Domestic Violence in the LGBTQ+ Community
The movement for equal legal rights for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) community has led to a number of changes in the law in recent years. In 2013, the Supreme Court held that the federal government could not deny federal benefits to same-sex married couples. Two years later, the Supreme Court went further. The Court ruled that states could not prevent gay couples from getting married. And in 2020, the Court declared that federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred employers from discriminating against people because of their gender identity.
Clearly, not all issues affecting the rights of LGBTQ+ persons are resolved or final. Legal battles continue throughout state legislatures and state courts.
In the area of domestic violence, advocates and government officials both seek to better understand the prevalence of intimate partner violence (IPV) in same-sex and LGBTQ+ couples and families.
Violence in Same-Sex Relationships
Data demonstrates that intimate partner domestic violence in the same-sex and non-binary relationships of the LGBTQ+ community exists at levels just as high if not higher than the heterosexual population. For example, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports:
- 44% of lesbian women and 61% of bisexual women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by their partner at some point (as opposed to 35% of heterosexual women).
- 26% of gay men and 37% of bisexual men have been raped, beaten, or stalked by their partner at some point (compared to 30% of heterosexual men).
- Transgender people, those whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex registered for them at their birth, are 2.2 times more likely to be abused by an intimate partner than cisgender people, those whose gender identity does correspond with the sex registered for them at their birth.
- In a study of male same-sex relationships, only 26% called the police for help after being nearly killed by their partner.
- In 2012, fewer than 5% of LGBTQ survivors of IPV sought court protective orders for protection against their intimate partner.
IPV has virtually the same prevalence in LGBTQ couples and their family members as in heterosexual ones. But victims of violence are far less likely to access the legal system for help they might need. Victims may be concerned that if they contact the police, they will be treated differently by the criminal justice system than victims in heterosexual relationships. They may fear that rather than take into consideration the power imbalance that is often inherent in abusive relationships, the police might decide that any violence was “among equals" due to homophobia or transphobia and choose not to make an arrest.
LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence should not be deterred, however, from seeking help if they have an abusive partner. The law provides the same protection to LGBTQ people who experience domestic violence as it does to heterosexual and cisgender people.
Types of LGBTQ+ Domestic Violence
In general, the types of domestic violence experienced by LGBTQ+ persons tend to be the same as those experienced by heterosexual persons. Typical patterns of abuse for all couples may include:
- Physical abuse, including attempted and actual physical violence, whether an actual physical injury occurred
- Sexual abuse, including any form of unwanted sexual contact or conduct and sexual violence
- Emotional abuse, such as name-calling, insults, and other forms of humiliation
- Psychological abuse, such as intimidation, threats, stalking, and other forms of instilling fear
- Financial or economic abuse, withholding financial or other resources from a partner, or engaging in financial misconduct to harm a partner
However, domestic violence in a same-sex relationship can also take somewhat different forms of abuse than domestic abuse among heterosexual couples. For example, a batterer may threaten to "out" the victim as an LGBTQ+ person to work colleagues, friends, or family. They may engage in name-calling that disparages their status as a "real" woman or man. They may ridicule their partner's body or appearance. They might misgender their partner or refer to them as “it."
Domestic Violence Laws
In general, the legislatures of each state define domestic violence. State or local law enforcement authorities must use their discretion to enforce the law. Generally, state laws will provide the same legal protections to same-sex or LGBTQ+ people in the same way they apply to heterosexual or cisgender people. Victims should work with victim advocates or a family law attorney to understand the laws of their state.
For example, in California, broad language is used in the statute that does not discuss opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships. Domestic violence is defined as abuse committed against:
- A current or former spouse
- A present or former cohabitant
- Someone with whom the accused has or has had a dating relationship
- Someone with whom the abuser has any children
Actions that constitute domestic violence may include:
- Inflicting bodily injury on another (even if there is no visible injury)
- Threatening to cause serious bodily injury or death
- Stalking and harassing
Certain federal laws give additional protections to people against domestic violence. One such law is the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, signed into law in 1994. VAWA provides funding for community-based programs to combat domestic violence. It allows for the prosecution of individuals for perpetrating intimate partner violence while crossing state lines. In 2013, Congress reauthorized VAWA and broadened the law to include protections for victims of same-sex domestic violence. The protections in the new version of the law include:
- Prohibiting domestic violence shelters from turning away victims of abuse based on sexual orientation
- Providing funds for organizations specifically serving LGBT victims of domestic violence
- Permitting states to use federal funding to improve responses to domestic violence in same-sex couples
There are a growing number of resources available to the LGBTQ+ community for victims of same-sex intimate partner violence. We highlight three such resources below.
- The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) is an organization that works to end all forms of violence against and within LGBTQ+ communities. This umbrella organization has members in 26 states and Washington, D.C. They can help connect people to resources when they have been abused in a same-sex relationship.
- The Community United Against Violence (CUAV) is a San Francisco organization that tracks anti-LGBTQ+ violence and provides support to those affected by it. CUAV also offers counseling and mental health support groups for victims of same-sex IPV.
- The New York State Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Intimate Partner Violence Network (the “Network") is an advocacy organization within New York that supports victims of same-sex IPV, whether in gay or lesbian couples or any partnerships found in the LGBTQ+ community.
Questions About Domestic Violence in the LGBTQ+ Community? Talk to an Attorney
Domestic violence can occur in any relationship regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, sexual orientation, or sexual identity. To learn more about your state's domestic violence laws, speak with a same-sex attorney in your area. And if you find yourself the victim of IPV, consider contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline to learn more about support programs in your area.
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