Same-Sex Domestic Violence

Laws at both the state and federal level that impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have been changing rapidly over the last several years. Most notably, state marriage laws in many states have been changed -- either through popular vote, legislative action, or judicial rulings -- to extend to LBGT partnerships the same legal protections afforded to heterosexual unions. In addition, federal laws were recently changed after the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 which prohibited any entity of the United States government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states.

Accordingly, LGBT relationships have gained an unprecedented degree of visibility in this country. With this visibility has come a greater degree of openness to discussing problems that LGBT couples may experience, including same-sex domestic violence.

Rates of Same-Sex Domestic Violence

Incidents of same-sex domestic violence generally occur at levels that are about the same or somewhat higher than among heterosexual couples. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, rates of sexual violence were somewhat lower for lesbians than for heterosexual women; however, sexual violence rates were significantly higher for women who are bisexual. Among gay men, rates of partner violence appear to be higher than domestic violence experienced by heterosexual men.

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 heterosexuals. 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 resources

However, same-sex domestic violence can also take somewhat different forms than domestic abuse among heterosexual couples. For example, an abusive partner may threaten to "out" the victim to work colleagues, friends, or family as an LGBT person. Moreover, victims of same-sex domestic violence may be more likely to fight back against their aggressors, which could lead law enforcement to believe that the violence was "among equals" and overlook the power imbalance that if often inherent in abusive relationships.

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 considered to be 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 women 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. After VAWA was reauthorized in 2013, the law was broadened to include protections for victims of same-sex domestic violence. The protections in the new version of the law include:

  • Prohibiting 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 same-sex domestic violence

Although the law is intended to halt violence against women, because much of the language of the law itself is gender-neutral, and because the law classifies LGBT people as an "underserved" population, VAWA could potentially apply to both male and female victims of same-sex domestic violence.

Applying Domestic Violence Laws to Same-Sex Couples

Regardless of the gender of the partners, victims of domestic violence who are part of a same-sex couple may be protected under the law-even if that couple doesn't have formal recognition. For example, in states that recognize same-sex marriage, any law that protects a spouse from abuse by a spouse will apply equally to same-sex spouses. Moreover, in such states domestic violence laws would most likely apply to same-sex couples even if they are in a dating relationship or have not entered into a formal union such as marriage or domestic partnership.

But in other states, domestic violence laws-even if they are written in gender-neutral language-tend to be interpreted by courts as applying only to heterosexual couples. This tends to be the case in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized or that do not recognize same-sex domestic partnerships. To learn more about your state's domestic violence laws, you should contact

Next Steps

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