Federal and state laws that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community have changed over the last several years in order to recognize and accommodate relationships between same-sex couples. Most notably, in 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion legalizing and making same-sex marriages lawful throughout the United States. This means that assault and battery between same-sex couples who are legally married must be prosecuted under the same domestic violence laws as heterosexual couples.
Today, same-sex couples (married and unmarried) enjoy many of the same legal protections afforded to heterosexual couples. Greater recognition of same-sex relationships has made it much easier for individuals, couples, law enforcement, lawyers, and lawmakers to have an open discussion of the issues facing LGBT couples, including same-sex domestic violence.
How prevalent is same-sex domestic violence?
Even with the increased recognition of same-sex relationships, same-sex domestic violence remains vastly unacknowledged and unreported.
Furthermore, since it is generally assumed that a physical altercation between two men or two women is a fight between equals, the power imbalance that often exists between a couple (of any sexual orientation) goes unaddressed. This, in turn, leads to same-sex domestic violence being reported as something other than domestic violence.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that each year, between 50,000 and 100,000 women and 500,000 men become victims of same-sex domestic violence. This makes the prevalence of domestic violence among same-sex couples (approximately 25-33%) as common as it is in heterosexual relationships.
The various manifestation of same-sex domestic violence
Same-sex domestic violence is essentially manifested in the same manner as domestic violence in heterosexual couples:
- Physical violence;
- Psychological abuse (including emotional abuse, stalking, isolation, harassment, threats, and intimidation);
- Sexual abuse;
- The withholding economic resources; and
- The destruction of property.
But, unlike heterosexual relationships, a same-sex abuser can also use the threat of “outing” their partner to their family, friends and employer as a weapon against them.
Domestic violence laws
Each state legislates its own laws that define which acts constitute domestic violence and how it will be punished. Generally speaking, however, domestic violence can be defined as assault and battery against a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, date, family member, or member of the same household.
In the majority of states, domestic violence can be both physical and/or emotional and pertains to many types of abusive behavior, including that which is exhibited by a spouse upon another, a relative upon another, and that which occurs in the course of a dating relationship. This generally includes all cases of spousal abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, and violence against a dating partner, as well as, cases of sexual assault and harassment.
In addition, there are some federal laws that provide additional protections to female victims of domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that became law in 1994, allows for government funds to be used for community-based programs that deal with domestic violence and provides for the prosecution of those who commit violent crimes against women.
Since it was established, the reach of the VAWA has been extended to protect the victims of same-sex domestic violence as well. It does this in three primary ways:
- By making it illegal for any shelter to refuse to offer services to any victim of abuse because of their sexual orientation
- By allocating funds to agencies that specifically provide services to the victims of same-sex domestic violence
- By allowing states to use federal funds to improve how they deal with cases of same-sex domestic violence.
The VAWA was originally drafted to protect women, but because much of its language is gender neutral and because it classifies the LGBT community as an underserved population, it has the potential to offer protection to all victims of same-sex domestic violence, male or female.
How domestic violence laws apply to same-sex couples
Victims of same-sex domestic violence may find protection under domestic violence laws, whether or not they are married or in a relationship that is formally recognized by the state. This is because, since the Supreme Court’s opinion on same-sex marriage, any law that protects a spouse from being abused by another, must be applied to same-sex spouses equally.
Moreover, in states where domestic violence laws apply to both formal relationships like marriage, as well as, to those in which a couple is simply living together or dating, the law would, in most cases, apply to same-sex couples as well.
However, despite the fact that the language contained in their domestic violence laws is gender neutral, the courts in some states still interpret them to pertain specifically to heterosexual couples.
So, to find out how your state handles cases of same-sex domestic violence and to learn what protections may be afforded to you as a victim of same-sex domestic violence in your state, contact a local family law attorney who has knowledge of your state’s domestic violence laws.