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Ensuring LGBT Victims of Domestic Violence Can Access Critically Needed Services and Protections

The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill passed by the Senate would remove barriers facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic violence.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, but failed to include critical provisions that would ensure that all victims of domestic violence can access vital services and protections.  Victims are victims, and, if you have been battered, stalked or otherwise threatened with violence, you should not be turned away by a shelter or denied the assistance you need merely because the aggressor is the same sex as you or because you are transgender.  Yet, the legislation approved by the House Judiciary Committee and being considered this week on the House floor would allow just that.

The guiding principle behind VAWA and each of its subsequent reauthorizations has been an unyielding commitment to the notion that no sexual assault or domestic violence victim should be beaten, hurt or killed because they could not access the support, assistance and protection that they need.  In enacting VAWA in 1994, Congress acknowledged that the criminal justice system chronically failed to respond to the crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, too often blaming victims and refusing to hold offenders accountable as violent criminals.  In reauthorizing VAWA in 2000, Congress included new VAWA programs and provisions to help particularly vulnerable populations, including younger victims, immigrant victims, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.  In the 2005 reauthorization, Congress once again strengthened the Act to improve the health care response to domestic violence, to include a new focus on prevention, and to expand protections for children exposed to violence. 

This year, the VAWA reauthorization bill passed by the Senate in April would remove barriers faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) victims, whose needs often are overlooked by law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and victim service providers. LGBT victims experience domestic violence at roughly the same rate as the general population.  Nonetheless, recent surveys show that LGBT victims frequently are turned away when attempting to access services. For example, according to a 2010 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 45% of LGBT victims were denied services when they sought help from a domestic violence shelter, and nearly 55% were denied protection orders. 

Without LGBT-specific training, criminal justice personnel often underestimate the physical danger involved in same-sex relationships or fail to identify a primary aggressor and instead arrest both victim and perpetrator.  Even well-intentioned service providers may generate outreach materials that do not accurately or fully reflect the experience of LGBT victims, and thus inadvertently discourage individuals who have suffered abuse from seeking needed care.  In all these cases, bias or a lack of understanding contributes to an environment where the needs of LGBT victims are underserved.

The Senate bill would improve VAWA further, authorizing States and service providers to ensure that VAWA protections extend to all victims - including LGBT victims - of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  The Senate bill includes three provisions that would help LGBT victims access VAWA-funded services. 

First, the Senate bill would add a LGBT-focused purpose area to the STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant program, the largest VAWA program and the one that supports law enforcement, prosecution, court and victim service activities in every State.  This new purpose area would authorize States, at their discretion, to fund projects that focus specifically on improving responses to male and female victims of domestic and sexual violence whose ability to access traditional services is affected by their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Second, the Senate bill would amend the Act’s definition of “underserved population” to recognize that LGBT victims face barriers to service.  Not only does this improvement send an important message to those who administer and receive VAWA funding, but it will ensure that organizations serving this community can obtain funding from a new grant program that focuses on underserved populations. 

Third, the Senate bill would protect LGBT victims from discrimination by prohibiting VAWA grantees from denying LGBT victims access to programs on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Plainly put, this provision would ensure that all victims of domestic violence are able to access life-saving services.  In contrast, the VAWA reauthorization bill reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, which is being advanced by House Republican leadership, excludes these critical protections for LGBT victims.

Opponents claim that the Senate bill’s LGBT provisions are a solution looking for a problem.  That is just not true.  Domestic and sexual violence against LGBT individuals is an unfortunate reality, as is violence against non-LGBT individuals – and we shouldn’t allow any victim of such abuse to go unprotected.

Lynn Rosenthal is the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women.  Tonya Robinson is the Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy.