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Same-Sex Domestic Violence

The evolution in law for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender legal rights has been extremely rapid, at least relative to other areas of law. In 2013, the Supreme Court held that the federal government could not deny federal benefits to same-sex married couples. Two years later, the Court went further, ruling that states could not prevent gay couples from getting married. And in 2020, the Court declared that federal law barred employers from discriminating against people because of their gender identity.

That is not to say that all LGBTQ+ legal issues are resolved or final. One area in which more research and knowledge is required is domestic violence — also known as intimate partner violence (IPV) — and its impact on LGBTQ couples.

Violence in Same-Sex Relationships

The data shows that IPV in same-sex and non-binary relationships is problematic. For example:

  • 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 are 2.2 times more likely to be abused by an intimate partner than are cisgender people
  • In a study of male same-sex relationships, only 26% called the police for help after being nearly killed by their partner
  • 4% of LGBTQ adults experienced sexual abuse
  • In 2012, fewer than 5% of LGBTQ survivors of IPV sought court orders for protection against their intimate partner

We have learned that IPV has virtually the same prevalence in LGBTQ relationships as it is in heteronormative ones, but that the victims of violence are far less likely to seek legal help they might need. Victims may be concerned that if they do 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 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 Same-Sex Domestic Violence

In general, the types of domestic violence experienced by LGBT people tend to be the same as those experienced by heterosexual people. Typical patterns of abuse for all couples may include:

  • Psychological abuse, such as intimidation or instilling fear
  • Physical violence, with or without physical marks
  • Sexual violence
  • Withholding financial or other resources

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 to work colleagues, friends, or family as an LGBTQ person. They may call them offensive names. They may say to their partner that they are not 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, domestic violence as a punishable offense is defined by the legislatures of each state and enforced by state or local authorities. For example, in California, domestic violence is defined as abuse committed against a current or former spouse, present or former cohabitant, someone with whom the accused has or had a dating relationship, or 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, or stalking and harassing another.

Certain federal laws give additional protections to people against domestic violence. One such law is the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, which was signed into law in 1994. VAWA provides funding for community-based programs to combat domestic violence, and it allows for the prosecution of individuals for perpetrating violent crimes against women. 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.
  • Funding 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.

Service Providers

There are a growing number of resources available to the LGBT community for victims of f same-sex intimate partner violence. We highlight three here.

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., and can help connect people to resources when they have been abused in a same-sex relationship.

TheCommunity United Against Violence (CUAV) is a San Francisco organization that tracks anti-LGBT 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.

Questions About Same-Sex Domestic Violence? Talk to an Attorney

Domestic violence can occur in any relationship regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, and whether it's a same-sex or opposite-sex couple. To learn more about your state's domestic violence laws, it's a good idea to 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.

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