Expansions in the Violence Against Women Act, signed by President Joe Biden this spring, recognize the LGBTQ community for the first time.
Initially enacted in 1994, VAWA improves responses to gender-based violence through federal dollars to various state and local programs and agencies, including the courts. Congress last reauthorized the legislation in 2013. This spring, Biden signed the 2022 reauthorization, which is expected to help with such issues as sex trafficking, missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives, sexual assault and housing and it expands programming to include the LGBTQ community for the first time.
Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, called the inclusion in VAWA funding “a big victory.”
“The first thing that is important to know is this is the first time LGBTQ folks specifically are included in VAWA. Some of the programs overlapped and had impact in the past but this is the first time the bill explicitly mentions attacks on LGBTQ people. It’s a big deal,” Martinez said.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic violence is often considered an heteronormative issue but intimate partner violence exists in the LGBTQ community as well.
Alexandria Taylor, director of Sexual Assault Services at the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said the expansion “further recognizes the way gender-based violence exists within the LGBTQ community and deploys resources.”
Martinez said this means “more visibility and understanding that queer folks face unique
barriers and situations. It feels like a really big win for us.”
Martinez said one barrier LGBTQ individuals face when seeking services is that individuals serving them “can have the best of intentions,” but may fail to understand “how to best serve” the population. He gave one example:
“In the violence world, there are women domestic violence shelters. Some may be safe
for trans women and some may not,” he said.
He said this leaves some trans women, literally, “left out in the cold,” when trying to escape a violent situation.
Another example is when two women in a same sex relationship file a domestic violence report, questions can arise, he said.
“So having a queer attorney is helpful and provides understanding,” Martinez said.
Michelle Garcia, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid and manager of the Safe to Be You program, said that for individuals who historically, or sometimes personally, have experienced discrimination from law enforcement, reporting violence can be hard to do. This can affect both the LGBTQ community and also undocumented immigrants, she said. It can lead a victim to remain in a violent situation for far longer due to fear.
Garcia said victims who do report often struggle to navigate the legal system. She said some
states set up hybrid courts in the 1990s as a “one stop shop” with a judge who has authority to proceed over both civil and criminal matters.
“But the system we have in New Mexico is a series of doors and you have to ask the right
thing. The law presumes people know this. It is frustrating to navigate,” she said.
Taylor said she hopes the reauthorization will enable “culturally specific programs that serve the LGBTQ community are funded to serve domestic violence victims.”
“In New Mexico we know that LGBTQ are more at risk of experiencing sexual assault than those who are not part of the LGBTQ community. Trans women, specifically Black trans women, are at astronomically high rates of being sexually assaulted,” she said.
Garcia said “violence runs the gamut” for LGBTQ youth. She a school survey conducted in 2018 showed that 80 percent of New Mexico students reported hearing a homophobic remark at school.
“That’s a shockingly high number. That’s not a good thing,” she said.
But Taylor said there is a culture shift around gender norms.
“What is gender, what is the binary, what are the roles we’ve been assigned and how does that play out in our society? I’ve been in audiences where I’ve felt like this is not going to land well and see people lean into those conversations when they’ve been presented in an accessible way,” Taylor said.
Garcia said a trend she sees is more young people identify as LGBTQ than five or ten years ago.
She said that as more safe spaces open up in communities, LGBTQ individuals are “way more likely to come out at an earlier age and be more public.”
“We’re probably seeing more on the gender identification, way more kids now identify as gender nonbinary or gender nonconforming,” she said.
Garcia said that LGBTQ individuals can receive free services from the Safe to Be You program she oversees but one of the requirements is “that they survive violence.”
She said their hotline receives “tons” of calls every single day. She said the farther individuals live from urban centers, “there are way more barriers.”
“It’s often worse in small, rural communities; there’s not the acceptance as in cities. New Mexico has had protections for same sex couples for a really long time. Really good laws for human rights. But it doesn’t mean good laws are enforced,” she said.
Despite that, Garcia said she is hopeful about the future. She said that in her own lifetime, she has seen significant change happen. Less than 10 years ago, a same sex couple could not marry, adopt or foster a child and LGBTQ individuals lacked protections from employment discrimination.
“I have a lot of optimism about this. What I have seen New Mexico be capable of as a state, it’s a really good thing. We’re headed in a good direction,” she said.
But Martinez said he worries that a likely federal change in abortion policy and the constitutional right to bodily autonomy this summer, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, could lead to negative outcomes for the LGBTQ community.
Martinez said the decision, if it becomes final, will produce an “atmosphere of fear” because there will be “no enumerated right to bodily autonomy in the constitution.”
“Every time there is a public policy debate on LGBTQ, violence around us goes up,” Martinez said.