February 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
LGBT-inclusive domestic violence bill passes Congress
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The U.S. House passed an LGBT-inclusive version of the VAWA reauthorization. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Republican-controlled House on Thursday made history by passing an LGBT-inclusive version of a bill aimed at preventing domestic violence and aiding its victims.

It’s significant because passage of the legislation marks the first time the House has passed an LGBT-inclusive bill since U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took control of the chamber at the start of 2011.

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act — a law first signed into law in 1994 — passed the House by a vote of 286-138 early Thursday afternoon. The entire caucus of 199 House Democrats voted for the measure as well as 87 Republicans, providing the necessary majority support for passage.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved this version of VAWA on a bipartisan basis by a vote of 78-22. Passage in both chambers of Congress means President Obama’s signature is the last remaining step before the bill becomes law.

In a statement, President Obama commended the House for passing the Senate version of the legislation, taking particular note of the protections it affords LGBT people.

“Over more than two decades, this law has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse,” Obama said. “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 earlier Republican version of VAWA reauthorization that lacked LGBT inclusion failed to pass on the House floor on the same day just prior to passage of the more inclusive bill. That measure failed by a vote 166-257.

The VAWA reauthorization bill passed by the House has language that aims to help LGBT victims of domestic violence in three ways:

• First, the legislation mandates all programs or activities that receive funding under VAWA provide services regardless of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

• Second, it explicitly includes the LGBT community in the largest VAWA grant program, the “STOP Grant Program,” which provides funding to care providers who collaborate with prosecution and law enforcement officials to address domestic violence.

• Finally, the bill sets up a grant program specifically aimed at providing services and outreach to underserved populations, including programs that provide care specifically for LGBT people.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, called House passage of the bill “a huge victory” for the millions of people affected by domestic violence and noted these victims include LGBT people.

“A survivor’s distress should not be compounded by a lack of proper response from service providers or law enforcement,” Carey said. “Imagine being assaulted, scared and in pain — and then also being turned away from the care you need simply because of who you are or who you love. This legislation will better ensure that does not happen.”

Data exists showing LGBT people who are victims of domestic violence suffer from discrimination when seeking help at shelters. According to a 2010 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 44.6 percent of LGBT domestic violence survivors were turned away by a shelter and 54.4 percent of LGBT survivors seeking an order of protection were denied help.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, commended the 87 House Republicans for  joining with Democrats to vote in favor of the measure.

“Codifying law to acknowledge the reality that gays and lesbians can be the unfortunate victims of domestic abuse just as their straight counterparts is an issue of basic fairness, and we applaud those Republicans in the House who demonstrated the importance of equal protection under the law with their votes today,” Angelo said.

Asked by the Washington Blade whether passage of LGBT-inclusive domestic violence legislation could indicate that the chamber would support a pro-LGBT bill like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Angelo was optimistic.

“Today’s vote certainly indicates that there is an appetite among some in the House Republican caucus for LGBT-inclusive legislation that codifies equal protection under the law,” Angelo said.

It should be mentioned that the House under the 112th Congress more frequently has passed language with anti-gay language, such as a version of the defense authorization bill banning same-sex marriages on military bases and other legislation containing language that reaffirms the Defense of Marriage Act.

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), pushed back on the notion that Republicans deserve credit for passing an LGBT-inclusive bill, saying Republican leaders were forced to bring up the legislation.

“To give them credit for ‘allowing’ this to pass is ridiculous,” Hammill said. “House Dems and advocates turned up the heat and made this too hot to handle. They lost control of this and are in disarray. [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor had tried to find a different path and failed miserably.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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