Why VAWA Must Include LGBT Survivors

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center works every day with some of the most vulnerable LGBT survivors of domestic and sexual violence, survivors who will be put at risk by the changes made by the House of Representatives to the Senate bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
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The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center works every day with some of the most vulnerable lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including many immigrants -- survivors who will be put at risk by the changes made by the House of Representatives to the Senate bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). These changes not only omit landmark Senate provisions barring discrimination against and increasing protections for LGBT survivors, but they make it less likely that our clients will report domestic violence.

It is bad enough that the House legislation omits all the LGBT protections that were passed in the bipartisan Senate bill (S. 1925) and ignores the reality that currently only one in five LGBT survivors receives victim assistance. But the House bill goes further: It actually contains dangerous provisions that roll back years of progress aimed at protecting the safety of victims who are immigrants, Native American, and members of other marginalized communities.

Incredibly, the House bill rolls away many of the protections under current law that allow our immigrant clients to speak out, seek help, and assist law enforcement in stopping abusers from harming other victims. By decreasing the ability of immigrant survivors to come forward, the House bill would ultimately cost lives.

At the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center we have assisted thousands of LGBT survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and know too well that the barriers to services that currently exist often result in increased violence, costly hospital services, and, for too many, death. And the barriers to service that discourage immigrant LGBT survivors are often the most significant.

Although we work with many victims at the Center, the stories of those we serve are unforgettable:

  • The transgender woman from Mexico who was targeted for sexual assault, dragged from a car (attached by a seatbelt) for a quarter mile, and then left for dead. The perpetrators were never caught.

  • The transgender woman from Central America who was repeatedly stabbed by her ex-boyfriend. The perpetrator was never found.
  • The gay man whose batterer threatened to have him killed in his home country while threatening to have him deported because of his immigration status.
  • The lesbian immigrant who called the police on four separate occasions to report four separate incidents. When the police finally took a report against her abuser, it was for vandalism. In fact, the victim had been strangled.
  • These are but a few of the countless victims who likely would not have sought help had the House version been the law.

    One of the most transformative aspects of VAWA, a truly historic legacy, is that it gave a voice to literally millions of woman who had suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands; this was later expanded to their boyfriends and is now understood much more broadly.

    And as a feminist, I commend all the work that has been done to help victims, but it is not enough. For VAWA truly to be the law it is meant to be -- a law that gives voice to all survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence -- it must recognize the survivors who often fall in the fringes: communities of color, immigrants, Native victims, and, LGBT survivors, and the survivors who exist across all of these categories.

    Recognizing the diverse needs of communities is not singling out a community for special protection; it is merely acknowledging that access to services is not equal and that specific pathways are often necessary.

    What may be the greatest benefit of this laborious process of VAWA reauthorization is that the conversation has raised awareness about the reality of domestic and sexual violence in the LGBT community so that the gay man in Arkansas and the lesbian in South Carolina and the trans woman in Los Angeles know that they are not alone, and also know that advocates of all sexual orientations and gender identities are doing their best to ensure that they will have access to services.

    We call upon advocates from across the country to decry the House's actions and to encourage their legislators to do the right thing as the House and Senate meet in conference to reconcile the two bills. This country can no longer afford to play politics with lives.

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