Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not fear mongering. I read the article reprinted below in the June 2009 issue of Diva Magazine. It is a true tale of domestic violence, alcoholism and murder.
WHO KILLED MARGARET DESMOND?
An unwillingness by police, local authorities and neighbours to accept that women commit domestic violence led to the tragic murder of Margaret Desmond: a 50 year old strangled by her female partner. Peter Lloyd asks if the system failed them – and why? (*additional research by: Leah Burwood*)
‘If this were a heterosexual couple, the victim would have been offered support and sympathy – and might still be alive,’ asserts Rita Hirani of LGBT domestic violence charity, Broken Rainbow. ‘This is a sad indictment of how lack of awareness has led to yet another murder which could have been prevented.’ She’s talking about the death last year of Margaret Desmond – killed by her female partner with a dressing-gown cord.
According to police reports, Beverley McManus called 999, claiming she’d found Desmond injured at their home in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. She told the operator that her partner of 17 years had returned home drunk and that she ‘couldn’t wake her up.’
Police and paramedics arrived minutes later, at 3:28am on 10 August, to find Desmond dead on the living-room floor. McManus was wearing a pink dressing-gown – and its bloodstained cord lay nearby.
During the trial at Sheffield Crown Court – which found McManus guilty of murder and sentenced her to 18 years in prison – the jury heard that the local pub landlord had brought Desmond home at 2am. Shortly after, neighbour Beverley Joynes and her partner were woken by the sound of shouting and a scuffle taking place.
Prosecutor James Goss QC told the court, ‘That noise lasted five minutes before it went quiet. Together, they heard a fatal incident at 3am that morning. At its conclusion, Margaret Desmond was dead on the floor of the front room, having been strangled.
According to Goss, the women had a ‘turbulent’ relationship and were known locally as heavy drinkers – each being three-times over the legal drink-drive limit that night.
The court also heard how witnesses had previously informed police that the pair had violent arguments, some of which resulted in hospital treatment. Normally a red flag in heterosexual cases, this was overlooked because both partners were female.
Other warning signs which appear to have been ignored include neighbours’ complaints to the council’s housing management company, Berneslai Homes, about the pair’s ‘anti-social behaviour’ (which were not interpreted as domestic violence, the real issue), and the fact that months earlier Desmond herself had pleaded with housing officers to find her another home – only to be served with an eviction notice.
So, if the local hospital, local police, local housing officials and the local community were aware of the couple’s violent relationship, it begs just one question: why was it allowed to end in murder?
‘When the housing department was alerted they should have followed guidelines around domestic violence rather than the eviction procedure,’ Hirani told DIVA. ‘If the neighbours had had a greater understanding of same-sex domestic violence, they would have called the police out of concern for the victim.’
So, why did Berneslai Homes manage this case differently to heterosexual ones? Employee Phillip Bulmer, who stood as a witness at the trial, refused to comment and repeatedly hung up on DIVA when questioned – which doesn’t seem to correspond with the company’s mission statement claims to possess ‘a fresh approach to people, homes and communities’.
South Yorkshire police were equally keen to absolve themselves of responsibility. ‘The murder of Margaret Desmond was a tragic case and, as an organisation, our sympathy goes out to her friends and family,’ a spokesman told us. ‘South Yorkshire Police take all cases of domestic abuse seriously. Unfortunately, in this particular case, the couple had a history of domestic abuse incidents between them. The police were called to their home on a number of occasions over several years.’
‘The police attended promptly when requested, whether called by the couple themselves, or by friends and neighbours. Following the incident which led to the death of Margaret Desmond a robust investigation was launched, resulting in the prosecution of her partner. She received a life sentence, with a minimum term set at 13 years.’
‘The circumstances of all police involvement with the couple have been the subject of a review and the conclusion of that review revealed that the police could not have prevented the murder of Margaret Desmond.’
The invisibility of same-sex domestic violence in wider society is reflected in the unwillingness to formally recognise and monitor cases, which means that we don’t know the number of lesbians included in the 104 women who are killed every year by their partners.
Stonewall’s Prescription for Health Report 2008 found that one in six lesbian and bisexual women have experienced domestic violence in a same-sex relationship. The government’s figure for heterosexual women is one in four.
A violent partner’s motivation is the same, regardless of gender, says Hirani. Ultimately, it’s about power and control, yet the way the behaviour manifests itself is variable because of the cultural issues around lesbians, sexuality and lifestyle.
Of lesbian victims, 80% never report incidents to the police. Why? Because they fear they won’t be taken seriously.
Dr Rebecca Barnes, lecturer in sociology at the University of Derby, confirms this. In a study recently presented to the British Sociological Association’s annual meeting she said: ‘Fear of having their sexuality revealed or of receiving homophobic responses deterred some of the abused women from seeking support from agencies such as the police.’
Catherine Donovan, reader in sociology at the University of Sunderland, conducted her own study into lesbian domestic violence which substantiated a common thread found in her subjects’ experience.
‘The main type of abuse is mental,’ she said. ‘Over two thirds of women in gay relationships have suffered emotional abuse. Of those, 40% also suffered traumatic sexual and physical violations, including rape. Often women don’t identify what happens to them at the time as violence. What they considered “bad luck” or “a bad time”, they later identify as violence.’
While violence in straight relationships has caused increasing public concern in recent decades, lesbian partner abuse is still our best-kept secret. Perhaps we’ve been too scared of showing cracks within our own community, or – more likely – it’s not been part of the mainstream media’s news agenda, but whatever the reason, figures prove that the issue must be addressed.
For all the publicity garnered by the recent Women’s Aid campaign featuring Keira Knightly, adverts that are successful in raising awareness of male violence simultaneously reinforce the myth that women are never abusive.
Nowhere is this difference more obvious than in government funding. Women’s Aid/Refuge received a combined grant of £500,000 for 2008. against Broken Rainbow’s £20,000. And although Women’s Aid proportionally receive more calls, their main focus remains heterosexual. As Barnes found, few resources exiast for those suffering same-sex violence. Three women she interviewed (out of 40) had gone to women’s refuges, but one said she was ostracised by fellow residents when her sexuality was discovered.
The common thread? Lesbophobia – both externally and internally. ‘Unique to same-sex relationshipsis homophobic abuse, where some abusers threaten to reveal their partners’ sexuality to their family, colleagues or friends,’ Barnes asserts.
Yet these threats would be powerless if neighbours, police, healthcare professionals and housing officials regarded lesbians as equally worthy of protection, and same-sex violence as a real and serious issue.
Perhaps, if they did, Margaret Desmond would still be alive.