Troubled by Political Climate, LGBT Advocates Work to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

Photo: File/Thinkstock
Photo: File/Thinkstock

When Cristina Cortes helped her friend leave an abusive relationship, there weren’t many places for the victim — a bisexual, undocumented woman — to seek shelter or aid.

Cortes, who lived about an hour away in Los Angeles, was not able to find a shelter for the victim, who lived in San Bernardino County. Eventually, with Cortes’ help, the woman escaped to safety, but the close call haunted Cortes.

Motivated to help others in similar circumstances, soon after she began volunteering at a Los Angeles domestic violence shelter called Sojourn.

“There are definitely not enough shelter beds to service everybody, and there’s not a lot of education when it comes to what domestic violence is and how it affects people,” said Cortes, who started volunteering in 2011 and is now the manager of outreach and prevention at Sojourn. “When it comes to the queer community, it’s often not even talked about or acknowledged.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer people are frequently turned away from emergency shelters because of their gender identity, according to a new report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

In 2015, 44 percent of the LGBTQ victims surveyed were denied access to emergency shelter — 71 percent of them because of their gender identity — the October report found.

The annual report shows that LGBTQ people remain at high risk for experiencing intimate partner violence, a term many advocates prefer over “domestic violence” because it connotes the personal and secretive aspect of the aggression.

Now, with a political climate fueled by President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican majority in Congress, LGBTQ advocates worry that funding for violence victims could be cut, jeopardizing programs that are a lifeline for the community. Trump has made remarks that many LGBTQ advocates characterize as homophobic, and has proposed removing federal funding from some health programs.

“The funding for shelters comes from the federal government, as does the majority of domestic violence (prevention and outreach) funding for the state,” said Susan Holt, program manager of mental health services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which compiled the data for the National Coalition report. “So, of course, domestic violence agencies have pretty significant and realistic fears about what we might see in the next four years.”

Victims often hesitant to report crimes

The LGBTQ population is not homogenous, and certain subpopulations are more likely to experience intimate partner violence, the report found.

People of color made up 77 percent of the reports of LGBTQ and HIV-affected homicides in 2015. There were 17 such homicides last year, and in 10 of them, the victim was black or Latino. Six of the victims were transgender women.

People of color accounted for slightly more than half of the total number of LGBTQ survivors who reported violence last year.

Transgender women were three times as likely as other LGBTQ people to report that they had experienced sexual and financial violence, which can include theft, controlling behavior and prohibiting a partner from working.

LGBTQ people with disabilities were also more likely to be isolated by their abusive partner and to experience financial violence.

In compiling the report, Holt used data from 17 National Coalition member organizations in 14 states nationwide. The statistics were compiled using violence reports from 1,976 survivors.

While the report is extensive, Holt said it underestimates the magnitude of intimate partner violence among the LGBTQ population.

“The lack of awareness and visibility in the media of LGBTQ victims of IPV contributes to this issue being ignored as a national problem,” said Beverly Tillery from the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “Transgender victims are frequently mis-gendered and misnamed in media reports, and the intimate partner relationships of same gender couples are often reduced to friendships in media accounts of these homicides. This needs to change.”

In addition, many victims don’t feel safe reporting violence if they’re not “out” as LGBTQ, or because they worry that they may be ostracized from seeking treatment at a shelter. It’s not uncommon, Holt said, for victims to change the gender pronoun or name of their abuser when they register at a shelter or speak in a support group.

In 2013, the federal Centers for Disease Control found lifetime levels of sexual and physical violence among lesbians and gay men were higher than those of straight women and men. About 61 percent of bisexual women, 47 percent of bisexual men, 44 percent of lesbians and 40 percent of gay men reported experiencing domestic violence, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women and 21 percent of heterosexual men.

Changes to protect LGBTQ victims

State law prohibits domestic violence shelters or programs from excluding people based on their gender or sexual identity; however, many shelters still aren’t prepared to welcome LGBTQ victims, Holt said.

“One of the biggest complaints we hear from shelter directors is that it’s difficult to integrate an LGBT survivor into programs because of the attitudes that the residents may hold,” she said.

Many shelters also don’t have programs for transgender victims. “And in communities where there are fewer shelters, it’s still common for a lesbian abuser to try to gain shelter where the abused is being held,” Holt said.

There is no LGBTQ-specific shelter in California, but the Los Angeles LGBT Center has partnerships with several shelters in the area, including Sojourn.

No state bills related to LGBTQ domestic violence or shelter access are in the works, but it’s possible the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus will look at those issues in 2017, said Christian Burkin, spokesman for Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, who is chair of the caucus.

Meanwhile, California shelters and their employees can take steps to be more welcoming of LGBTQ victims, Cortes said.

Making intake forms gender neutral, as well as putting a rainbow flag or LGBTQ sign up in the waiting room can send a message that the shelter is inclusive, she said.

“Transparency also does wonders,” she said. “Whenever anybody comes in, we say, ‘There’s going to be different types of people — different religions, genders, trans men, queer men.’ As shelter staff, we model that you treat everybody with respect.”

Cortes wishes that kind of support could have been available for her friend in San Bernardino County when she was leaving the abusive relationship a few years ago.

Cortes was eventually able to help her friend find a safe place to live, get a restraining order and get updates on her abusers’ prison sentencing and release date. Because the woman was a crime victim, she was also able to apply for documents to stay in the U.S. legally and get a work permit, all steps Cortes walked her through.

But, had Cortes not been there, the woman’s story might have been different.

“I think we just need to acknowledge the fact that anybody can be a victim of domestic violence,” Cortes said, “and whether you get help shouldn’t depend on your gender or sexual identity.”

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