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, 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. Then, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision guaranteed marriage rights to same-sex couples in all 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 domestic violence between same-sex couples generally occur at levels that are about the same or somewhat higher than among heterosexual couples. According to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted 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, domestic violence in a same-sex relationship 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 domestic violence in homosexual relationships 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 defined as 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 domestic violence in same-sex couples.

Questions About Same-Sex Domestic Violence? Talk to an Attorney

Domestic violence can occur in any relationship regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic background, and whether it's a same-sex and opposite-sex couple. To learn more about your state's domestic violence laws, it's a good idea to speak with a same-sex attorney in your area.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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