First Hill Murders Prompt Reflection About Domestic Violence Among Same-Sex Couples

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Dion Gillard via Flickr
Many questions remain in the case of the brutal double murder of 29-year-old Eric Cooper and his three-year-old surrogate son Cooper Chen, allegedly committed last week by Cooper's longtime partner Dr. Louis Chen in the couple's First Hill apartment. But the one that looms largest is simply, "Why?" Why did a respected MD allegedly slit his child's throat and stab his significant other more than 100 times with five different knives? Only Chen knows the answer, and he is being held under police supervision in Harborview Medical Center, awaiting arraignment on a pair of first-degree murder charges, for which he could ultimately face the death penalty.

But for the leaders of two Seattle-based domestic violence outreach organizations, the killings were a shocking reminder that domestic violence isn't just a problem for heterosexual couples. Now they hope that the tragic incident will help raise awareness about the oft-taboo topic of abusive same-sex relationships and the unique tribulations faced by LGBT victims of abuse.

Between 1997 and 2010, there were five homicides in the state involving same-sex couples, according to the Domestic Violence Fatality Review, an annual study conducted by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The researchers note, however, that the figure is likely higher because they are only able to track the murders "when law enforcement or news reports made the intimate relationship clear." The First Hill killings are the first on record involving a child victim. (By way of comparison, in that same time period there were 750 domestic-violence murders involving heterosexual couples and/or their children.)

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Dr. Louis Chen and the M Street Apartments on First Hill.
Connie Burk, the executive director of The Northwest Network, a group that provides support and advocacy specifically for LGBT victims of domestic abuse, says that Cooper and Chen's impending breakup (a development reported by The Seattle Times, citing unnamed sources) and concerns about the split-custody of their 2-year-old son may have triggered the rampage.

Burk explains that, while Washington courts often grant joint custody to same-sex couples, the uncertainty of the situation -- particularly for newcomers to the state like Chen and Cooper -- can create intense anxiety.

"It has devastating implications," Burk says. "You cannot rely on these civil institutions to have any response, you don't know what it's going to be . . . What that means sometimes for gay people, they're in a relationship and they have some kind of issue with control or abuse or violence, if they're not a legal, adopted parent or it's unclear how a state they've moved to would understand their relationship, they may not be in a position to have access to their child if they leave, or if their partner leaves."

Burk's organization was founded in 1987 and she's been at the helm since 1997. She says that the gay community has historically been loathe to discuss the issue of domestic violence but that has started to change in recent years.

"There's a much greater openness than there was 15 years ago," she says, "less of a sense that talking about this would bring down judgment and rancor against the community. That mentality is shifting pretty significantly, but with that shift people are still ambivalent about addressing domestic violence."

Burk says homophobia and, for closeted individuals, the fear of being outed are other agonizing factors in abusive same-sex relationships.

"We get calls from moms in particular and other loved ones who say their son or daughter is trapped in an abusive relationship," Burk says. "They have to breakdown what they're noticing, and sometimes it's that their daughter is gay so it must be that they're trapped. On the other hand, I've also talked to families who said 'I knew there was something wrong but I was afraid to say something because I was worried my kid would think I didn't like them because they're gay.' It puts parents in a terrible bind."

Meanwhile, Merril Cousin, the executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, points out that Chen's case bears some classic hallmarks of domestic violence regardless of the sexual orientations of the victim and abuser.

"When a person is separating from an abusive partner, that's the most dangerous time," Cousin says. "Something like 75 percent of domestic violence assaults and homicides occur while the person is trying to leave or soon after they've left. It doesn't mean someone shouldn't leave but it does mean that leaving isn't simple, and just leaving doesn't make someone safe."

The Seattle Times, again citing unnamed sources, reported that, "Chen was the dominant personality in the relationship and could be 'bossy' to Cooper," but that "there were no signs of the kind of rage that police say was evident at the crime scene." Cousins, however, notes that if Chen was controlling or abusing Cooper, the latter might be hesitant to come forward because Chen's status as a physician would give him more credibility in the eyes of the authorities.

"The fact that he was a highly respected medical doctor also shatters a lot of myths about domestic violence," Cousin says. "A lot of people have stereotypes about who is likely to be an abuser, and a respected endocrinologist does not typically fit the bill. Certainly, the perceived credibility of both partners is a factor."

Both Burk and Cousin say they were shocked and saddened by the news of the murders. But their hope is that the incident will ultimately help save lives.

"As tragic as it is, it does bring the issue of domestic violence to the forefront," Cousin says. "My hope would be that, out of the tragedy, it could at least create some increased awareness about the problem, about the fact that there is help out there."

At the request of Burk and Cousin, Seattle Weekly is sharing the contact info for their respective organizations.

Northwest Network: call 206-568-7777 or email

Washington State Domestic Violence 24-Hour Hotline: 800-562-6025

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233

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