The U.S. Senate will try again this week to consider reauthorization of a law to prevent domestic abuse, but for weeks now, the routine, non-controversial law has been tied up in partisan disputes over new provisions, including one to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Violence Against Women Act (S. 1925) has been a popular piece of legislation since 1994, when it was first passed. But this year, it become a lightning rod for partisan conflict, including the 2012 presidential campaign. Democrats see it as a means of increasing protections for victims of domestic abuse; Republicans see it as an excuse to funnel federal funds to progressive groups, such as LGBT health clinics.
The LGBT community sees it as a resource for LGBT victims of domestic abuse. In 2010, programs serving LGBT people who were abused by their domestic partners or other intimate partners recorded 5,052 reports of such abuse. Almost 45 percent of these victims reported being turned away by other groups helping domestic violence victims.
Yet new language seeking to prohibit domestic violence groups from turning away LGBT people is one of the three provisions Republicans in Congress are reportedly objecting to in this year’s reauthorization bill. The Republican leadership in the Senate complained that the new iteration of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is expanding the law to help gay men, lesbians, and immigrants. They say the expansion is essentially a cash cow for women’s and gay groups to obtain federal grants toserve their constituents.
Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking minority leader on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters April 18 that Republicans would not block a vote on the reauthorization as long as the Democratic leadership allows a vote on a Republican alternative to the bill. On the floor of the Senate April 19, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that Democrats and Republicans were working to find a way to proceed on the measure, as well as another one involving the postal service.
The original reauthorization bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a straight party line vote. Grassley’s remark last week may have been influenced in part by a press conference saying supporters of the original bill have 61 senators in support of the bill. It takes 60 votes to force a bill to the floor if any senator attempts to filibuster against it.
A spokeswoman for Romney said last week that Romney does support the bill, but the spokesperson gave no hint of whether he objects to the new language prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs issued a report, partially funded by the Arcus Foundation, recommending increased funding—both federal and private—for LGBT-specific programs providing domestic violence services and specific earmarks of those funds for LGBT services. It also recommended language in the reauthorization bill to specify the law’s application to LGBT people and to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The National Coalition includes a large number of groups working to prevent domestic violence and help its victims, including the Community United Against Violence (San Francisco), the Center on Halstead (Chicago), the Resource Center Dallas, the Broward (Florida) LGBT Domestic Violence Coalition, the San Diego LGBT Center, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the Fenway Community Health Violence Recovery Program (Boston), Wingspan (Arizona), United4Safety (Atlanta), and GLOV (D.C.).
The updated language of this year’s VAWA reauthorization bill includes the National Coalition’s recommended language on sexual orientation and gender identity, and it adds “intimate partner” to the list of relationships that are eligible for support under the law.
According to the National Coalition’s 2010 report on LGBT “Intimate Partner Violence,” almost 45 percent of LGBT people and people with HIV who sought help from domestic violence shelters in 2010 were turned away because of “institutionalized anti-LGBTQH discrimination.”
The report indicated it had received 5,052 reports of “intimate partner violence” in 2010, representing a 38 percent increase over 2009. The report noted that much of this increase was due to the LA Gay & Lesbian Center receiving funding for its program against domestic violence.
Forty-six percent of the LGBT intimate partner violence reports came from women, 37 percent from men, and 4 percent from transgender individuals. Eleven percent of those reporting to a National Coalition center did not identify their gender or gender identity and two percent fit other categories.
Thirty-two percent identified as gay, 28 percent as lesbian, 9 percent as bisexual, and 8 percent as heterosexual. The remaining 23 percent did not identify their sexual orientation or chose other categories.
Only seven percent of the victims, male and female, called for police support, a dramatic drop from 2009, when nearly 22 percent called for police support. Nearly 55 percent of LGBT victims who sought a court order of protection were denied.
Up until this year, VAWA has been non-controversial, but the last reauthorization of the bill, in 2005, did not include any stipulation that services should not be denied based on “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” The current reauthorization bill (S. 1925) does. It notes that “underserved populations” include populations underserved because of sexual orientation and gender identity. This year, the controversy has threatened to derail reauthorization, but the partisan tug-of-war over women voters may well pressure both sides to ensure the legislation is reauthorized.
VAWA this year was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) and co-sponsored by 60 others, including both senators from Illinois, California, and Massachusetts, as well as Bill Nelson of Florida, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Neither of Texas’ Republican senators co-sponsored the legislation.
The VAWA in the House (HR 4271) has 52 co-sponsors, including openly gay Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass) and. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) but not openly gay Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicciline (D-RIs.).
Related to the VAWA, President Obama issued a memorandum Wednesday (April 18) directing federal agencies to “prevent domestic violence and address its effects on the Federal workplace.” The memorandum makes no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But Stacey Long, public policy and governmental affairs director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “Nothing in the memorandum prevents LGBT federal employees from getting the services they need.” And the Human Rights Campaign agrees.
“We do not believe that the lack of mention of sexual orientation and gender identity means that these policies would not be inclusive of LGBT employees who have experienced domestic violence,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesman. “The President has, in prior memorandum, already directed federal agencies to ensure that their policies and benefits are as inclusive of LGBT people as possible under current law. We have no reason to believe that this directive would not apply to these policies regarding domestic violence, and will remind the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies tasked with developing these policies of that fact.”
Cole-Schwartz added that the Obama administration referenced domestic violence against LGBT people in 2009, through an advisory opinion from the Department of Justice, “clarifying that the Violence Against Women Act’s criminal provisions on interstate stalking and domestic violence apply equally to same-sex perpetrators.”