “they wish a man would” put his hands on them, or hearing the men at the barbershop talk about how they wanted to “put hands on” Ike for what he did to Tina, had truly prepared me for this sort of thing.
Despite all of the reflexes to abuse I thought I had built up over the years, when it was me getting my ass kicked on a regular basis, it all went out the window. The first time the Joker hit me, I did not have a bat symbol to shine over Gotham, no utility belt at my disposal; because all of the education surrounding domestic abuse (and abuse in general) had been heavily exclusive of queer and trans people’s relationships, I felt as if I was neither allowed to speak up and ask for help, or as if it simply didn’t happen in the queer community.
The only queer representation I knew intimately was from poorly developed characters on my TV screen, who were rarely Black like me, and who were typically flamboyant ghosts void of depthful emotion. I viewed a million cautionary tales where women were taught to leave their abusers and had listened to Eve’s “Love Is Blind” often, but there was virtually no representation or easily accessible resources for dealing with the trauma a super villain brings within a queer relationship.
The relationship with him lasted over two years. It went from verbal to physical, and there were moments where I looked into his eyes and thought it was Allah himself who was mad at me, what for, I will never know, but mad at me nonetheless. The first time he hit me, that aforementioned time in the kitchen when I first realized I’d been dating a villain and there was no superhero in sight, it started a string of escalating events. There were weeks I’d spend with sore ribs, days I had to learn to hide busted lips and bruised arms, and moments when there were sexual components to the abuse too.
I no longer even remember the argument that occurred the night I lost hearing in one ear because it is such a blur. I walked away from an argument, tired of being shouted at and admittedly tipsy from dinner wine, and got into the shower. The shower often became a safe space of sorts, where the warm water would wash away whatever makeup was masking that day’s sadness. I’d stay in there sometimes for half an hour, until I felt the water turn cold, just letting the stream pour over me and bring me to a temporary peace. This night, however, peace escaped the shower, and the Joker walked in and pushed me, causing me to slip and hit the side of my head on the way down. A moment that caused a lifelong loss of hearing; a reminder that follows me.
It took me almost a year to grow tired enough of this to want to make a change. A very close friend of mine who knew small details of what was happening began encouraging me to leave the relationship, and although I was terrified, I eventually knew it was what I had to do. While I had a dorm on my university campus at the time, most of my clothing, books, and other personal belongings were at his apartment, so the thought of transporting these things to my dorm seemed ghastly. Being from Bowen Homes, Atlanta, the thought had crossed my mind to grab a few of my west side homies who I grew up with and toted pistols and walked around metal detectors, and ask them to escort me as security. However, doing this would mean letting the world into my queer relationship that I’d kept to myself so, so well.
I was stuck again: now that I knew I wanted out, I wasn’t sure how to actually go about getting help to do so. Asking for help meant letting the world know I was in an abusive relationship and essentially getting my ass kicked by the Joker for two years. I couldn’t call the police, first because of my stark abolitionist politics and fear of cops, but second because I had read so many stories of police mishandling and harassment of TLGBQ individuals specifically that it moved me to further skepticism. And in the back of my head, any level of publicness surrounding this in my life would lead to demonizing and negative views on a queer relationship, which where I live in the south, is already a taboo in many circles.
Internet searches became my best friend, with platforms like Break The Cycle giving me helpful advice. I learned that despite the mainstream silence surrounding intimate violence in the TLGBQ community, surveys found that 21.5 percent of men and 35.4 percent of women experienced physical violence from their intimate partner in their lifetime. Moreover, I learned that the rates of abuse in same-gender relationships occur at similar rates as heterosexual ones, and my fear of police involved was justified because several reports claim that police were not properly trained to handle involvements between TLGBQ individuals.
My only option was to face him about it, tell him I was leaving, and likely have to leave what I could not carry in my hands at his place. In these situations, people often expect a big bang to occur and create a world inside of the victim which shows them other options; they think that there is always some strangely grand exit, a fire of sorts, that takes place to let the victim know they have to leave their abusive situation. Or, the common alternative, is when folks expect victims to be enamored with the idea of righteous revenge, or a justified vengefulness that comes across in action. In truth, this doesn’t always happen, and it surely didn’t for me. Although there were nights I’d lay and imagine the various ways I could seek revenge, from burning things down to drowning things of his, those thoughts never resonated enough with me to become praxis — they never existed outside the realm of theory.
I simply woke up one day in winter and knew that my worth resonated on a deeper level than my pain. For me, it was the same silence that trapped me that eventually motivated me to move. Having spent enough time in quiet corners of solitude and self-censoring fear led to a self-reflection like I’d never experienced before. This self-reflection felt like a prayer or the words of Sufi poetry, and created a peace over me that I’d only heard rumors of before in churches and mosques. And on that day, I sat on the edge of my bed for an hour preparing myself to face the villain, to become the superhero of my story finally. I drove to his apartment around dinner time with my heart in the seat beside me, walked in and said “we have to talk.”
I was in what felt like a state of shock at my own boldness and approach to the situation. I thought, damn, what the hell has gotten into me? I knew I’d planned to talk to him about it, but wasn’t sure I actually would. After an hour of discussion, which was at times heated and other times low and cool and a seemingly fragile thing, he finally said “I get it. I am a monster, and I don’t blame you.” I was stunned and in a hesitant disbelief at this reaction. As a child, I would watch superhero cartoons filled with villains and monsters, and I’d always wonder if the bad guys really knew they were monsters and villains. I mean, I was certain they knew they were doing bad things but, in their heads, had they ever stopped to see themselves as an actual villain? I finally got the answer to this question when the villainous clown who’d laid beside me in bed with his head on my chest for so many nights told me he knew he was a monster.
“I never meant to hit you,” “you could have left at any time,” “I’m so sorry,” “you know this isn’t me.” In these moments, the silence within me that had become such an abusive thing became a power, an affirmation, some thing I’d reclaimed and used against an oppressor. I said very little as he rambled and told on himself, apologizing for monstrous acts that I had yet to have the chance to mention. I am Muslim, but in that moment I felt as if I’d transformed into a pope in a dark and lonely confessional.
I told what was left of the person I’d originally met that I believed in his ability to get better, and to do better, before staring the villain in his eyes and saying how much I hated him. Which was only partially true — even to this day there are pieces of me that feel love for him — but, nevertheless, felt so great to say to his face. “You have hurt me, you have made me deaf in one ear, you have alienated me from the people I love.” Each point I made, he sobbed, guilt swelling in each tear.
Finally, I asked “how could someone so young be so broken,” and he tearfully answered “I don’t know.” However, I was not talking to him. I was speaking to my self. I was speaking to the self that had went away for so long, that forgot just how valuable his big lips, brown skin, thick hair, and soft voice were. The self that somehow got lost and needed help back to a place of self-love. The self that thought because he was Black, queer, and Muslim, he had to live underneath silence and bruises for the rest of his life.
Midday the next day, I brought a friend with me and collected my things. Boxes and bags full of clothes, bathroom supplies, art. I left any gift he’d ever given me, and any gift I’d ever given him. There were no need for these things any longer, no need to be reminded of my time with the Joker.
“It’s a long story, and I don’t feel like telling it right now,” is how I responded to my friend in the lounge who asked why I was deaf, a strange yet common question. And that is how I answer most of the time: I don’t feel like telling you that story right now, and rarely ever do feel like telling it. It is one of those stories, one of those events in my life that I keep to myself.
I planned to never share this publicly in writing, to keep it between me, my intimate friends and partners for the rest of my life. However, after hearing and seeing so many stories of assault and abuse in the media the past few months, from disgusting perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, I felt it necessary to add my voice and my experiences to a growing sea voices sharing these experiences. Writing this is the first time I’ve publicly explained my entrapping with the villain, and it is a result of several close friends encouraging me to do so and aiding me along the way.