The U.S. is three weeks into what is about to become the longest federal government shutdown in history, and a whole lot of people are angry. Caused by the congressional impasse over President Trump’s insistence on getting millions of dollars to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, the shutdown has forced roughly 800,000 workers to go without pay since before Christmas.
Over a thousand of those workers have turned to GoFundMe to raise money for rent and food, two federal employee unions have filed lawsuits demanding pay, and government workers protested outside the White House today, yelling: “Pay the workers, furlough Trump.”
But amid all the chaos — and there is chaos, with food safety inspections going unperformed, people destroying unsupervised national parks, and TSA officers quitting en masse — there’s also an important federal law that quietly expired about two weeks ago. And that law is one of the only federal laws that explicitly includes LGBTQ people in nationwide protections.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows federal funds to be distributed to programs that work to end sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and harassment. Despite the name, it applies to people of all genders, and when it was reauthorized in 2013, a nondiscrimination clause included sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, $553 million was appropriated for VAWA programs, a massive amount of money that funds things like domestic violence shelters, rape crisis groups, campus programs, emergency housing, and other programs.
But the Violence Against Women Act was set to expire in December unless Congress voted to reauthorize it — and the federal government shut down just before that could happen.
“This is important for LGBTQ people in part because VAWA is one of the few federal laws with SOGI nondiscrimination protections written into the law explicitly, and that recognizes LGBTQ people as an underserved population,” said Lambda Legal’s law and policy director Jennifer Pizer in an email to INTO on Wednesday. “These aspects of VAWA represent important breakthroughs in federal lawmaking.”
But Pizer stressed that inclusion isn’t the only reason the law should matter greatly to LGBTQ people. VAWA is especially important for queer and trans people because they are so often victims of violence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in three women and one in six men experience sexual assault within their lifetimes. But those numbers are even higher for some segments of the LGBTQ community; studies have shown that around half of all bisexual women and transgender people say they’ve been sexually assaulted.
Lesbian and bisexual women are particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) — with lesbians being five times more likely to report violence at the hands of a current partner. More than 60 percent of bisexual women reported violence at the hands of a current or former intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
The response of law enforcement is crucial to the safety of survivors. But nearly half of all LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence surveyed for the NCAVP report said police were “indifferent” when they reported, showing the need for more education on the unique needs and experiences of queer and trans survivors of violence.
For trans women, the protections offered by VAWA are especially important in light of recent comments made by Department of Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson, who in March said the agency would back away from LGBTQ-inclusive policies because cisgender women were not always comfortable sharing shelters with “somebody who had a very different anatomy.”
But according to the NCAVP report, transgender and bisexual women were two times more likely to experience violence or harassment at a domestic violence shelter.
“The programs and shelters funded by VAWA are crucial resources for transgender people of color, in particular, too many of whom are frequently the targets of violence, marginalization, and erasure by our society,” National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling told INTO. “The temporary expiration of VAWA is a betrayal of the some of the most vulnerable people in our country today, and yet another immoral price Americans are being forced to pay for this President’s reckless shutdown.”
The expiration of VAWA doesn’t mean programs all over the country have to close immediately. Many have already received and allocated their federal funding. But for those which depend on upcoming funds, the shutdown could mean a host of obstacles. And it’s not entirely clear which programs will be impacted first. According to a December Roll Call story published the day VAWA expired, most of the act’s funding is administered through two federal agencies: the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In September, Congress approved 2019 funding for HHS, meaning that most VAWA programs administered there will receive money allocated for this year only. But the Department of Justice is effectively inoperable during the shutdown and has not been funded for this year. In an ironic twist, Trump’s stubborn insistence on keeping the government from operating until Congress approves his border wall, which he says is needed to stave off a national security crisis at the border, has resulted in at least 5,000 FBI agents being furloughed — which the FBI Agents Association told The Atlantic this week is the real national security crisis.
On Friday, Congress voted to authorize some emergency funding to a handful of federal agencies despite the shutdown. But even that last-minute measure is unlikely to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate, especially because the agencies Congress asked to immediately fund are the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service — not exactly GOP priorities. And VAWA was not on the table at all today.
Lambda Legal’s Pizer recalled “distressingly overt anti-LGBTQ (and anti-immigrant) hostility from conservative Republicans” in 2013, as Congress battled over the most recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with provisions added to protect those communities.
“But the fact that those callously ideological voices ultimately failed to block the bill is due to leaders of goodwill in both parties, all of whom deserve credit for caring about victims of violence and other terrible abuse,” said Pizer. “Those who are still in Congress should look in the mirror, reflect on those in fear and pain who need VAWA-supported help, and act immediately to reopen our federal government and reauthorize this essential statute.”