LGBT Protections Help Fuel Women's Violence Debate

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | The reauthorization of a federal law that funds the work of some gay anti-violence programs across the country may be threatened by several Republican objections to provisions in the legislation, including one that establishes sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination requirements on organizations that receive those funds.

“This year has been unprecedented in the sense that the Violence Against Women Act has never been anything but a bipartisan effort,” said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), an agency that serves queer victims of violence.

The act, which funds a range of law enforcement and community activities that address domestic violence, was first passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 with broad support in Congress.

The current Senate version of the legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) bars grantees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This is the first time such language has been included. That drew complaints from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I agree that shelters and other grant recipients should provide services equally to everyone,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the committee's ranking GOP member, at a February 2 hearing. “But advocates of this provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons. This is true even after we were told they would send a report on the subject. The provision is a solution in search of a problem. Instead, it is only a political statement that shouldn’t be made on a bill that is designed to address actual needs of victims.”

Stapel said Grassley was given reports from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), a coalition of 38 queer groups, that show the struggles that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims have accessing domestic violence services.

“We gave him all of our NCAVP studies on domestic violence,” Stapel said. “He has a series of different sources.”

Last year, an NCAVP report documented 5,052 incidents of “intimate partner violence,” a 38 percent increase over the 3,658 reports in 2009. Nearly 45 percent of the 2010 victims were turned away from shelters. Just over 54 percent of the 2010 victims were denied an order of protection by courts.

Republicans also objected to provisions that allow Indian tribal courts to hear domestic violence cases against non-Indians and increase the number of visas that let undocumented immigrants who are crime victims stay in the US for up to four years when they are cooperating with law enforcement.

Stapel estimated that 10 to 15 of the NCAVP members get VAWA funds. In AVP’s case, those dollars account for 10 to 15 percent of its $3 million annual budget.

Terra Slavin, lead domestic violence attorney at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, said VAWA funds were a small part of its overall budget, but they could not be replaced with other cash in the budget if lost.

“The loss of that funding would be devastating to the services that we provide for domestic violence and sexual assaults,” Slavin said.

Senate Republicans have complained that they are being tarred as anti-woman in their VAWA opposition. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, sponsored the bill and, as of March 20, another 60 senators were cosponsors, giving VAWA more than the 60 votes required to end a filibuster. Eight Republicans were cosponsors.

The bill’s future in the House is more uncertain. Legislation to reauthorize VAWA has yet to be introduced there, and that chamber is dominated by the more radical elements of the Republican Party.

“I think it’s going to be a tough challenge,” Slavin said. “I think when people are actually confronted with the issue… I don’t think anyone wants to be in a position to say ‘No, we don’t think LGBT people deserve these services.’”

A minority report filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee by Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, may predict the arguments that will be used in the House.

“Although many VAWA programs are laudable, they are not the federal government’s responsibility,” they wrote. “These crimes and the treatment of its victims are appropriately in the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government. In light of our current economic crisis, Congress must evaluate each and every program to determine: (1) if it is Constitutional; (2) whether it is a federal responsibility; and (3) whether it is a priority. Combating violence against women is certainly a priority, but it is not a federal responsibility.”

Slavin said, “This issue is far too big for just states to be addressing. It requires a national response… I don’t think the states have the resources for the prevalence and the magnitude of this issue.”