According to Republicans in the US House of Representatives, this is how who deserves protection from domestic abuse should be determined. Before extending protection to women, it is the job of government, apparently, to carefully weigh which women are fully worthy of that protection. Their grave deliberations concluded, we know now that queer women, trans women, undocumented and Native women are among the unworthy.
First, let’s understand what’s at stake here. As part of a broader set of laws, new offices, and grant programs for research and enforcement, the Violence Against Women Act passed with broad bipartisan support in 1994. Some of the research accomplished with that grant money was aimed very specifically at understanding how domestic abuse, rape, stalking and other matters impacted LGBTQ communities and Native American communities. This research would lead towards recommendations that tribal authorities have jurisdiction over sex crimes allegedly committed by non-Native suspects on Native land, as well as recommendations that LGBTQ folk have equal access to the benefits and programs VAWA established (queer and trans people were not originally included expressly, allowing state’s to discriminate if they chose to).
I’m not just saying LGBTQ because that’s the same alphabet soup we always refer to; the Violence Against Women Act always allowed for inclusion of male victims of domestic abuse, rape, stalking and the like. States had the right to exclude gay men from their federally funded programs, but as for men generally,
Nothing in this title shall be construed to prohibit male victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking from receiving benefits and services under this title.
That’s a tricky bit of legalese. All it’s saying is that “The federal government isn’t going to step in and prevent men from receiving benefits”. There is a significant difference between that statement and, “The federal government demands that any state which accepts this funding must guarantee equal access to services for men and women”. When queer and trans folk look to be explicitly included in these protections and benefits, we’d do well to check the language being used also.
However, the better part of VAWA related funding was not used to create new government offices. Aside from the research already mentioned, which led to refinements and broader inclusion of VAWA as it was reauthorized over the years, a great deal of money was aimed at community based organizations. What this means is that those who organized and stepped up with grant proposals got the money. The thinking here is that any given community knows better than the state what its needs are in this area, and better to fund those who can demonstrate effectiveness in their region.
So if one lived in a big college town, odds are grant money went towards things like rape prevention efforts on campus. Rural communities reported different needs than urban centers. Partnerships with law enforcement, courts, and volunteers were developed. Over time, the law expanded to tackle the issue of elder abuse and neglect with its grants, and other issues.
One of the original bill’s provisions declared that victims had a right to seek civil restitution in federal court, even if no criminal charges were filed against their attacker. This provision was deemed unconstitutional in 2000 under these circumstances,
…at Virginia Tech, freshman student Christy Brzonkala was allegedly assaulted and raped repeatedly by Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, members of the school’s football team. During the school-conducted hearing on her complaint, Morrison admitted having sexual contact with her despite the fact that she had twice told him “no.” College proceedings failed to punish Crawford, but initially punished Morrison with a suspension (punishment later struck down by the administration). A state grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to charge either man with a crime. Brzonkala then filed suit under the Violence Against Women Act…
…In a 5-4 decision, United States v. Morrison invalidated the section of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 that gave victims of gender-motivated violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court, although program funding remains unaffected. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, held that Congress lacked authority, under either the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment, to enact this section.
For context, the Rehnquist court handed down many similar 5 to 4 decisions that weakened federal civil rights laws. I can’t go into the Commerce Clause here, but the take away from this is that the court narrowly declared this a matter for states, and the federal government has no right or standing to open its courts up to victims of sexual assault and the like.
So brief recap: The Violence Against Women Act first passed with bipartisan support, following a good decade of activism and the recommendations of legal scholars, law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, and advocates. It established research initiatives, grants, and educational programs, allowing states and communities to determine for themselves where the money was best spent. Over time, the act sought to cover a broader range of domestic violence issues, and to act on recommendations of its research to grant more authority to Native Americans on their own land, explicitly include protections for LGBTQ folk, and to make it safe for undocumented victims to press charges and seek remedies.
There have been several attempts since VAWA last went up for renewal in 2012 to accomplish these things, but in every case, Republicans have stalled those efforts and sought to strip specific protections. They learned years before that they could not simply eliminate the popular legislation, and make no mistake, they have tried. Instead, their idea of “compromise” is to make their contempt even more blatant by blocking passage on the grounds that many of us simply are not deserving.
They do this in the face of research which demonstrates just how disproportionately high the rates of domestic violence and rape are among trans women, Native women, undocumented women, all women of color. And before anyone starts to wave their own states’ rights banner, consider that the Grand Old Party puts forth anti woman, anti science measures like this before their states, with disturbing levels of support.
It’s as if we were to look at another disenfranchised populace, like American prisoners, who even many so called progressives have written off as getting their “just desserts”, and who account for a staggering portion of the nations’ rape and assault victims, women and men, then say, “This is what we want to model the rest of society upon. We want to further institutionalize, across the country, the practice of enabling the powerful to exploit the powerless with impunity, and we damn sure want to prevent any undesirables from accessing what few benefits or protections we’re willing to extend to a select, obedient few.”
I’m waiting for a week to pass without the news telling about how even a “model” victim of rape is denied legal aid. Or is further punished by the system for daring to seek aid. Or for rape and domestic violence to at least not be mainstream joke fodder at the Oscar’s.
So how long will it be until those of us who aren’t “model” victims get more than a survey to fill out for government researchers?
Featured image is of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodger (R-WA), the likely sponsor of the US House Republican’s modified VAWA bill. The author of this piece imagines that she probably considers herself worthy of protections and benefits at least, so there’s that.