President Obama signed into law an LGBT-inclusive reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (Blade file photo by Michael Key)
Flanked by lawmakers and women’s rights advocates, President Obama on Thursday afternoon signed into law LGBT-inclusive legislation aimed at combating domestic violence and helping its victims.
Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act during a ceremony in the auditorium of the Department of the Interior, concluding the signing by saying, “There you go, everybody!”
The law reauthorizes the 1994 anti-domestic violence measure written by Vice President Biden, which provides funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes crimes against women as well as funding for victims assistance services.
Additionally, the reauthorization institutes new provisions to help more victims of domestic violence, such as those in the LGBT community and individuals in Native American tribes.
In remarks before the signing the bill, Obama emphasized the importance of VAWA reauthorization as a means to continue the protections put in place by the 1994 version of the law while making an oblique reference to the LGBT community.
“Because of this bill, we’ll keep in place all the protections and services that Joe described, and, as he said, we’ll expand them to cover even more women,” Obama said. “Because this is a country where everybody should be able to pursue their own measure of happiness and live their lives free from fear, no matter who you are, no matter who you love.”
At one point as Obama was offering his remarks someone in audience shouted, “We love you, Mr. President!” Obama replied, “I love you back!”
Among those joining Obama on stage was Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
The president thanked her for her work on domestic violence issue as he noted the LGBT protections in the bill.
“Today is about all the Americans who face discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity when they seek help,” Obama said. “So I want to thank Sharon Stapel… for the work she’s doing–the great work she’s doing with the Anti-Violence Project. But Sharon and all the other advocates who are focused on this community, they can’t do it alone. And then now they won’t have to. That’s what today is all about.”
In a statement, Stapel said the VAWA reauthorization includes the LGBT community “in truly historic, unprecedented ways.”
“For the first time in history, federal law includes LGBT anti-discrimination provisions, a huge victory for the LGBT communities and a great step forward for LGBT inclusion in our nation’s laws,” she said. “By including LGBT people in VAWA, we can say to all survivors of violence: you matter and there is support for you.”
Also on stage with Obama was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as well as lawmakers like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.,) Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho,) Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), sponsors of the reauthorization measure, were onstage, as well as 1994 co-author Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.)
Also standing behind Obama was Biden, who offered his own thoughts on the importance of the legislation.
“Those of you who have been around a while with me know that I quote my father all the time who literally would say, the greatest sin that could be committed, the cardinal sin of all sins was the abuse of power, and the ultimate abuse of power is for someone physically stronger and bigger to raise their hand and strike and beat someone else,” Biden said. “In most cases that tends to be a man striking a woman, or a man or woman striking a child. That’s the fundamental premise and the overarching reason why John Conyers and I and others started so many years ago to draft the legislation called the Violence Against Women Act.”
The VAWA reauthorization helps protect the LGBT community against domestic violence and supports it victims in three ways:
• First, the law requires all programs that receive funding under VAWA to provide services regardless of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
• Second, the law explicitly includes the LGBT community in the largest VAWA grant program, the “STOP Grant Program,” which provides funding to providers who collaborate with prosecution and law enforcement officials to address domestic violence.
• Lastly, the bill sets up a grant program specifically aimed at providing services and outreach to underserved populations, including programs that provide care specifically for LGBT people.
The LGBT community continues to face issues with domestic violence along the same level as straight people. A 2012 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found 3,930 incidents of domestic violence in the LGBT and HIV/AIDS community in that year. Additionally, the report found that 61.6 percent of LGBT domestic violence victims were denied access to shelters — nearly a 20-point increase from the 44.6 percent in the previous year.
VAWA reauthorization is the second-ever piece of legislation signed into law with explicit pro-LGBT protections. The first legislation with both a reference to sexual orientation and gender identity was the hate crimes protections legislation Obama signed into law in 2009. The Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which collects data on hate crimes, was the first to mention sexual orientation, not gender identity.
The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” lifted the ban on openly gay servicemembers from the books, but didn’t institute any pro-LGBT protections in its place.
A number of LGBT advocates were present in the auditorium and hailed the enactment of the legislation as yet another milestone for the advancement of LGBT rights.
David Stacey, deputy legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, lauded VAWA reauthorization for its historical inclusion and its practical impact on LGBT people.
“From a movement perspective, this is a really an important step forward,” he said. “Then, of course, the substantive fact that more and more victims of domestic violence and sexual assault that are LGBT will have access to services when they need them when they are in crisis.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said VAWA will be particularly important for the transgender community, which faces high levels of domestic violence as it does with other kinds of violence.
“It really does some really important things for victims of violence and trans people tend to overrepresented in that as victims of that,” she said. “It’s a really important bill on its own, but politically it’s also the second bill to become a law with LGBT people in it, and there was relatively little problem with the LGBT components.”
VAWA reauthorization is also significant because it marks the first time the House under Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) allowed a bill with pro-LGBT language to pass.
However, House Republicans only allowed the bill to pass after a version without LGBT language failed on the House floor. Then, they took up the LGBT-inclusive bill already passed by the Senate.
Julie Kruse, policy director of Immigration Equality, said she’s “thrilled” with the LGBT-inclusion in VAWA reauthorization and hopes that passage in the House bodes well for passage of immigration reform legislation for bi-national same-sex couples.
“We’re thrilled at how much support the president gave to LGBT inclusion, and this is where we are,” she said. “We think it’s a very awesome precedent for the comprehensive immigration reform that’s coming up.”
But Stacey cautioned against giving House Republicans credit for passage of the domestic violence legislation.
“There still was very significant Republican opposition in the House, however, the fact that at the end of the day, they let a bill go that had every Democrat voting for it and a large number of Republicans is a good step forward,” he said. “I think the really significant side is the Senate, where we had a majority of the Republican conference voting for this bill with the sexual orientation and gender identity provisions in it.”