The U.S. Senate approved a version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill would extend protections and programs to same-sex couples, indigenous tribes and undocumented immigrants.
The bill—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. Even though the bill has several Republican sponsors, all eight GOP senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against the bill when the committee considered it in February.
Republicans led an effort to replace the original VAWA reauthorization bill with a substitute bill that would have eliminated all protections for LGBT victims of domestic abuse. That bill was defeated today by a vote of 63-37. The Senate then approved the original VAWA reauthorization bill with LGBT protections 68-31.
VAWA would 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.
For undocumented immigrants, visas would be extended to those who experience domestic violence if they meet all the requirements in the bill.
The bill would also provide funding for programs that serve those in the LGBT community who experience domestic violence, and prohibit discrimination in funding based on gender.
“Is the violence any less real, is the danger any less real because you happen to be gay or lesbian? I don’t think so,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California. “If a family comes to the country and the husband beats his wife to a bloody pulp, do we say, ‘Well, you’re illegal. I’m sorry. You don’t deserve any protection?’”
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 victims reported being turned away by other groups helping domestic violence victims.
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.
“Most people think of domestic violence as something between a man and a woman, and are just unaware of the fact that same-sex couples sometimes have problems and difficulties and challenges. Some of those include violence between the partners, unfortunately,” said Jeff Krehely, vice president of LGBT research and communications at the Center for American Progress.
I recently interviewed Ron Okerson, a gay cisgender man who left his abusive partner of two years and found himself unemployed and homeless. According to Okerson, the abuse ranged from forbiding Okerson to hold a job to “beating my head while I slept to holding a carving knife to my throat threatening to cut my head off starting from the back so he could hear me scream.”
Navigating social services and bureaucracy proved so overwhelming and exhausting for Okerson that he started wishing he had never left his abusive partner. And while he finally landed in a long-term housing program, he was only able to secure his spot through self-advocacy and reaching out to every agency that would listen to him, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.