In late April, the U.S. Senate approved legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, which included strengthened protections for victims of intimate partner violence, in particular for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) victims. The version of the reauthorization bill that passed the House of Representatives omitted a crucial provision that would ensure that individuals in same-sex relationships and transgender individuals can access vital services and protections that can help stop battering, stalking or threats of violence from intimate partners. Without the specific inclusion of LGBT individuals in the legislation, shelters and other support service providers may deny individuals assistance based on the fact that the abuser is of the same sex as the victim. The denial of services and protection to LGBT individuals not only threatens the safety of thousands of victims of violence, but also undermines the original intent of VAWA. As of this writing, the fate of the reauthorization bill depends on whether the different versions in the Senate and House can be reconciled and sent to the President for his signature. Without the inclusion of protections for LGBT victims, however, the President has indicated that he will veto the bill.
VAWA passed with bipartisan support in 1994. Congress acknowledged that domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault afflict millions of individuals across the United States, and affirmed that no victim should suffer physical harm or death because he or she lacks access to support and protective services. The federal government offered communities resources to respond and address DV and sexual violence for the first time. VAWA was reauthorized in 2000, with the addition of a victims’ legal assistance program and an expansion of the definition of covered crimes to include dating violence and stalking. In 2005, VAWA was reauthorized again, this time with protections for teen victims of domestic and sexual violence. This reauthorization also strengthened health care systems and housing opportunities for survivors of DV. Each VAWA reauthorization offered stronger and more expansive protections and services for DV victims. This positive momentum faces considerable challenge this year as the inclusion of LGBT victims in the Senate version has met significant resistance and hostility from the House.
Failing to provide access to VAWA’s services and protections to victims of DV because of their sexual orientation exacerbates the marginalization of the LGBT community and ignores the reality that members of the LGBT community may also be DV victims. LGBT individuals who survive DV are often hesitant to report the attacks because they fear negative and re-victimizing reactions from law enforcement, other support services and the legal system. Victims’ fears may stem from institutional homophobia, other forms of discrimination, negative personal interactions related to their sexual orientation or the fear of being outed. These fears are not unfounded. A 2011 study noted that 23 percent of LGBT survivors who called police for assistance in a domestic violence situation were arrested themselves. The study also found that 45 percent of LGBT individuals were turned away from shelters and 54 percent of survivors were denied orders of protection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is of particular concern because same-sex relationships suffer similar prevalence of DV as heterosexual couples, yet DV in same-sex relationships remains a silent issue in most communities. Providing protections for DV survivors in the LGBT community through the VAWA can bridge the divide and encourage those survivors to come forward and break the cycle of violence. While Congress struggles with this important expansion of VAWA, states can take an active role in ensuring that LGBT victims have adequate protections by strengthening their civil protective order (CPO) statutes to specifically include individuals in same-sex relationships. Currently 20 of the 50 states and Washington D.C. have civil protective order laws that explicitly include same-sex relationships, while four states explicitly deny such protection. The remaining 27 states are silent on the matter, meaning that a LGBT survivor may or may not be issued a CPO and receive the legal protection other DV victims receive. To find out whether or not your state offers LGBT DV victims CPO please see the Network for Public Health Law’s Same-Sex Relationships and Domestic Violence resources.
This blog was prepared by Cristina Meneses, J.D., M.S., staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland School Of Law.
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.