As a legal service attorney, I handled several domestic violence (DV) cases each week. The large case load wasn’t surprising given that one-fourth of women in the United States experience violence from an intimate partner in their life time. DV affects millions of individuals across the United States, regardless of age, economic status, race, religion or education.
Often my clients came in with gruesome details of the violence they faced at home. Other times, bruises, black eyes or text and voice messages told the stories for them; threats to my clients’ safety were acute and pressing. All of my clients came to me with the hope that the law would protect them from continued abuse, and I attempted to ensure that it would, by seeking Civil Protective Orders (CPO) on their behalf. A CPO offers a victim some sense of security: under such an order, a violent partner is required to stay away from the victim and her family, or face criminal contempt. A CPO also provides a DV victim with the ability to remain in her home, seek custody of any children and secure financial support. While a CPO does not offer all of the solutions to ending DV, it offers an effective tool for preventing continued abuse.
Unfortunately, CPOs aren’t available to all DV victims. Across the country, same-sex couples are treated differently in the eyes of the law. Even though same-sex relationships statistically suffer similar prevalence of DV compared to straight couples, some state DV laws remain silent on the issue, while others explicitly prevent a victim in a same-sex relationship from accessing a CPO. Currently, 17 states and Washington, D.C., explicitly include same-sex relationships in their domestic violence law, and 3 states explicitly exclude same-sex relationships from CPO protections. The remaining 30 states are silent on the matter, meaning that a victim in a same-sex relationship may or may not be issued a CPO and get the legal protection other DV victims receive.
Several years ago, I represented a gay man who was being terrorized and abused by his partner in a state that does not explicitly include or exclude those in same-sex relationships from CPO protections. I prepared the case like any other, with one exception: I prayed that his case would be assigned a sympathetic judge who would not take my client’s sexual orientation into account in rendering a decision. Although the evidence of abuse was clearly sufficient to grant a CPO to a straight DV victim, the law was silent as to whether victims in same sex relationships are permitted to seek a CPO. That silence left my client’s safety – and likely his life – at the discretion of the judge. On hearing day, the CPO was automatically granted based on the verified pleadings because the alleged abuser didn’t show up for trial. There was no need to present evidence on whether my client’s relationship fell within the statutes definition of individuals who may be seeking a CPO. Luckily, we didn’t have to test the judge’s discretion that day!
The fact is that same-sex couples exist, whether a state recognizes these relationships or not. A law that is “neutral” as to whether a victim in a same sex relationship may secure a CPO is not neutral at all; it allows for varied interpretations of the law and is frightening to the man or woman in a same-sex relationship that has turned violent. Worse, a law that specifically excludes any victim of DV from seeking legal protection is a violence all its own.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and October 11th was National Coming Out Day. This combination provides the perfect opportunity for the public health community to shine a light on this public health issue, and advocate to end the disparate treatment of same-sex couples. Your advocacy could truly save a life.
This information was developed by Cristina Meneses, staff attorney, for the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland.The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.