VAWA: GOP representatives team up for LGBT, tribal and undocumented immigrant inclusion

Photo: Rep. Judy Biggert, a white woman from Illinois, addresses the press room from a podium with the Congressional seal surrounded by anti-violence advocates and Rep. Robert Dold. Google Images.

Rep. Judy Biggert speaks on behalf of an LGBT-inclusive VAWA with support from other advocates.

Republican Congress members Judy Biggert and Robert Dold, both from Illinois, met with anti-violence advocates July 31, to call for bipartisan support of an LGBT-inclusive reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

In May, the House of Representatives passed a version of the VAWA reauthorization bill that cut protections and programs for same-sex couples, indigenous tribes and undocumented immigrants. The Senate previously approved those protections in April.

“We want to serve everyone who enters the door, that’s why we are calling for bipartisan support of [an inclusive] VAWA,” said Biggert. “The law must clarify policies for victims who are LGBT … There is simply no excuse to allow VAWA to fall to election year gridlock.”

The following provisions were cut from the Republican-controlled House version of the bill, all of which were originally approved by the Senate:

  • Extend the power of state-recognized Native American tribes “over all persons” in the special circumstance of domestic violence on reservations, allowing them to open and operate rape crisis centers with grant money from the measure
  • Extend visas to undocumented immigrants who experience domestic violence and allowing spouses to self-petition for citizenship. Many people gain citizenship through marrying a U.S. citizen, and spouses could use their control over their partner’s immigration status as a tool of abuse, refusing to sign the proper paperwork or threatening to revoke it.
  • Provide funding for programs that serve those in the LGBT community who experience domestic violence, and prohibit discrimination in funding based on gender

VAWA—enacted in 1994 to provide grant money for police departments and agencies to aid victims and prosecute domestic violence offenders—has received bipartisan support every time it has needed reauthorization. But this go around, the fight is falling mostly along party lines, with many GOP Congress members objecting to LGBT and undocumented immigrant protections.

“All victims deserve justice,” said Vickie Smith, CEO/executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I urge Congress to support the end of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in all corners of our country.”

House Republican leaders claim that the bill covers all people without specifically enumerating LGBT, but most shelters and social services, especially those for domestic violence survivors, are cisgender women-specific or otherwise gendered and place people based on legal sex, leaving gay cisgender men and transgender people without anywhere to turn. For example, a women-specific shelter could treat trangender woman as a man and deny assistance.

In 2010, programs serving LGBT people who were abused by their domestic partners or other intimate partners recorded 5,052 reports of such abuse, according to a study by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Nearly 45 percent of these survivors reported being turned away by other groups helping domestic violence victims, while 55 percent were denied an order of protection from their abusers.

“An inclusive VAWA would change all of this and it would send a clear signal to our courts, to our state governments, to our social service providers that we are here for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Brian Richardson, director of public affairs for the Center on Halsted.

LGBT-specific shelters and abuse-survivor services are extremely rare. Few federal and state surveys enumerate sexual orientation and transgender identities, making it difficult to show social service agencies that domestic violence is an issue for the LGBT community; however, a Center for American Progress survey estimates 30 percent of same-sex partnerships experience domestic violence.

“LGBT people face the same rates of domestic and sexual violence as our straight counterparts,” said Richardson. “Unfortunately, we do not have the same access to shelters, to social service providers, to programs that our straight counterparts do.”

House Speaker John Boehner appointed eight Republican Congress members to an unformed conference committee July 30, but the Senate has yet to name committee members. Once both committees have been selected, they will workshop a bipartisan version of the bill.

Biggert is confident an agreement can be reached. “Any claims that the bills are too far apart are simply not true,” she said.

Until then, VAWA funding and guidelines will continue under the latest reauthorization from 2005.

“I, for one, believe that the more inclusive bill is the right path,” said Dold. “Frankly, this is about protecting individuals all across the country, and we should pass this bill and pass it quickly.”

President Barack Obama threatened to veto the new version of VAWA, with the White House issuing the following explanatory statement:

H.R. 4970 fails to provide for concurrent special domestic-violence criminal jurisdiction by tribal authorities over non-Indians, and omits clarification of tribal courts’ full civil jurisdiction regarding certain protection orders over non-Indians.

The bill also fails to include language that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT victims in VAWA grant programs. No sexual-assault or domestic-violence victim should be beaten, hurt, or killed because they could not access needed support, assistance, and protection.

“This is not about campaigns or the next election—for our community, this is life and death,” said Richardson. “It is time to stop politicking and start saving lives.”

For more on domestic violence in the LGBT community, visit the Anti-Violence and Survivor Resources page.

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