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Domestic Violence Shelters Are Turning Away LGBTQ Victims

A report released today by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs details the dire scenario faced by a large number of LGBTQ domestic violence victims—but progress may be on the horizon.

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When Jacob (a pseudonym) finally found a shelter that would take him in, he had already called dozens of others across the United States. All gave the same answer: no men.

Jacob's husband had put him in the hospital 12 times over the course of six months. At the hospital, no one bothered to assess Jacob for domestic abuse, much less try to connect him with LGBTQ-affirming services for either his abusive relationship or substance abuse problem. Each time, he was discharged without question and sent home to his husband. Finally, he found a domestic violence shelter in Colorado that was able to offer him a ticket for the bus ride thousands of miles from his East Coast home.

A report released Tuesday by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) shows that Jacob, whose story is detailed in the report, was hardly alone in his struggle to find help. Surveying 1,976 instances of LGBTQ intimate partner abuse from 2015, NCAVP found that nearly half of survivors (44 percent) had been turned away from shelters. Of those, 71 percent reported that they were denied services due to their gender identity, because women-only shelters would not accept gay men or trans women, for example. Transgender women had a particularly tough time finding services that wouldn't slam the door in their faces, but gay, bisexual, and transgender men also reported that domestic violence shelters for men rarely even exist.

LGBTQ and male survivors are relatively invisible when it comes to domestic violence services. For transgender women, some change is on the way, due to the Gender Identity Rule issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this September. It mandates that emergency shelters and other HUD-funded housing must be inclusive to people whose gender identity matches that of a single-sex facility.

But the HUD ruling, while an improvement, only goes so far. According to Emily Waters, senior manager of National Research and Policy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an assistance organization for LGBTQ victims of violence (and the head organization of the NCAVP), transgender women are still likely to be excluded from domestic violence shelters—but the HUD rules could at least improve access to homeless shelters, often the only option for trans survivors of intimate partner abuse.

"The Family Violence Prevention Services Act is the primary funding source for most domestic violence shelters," said Waters—not HUD. "HUD provides the resources for most homeless shelters, and a lot of those don't actually have programs and services in place for domestic violence survivors, or the ability to assess intimate partner violence, much less LGBTQ survivors."

For male domestic violence victims of all backgrounds, services are still woefully sparse—one of the country's first shelters for male victims of domestic violence just opened this February in Arkansas. And for women in same-sex relationships, fleeing to the seeming safety of a domestic violence shelter presents a unique problem. As a survivor named Sylvia described in the NCAVP report, she was afraid to enter a shelter once learning there was no way to guarantee her abusive girlfriend would be barred from entering. For lesbian and bisexual women, the threat of an abuser following them into a shelter is a very real prospect.

Waters said NCAVP is trying to get the Family Violence Prevention Services Act's language adjusted to be more inclusive of LGBTQ survivors, so that domestic violence shelters and services will be more widely accessible. As it stands, the limited number of options leaves survivors highly vulnerable.

"It's much easier for an abusive partner to find someone if they know a local shelter is the only place that accepts men or LGBTQ people," Waters said. "And most homeless shelters don't have a process for screening those people out."

Statistics show that the LGBTQ community is impacted by intimate partner violence at rates higher than those of heterosexuals. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published by the Centers for Disease Control, the most recent report available, bisexual women and men suffer from domestic violence more than any other group in terms of sexual orientation: 37.3 percent of bisexual men (compared to 29 percent of straight men) and 61.1 percent of bisexual women (at nearly double the 35 percent of straight women) reported physical violence, rape, or stalking at the hands of a partner. Lesbians were the second-highest group at 43.8 percent, and 26 percent of gay men reported domestic abuse as well.

But research data is notoriously flawed when it comes to tracking transgender people; not only did the CDC survey ignore the gender identity of respondents altogether, transgender women have historically been misclassified as "MSMs"—men who sleep with men—in studies tracking HIV rates in the LGBTQ community. One of the largest-ever studies on domestic violence, published by the Justice Department in 2000, also failed to account for non-binary gender identities among the 16,000 women and men who responded to the survey.

Other studies have pointed out the link between shelter exclusion and higher rates of HIV infection among transgender women; with no access to safe shelter, some trans women rely on survival sex work, or become homeless and engage with higher rates of drug use—increasing the risk of acquiring HIV.

"We must start drawing the connections between intimate partner violence and other forms of violence that LGBTQ people experience daily," Essex Lordes from Community United Against Violence in California said in a statement Tuesday. "Racial justice, housing justice, economic justice, immigration justice, and other equality movements are LGBTQ and intimate partner violence issues."

The inability to safely leave an abusive relationship can also have dire consequences. Tuesday's NCAVP report found that out of the 13 LGBTQ domestic violence murders the group was able to account for in 2015, six of the victims were transgender women and four were cisgender men. Some of the homicides, each described in detail in the report, occurred after the victims had left or tried to leave their abusive partners. In one case, a man kidnapped and murdered his ex-boyfriend's new partner—showing that the impact of domestic violence can affect more than just two people.

Even the available statistics on homicide victims, though, are misleading. According to Beverly Tillery of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the number of LGBTQ people who died at the hands of a romantic partner that her group was able to track isn't even close to the actual number of people in the community killed each year.

"The lack of awareness and visibility in the media of LGBTQ victims of intimate partner violence contributes to this issue being ignored as a national problem," said Tillery. "Transgender victims are frequently misgendered 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."

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