It started with the small things, Yali says.
Then came the hitting.
It happened behind closed doors, Yali says. “Slapping doesn’t really count as hitting,” she told herself. Sometimes she convinced herself that she had, in fact, had done something wrong. Or this: “It’s just how she gets angry. I can make it better—I can help her deal with whatever it is.”
Violence also surfaced in more insidious ways. She says her girlfriend began drugging Yali’s drinks when they were out in public. “You’re too good anyway,” she told Yali after she was found out. Back at home, Yali says, her girlfriend obsessed over ways to keep her younger lover around—getting hitched in a state that allowed gay marriage, getting Yali pregnant now that there were more options for lesbian couples.
Yali began to realize that something was deeply wrong. But fear only gave way to guilt and confusion. At one point, she considered going to the police, but then let the idea slip to her girlfriend, who she says scoffed at the idea. “They’re not going to believe you,” she told Yali, claiming that her deep connections in the city included police officers, too. So Yali stayed silent.
It was only by chance that Yali found her way out. Her father had a work-related conference in New York, and, though they had barely spoken beforehand, the two briefly convened. Not knowing the real story, but sensing something was awry with his daughter, Yali’s father offered her a plane ticket out of New York — and she took it. That didn’t stop her girlfriend from calling Yali’s father at work, her younger sister at high school, and her old friends — first to determine her whereabouts, then to give Yali the message that she should just go kill herself, with suggestions as to how, exactly, she should do it.
Having left New York, Yali eventually found her way to a women’s rape crisis center, where she began to grapple with what had happened to her. “I found one of the best cures is a community—having a place, whether it’s a hotline, or service group for survivors for violence to speak, for them to feel safe,” says Yali. One of the biggest revelations for her was understanding that her abuser “didn’t control the whole LGBT community” in New York, and that there were other people and places that Yali could turn to for support and companionship if she decided to come back to the city.
But Yali wonders whether other LGBT victims have a place to turn. “I was in New York City”—one of the centers of support and advocacy for gay victims of domestic abuse—“and I had no idea,” says Yali, who is now 27 and runs meditation and movement workshops. In more rural places or small towns, she asks, will there be help for these women—and even if there is, will they even know it’s available?
Advocates for LGBT victims of domestic abuse have been trying to raise the issue for years, both within the gay community and among policymakers. Even in New York City, Yali gives talks to social workers who say they had “no idea that this happens in lesbian relationships as well,” she says. “But it happens between two women, two men, a man and a woman…it doesn’t look a certain way.”
Now some members of Congress are trying to expand the scope of the Violence Against Women’s Act — which first passed in 1994 — to include greater support for LGBT victims, immigrants, and Native American women. They’re three groups that VAWA has traditionally underserved, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, a coalition of advocates who’ve convened upon the issue.
The rate of domestic violence among LGBT couples is about the same as for heterosexual ones — an estimated 25 to 33 percent experience abuse in their lifetimes, according to National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. But LGBT victims are significantly less likely to seek out help: 45 percent of them have been turned away from domestic violence shelters, and only 7 percent call the police after an incident of domestic violence. LGBT women are particularly at risk: they’re victims of the majority of murders related to domestic violence in the gay community, the coalition says.
Immigrant and Native American women are also high-risk groups. Women crossing the border illegally are subject to rape by their “coyotes,” and border patrol officials, according to confirmed reports and court cases, and they’re also at risk of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities. Native American women are among the most vulnerable groups, with 46 percent subject to rape, physical violence, or stalking by a domestic partner at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Under the Senate bill, which passed 68-31 last week, there would be additional protections for all three groups. The legislation, for example, includes earmarked funding for community organizations that serve LGBT victims, a prohibition against LGBT discrimination by law enforcement and domestic-violence shelters, and an explicit allowance for states to use federal money to help LGBT victims.
Right now, only 24 states currently take advantage of federal funding to support LGBT-specific anti-violence programs, according to Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which provides counseling, education, and support for LGBT victims. “If you are in a violent relationship and need somewhere to go, it’s critical we have these services available in every state,” Stapel says.
But the proposed changes to VAWA have drawn fierce opposition from Republicans, who accuse of Democrats of using the issue to fire up the base in a big election year. House Republicans are pushing their own version of VAWA without the new provisions aiding LGBT, immigrant, and Native American victims of domestic abuse. They criticize the Senate bill for increasing the number of temporary visas given to illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse. They question the constitutionality of the provision to allow Native American authorities to extend tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-native suspects of abuse. As for the new LGBT protections? That’s part of the Democratic ploy to “make cheap shots and try to politicize [the issue] in an election year,” Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) concluded last week.
Advocates and survivors of domestic abuse don’t believe that’s the case. “The idea that we would pick and choose among survivors—it’s not only offensive but lethal,” Stapel says.
Yali, for her part, has a simple request for the members of Congress who stand against the Senate bill. “I would ask them to take a minute and listen to themselves — ‘I don’t want to give money to those who have been victims of violence,’” Yali says. “Just see how that sounds to them.”