By Lisa Keen
In a major victory for Democrats, the U.S. House voted Thursday (Feb. 28) to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with a bill that includes language to ensure that victims of domestic violence can receive assistance from federally funded program regardless of their sexual orientation. The vote was 286 to 138.
The legislation originally passed the Senate Feb. 12 on a 78 to 22 vote, but House Republicans initially introduced their own version of the bill – one that excluded the language to include gay victims and to provide greater protections for Native American and immigrant women. White House and Democratic leaders in the House expressed their disappointment about the exclusion of LGBT provisions and others.
“The Administration is disappointed that the House bill does not … explicitly protect LGBT victims of crime from discrimination when they seek services or protections funded by VAWA,” said a White House statement Feb. 26.
Following Thursday’s vote, President Obama issued a statement saying he was “pleased to see the House of Representatives come together and vote to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act.”
“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.”
An unidentified aide to an unidentified House Republican leader told a Washington Post blog early in the week that a House version of the bill, which excluded language protecting LGBT people, did not discriminate against LGBT people. The aide criticized the Senate version of the bill for “enumerating actual categories of people that are covered” in a way that “requires constant updating.”
“We’re giving the states the resources they need, and we’re also making sure no one is discriminated against,” said the aide. He did not explain how the House version ensures no one is discriminated against.
On the floor of the House Thursday, many Republicans echoed the point, saying there was no language in the bill to exclude anyone.
“I would just ask my colleagues on other side of the aisle to please point to anywhere in the House bill that coverage for anyone is denied,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “The House bill covers all victims. It does not exclude anyone for any characteristic. In fact,” she said, “it directs the Attorney General to make a rule regarding anti-discrimination efforts as he sees fit.” And she said the grants associated with the VAWA are “authorized to permit funding to go toward men as well as women.”
To some extent, debate over the inclusion or exclusion of LGBT victims of domestic abuse was conducted through discussion of protecting “all women” or “all victims,” rather than LGBT people – including gay men – specifically.
Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Republicans’ majority leader, repeatedly emphasized on the floor Thursday his desire to help “all women” through reauthorization of the VAWA program, but he limited his support to the House Republican version of the bill which does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twice, Cantor seemed to correct himself – changing “all individuals” and “all people” to “all women.”
Openly gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.Is.), while mentioning members of the LGBT community, also emphasized the importance of protecting “all women.” House Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized the importance of passing the “fully inclusive” version of the bill protecting “all” victims, as did numerous other Democrats.
But some Democrats were more direct.
“I don’t believe that my Republican colleagues, if they saw a lesbian woman being beaten by their neighbor, that they would not want to have that violence stopped,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-New York).
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) noted that all members of the House seemed to be against violence against women, “but the question is which women?”
“The Senate bill protects LGBT victims, but the House bill strikes LGBT women as underserved communities and strikes the language that would have them as a protected group,” said Moore.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) spoke forcefully in support of protecting LGBT people, asking, “Do they not feel the same pain?”
Many Republicans, including Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.), did speak in favor of the inclusive Senate bill, as did the national Log Cabin Republicans group.
“Today, many Republicans are taking a stand for a more modern and inclusive GOP. Our leaders in Congress should be weary of leaving the LGBT community out of legislation that is intended to protect all Americans from domestic violence,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans.
“Including LGBT provisions merely codifies equal protection and clarifies an area in which there was confusion regarding the application of prior versions of VAWA to LGBT individuals,” said Angelo. “The Republican Party must continue to be the party of equal rights for all Americans.”
Prior to passage of the Senate version of the bill, the House defeated the Republican version of the bill on a 166 to 257 vote.
“It’s tremendous that both Republican and Democratic leaders came together to ensure that all domestic violence victims, including those who are LGBT, will not face discrimination when they seek services,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.
D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, issued a statement noting that 61 percent of LGBT victims of domestic abuse had been turned away from shelters and 85 percent of service providers working with LGBT victims had observed discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
“We are grateful,” said Kemnitz, “that the Violence Against Women Act will now be a powerful tool to protect our community and ensure justice is served.”