A group of Democrats are pushing to reauthorize a landmark bill earmarking federal funding for programs on domestic violence and sexual assault.
First signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) set aside more than $489 million for nonprofits and community organizations that seek to reduce violence against women. According to the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) in the Department of Justice (DOJ), the bill’s passage had a major impact on rates of intimate partner violence in the United States: Annual reports of domestic violence dropped 64 percent between 1993 and 2010.
On Thursday, Democratic leaders Rep. Steny Hoyer, Rep. Sheila Jackson, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and Sen. Nancy Pelosi urged colleagues to renew funding for the legislation — which faces a Congressional vote every five years.
“Today’s bill upholds our oath to protect all Americans ensuring protections for every woman, brother, in the LGBTQ, tribal lands and among immigrants,” Pelosi claimed in a brief speech noting lack of support among conservatives. “VAWA has been historically bipartisan. We hope our Republican colleagues will be joining. They are certainly welcome.”
When the Violence Against Women Act was first introduced 24 years ago, one of the leading champions of the bill was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). In addition to serving as a key co-sponsor of the legislation, he co-authored it with future Vice President Joe Biden.
The Republican was closely linked enough to the Violence Against Women Act that he once referred to it as the “Biden-Hatch Bill.”
Not a single conservative, however, has come out in support of the 2018 legislation after the Violence Against Women Act faced historic challenges to passage five years ago over inclusions for LGBTQ domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors. For the first time, the 2013 version included language preventing anti-violence programs that receive federal funding through Violence Against Women Act from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Emily Waters, senior manager of national research and policy for the Anti-Violence Project, claimed intimate partner violence perpetrated against LGBTQ people long went underrecognized and underreported. This is despite the fact that intimate partner violence occurs at equal rates in same-sex relationships as it does in heterosexual ones.
Trans people, however, experience domestic violence and sexual assault at extremely disproportionate levels. Up to half of transgender individuals say they have been abused or assaulted by a romantic or sexual partner.
“The domestic violence protections were built around cisgender women and this model of cisgender men committing violence against cisgender women, while not taking into account the sexual orientations of those people,” Waters told INTO over the phone. “And that means the services that had been in place for decades weren’t created to be inclusive of LGBTQ people.”
“The inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Violence Against Women Act gave advocates something to hold service providers accountable to,” she added.
Conservative opposition to those inclusions, though, held up the 2013 Violence Against Women Act for an additional 500 days after the legislation expired. House Republicans attempted to push their own version of the legislation without the nondiscrimination protections, but it was voted down.
Although the reauthorization eventually passed both houses, it was nonetheless met with widespread opposition from Congressional Republicans — particularly men.
Twenty-two Senators and 138 Republicans voted against it. These named include Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Steve King (R-Iowa), Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), and Steve Scalise (R-Ind.) in the House, and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in the Senate.
The biggest indicator of the changing tides was that Hatch voted against a bill he wrote two decades earlier. He accused Democrats of pushing the LGBTQ inclusions as a means of railroading the legislation, claiming they were “designed to shatter” the Violence Against Women Act.
“[Democrats] tried to politicize it,” Hatch claimed, “and that irritated the heck out of me, after I took all kinds of abuse for being the prime sponsor and helping to write the original bill, and then they come up and politicize it.”
“These are the kinds of things that drive me nuts about the Democrats,” he added.
The inclusive Violence Against Women Act may find no easier road to passage should Congressional Republicans oppose its emphasis on equal access for queer and trans survivors. This year’s draft goes farther than the previous version by “building upon the provisions that were included in the 2013 reauthorization,” according to Waters.
“It makes it clearer for states that receive funding on how they have to meet the nondiscrimination provisions and ensures better implementation for the protections that are already in place,” she said.
Waters claimed these provisions are critically important at a time when the current administration is rolling back LGBTQ protections in the areas of housing and health care. Earlier this year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rescinded guidelines for homeless shelters detailing best practices on serving transgender clients, while abandoning a survey of pilot programs offering resources to LGBTQ homeless youth in Houston and Cincinnati.
In addition, the Trump administration has announced the restructuring of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division allowing faith-based care providers to turn away trans people and individuals living with HIV.
Waters claimed the Violence Against Women Act has, thus, become even more critical for LGBTQ people who rely on access to federal programs. Its reauthorization would mean survivors “have some protections in those areas.”
“We can use the Violence Against Women Act as a way of ensuring protection,” she claimed. “The inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Violence Against Women Act is law. That cannot be rolled back unless Congress reauthorizes another piece of legislation that does not have nondiscrimination protections.”
Time is running out to ensure those protections, however. When Congress resumes in September after a month-long recess, Democrats will have just 11 legislative days until the Violence Against Women Act expires.
Advocates are hopeful conservatives will back the legislation.
“This is a hard time to introduce any piece of legislation, but it still has realistic enhancements Republicans should be able to get behind,” Waters claimed. “At its core, it’s about people being able to access care at some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.”
“That’s what the intention of the bill was and that’s what the intention of this reauthorization should be,” she added. “Let’s hope Republicans see that and respond to this bill and push it forward.”