Laws Help Gays in Cases of Domestic Violence
Columbia News Service, July
By Kathleen Kingsbury
NEW YORK—After coming home for
work, Marianne makes dinner for her family. She watches TV with her children
and tucks them into bed. She surfs the Internet for cheap plane tickets to
take the kids to Disney World for Easter.
For Marianne, who asked that her last name not be used,
such everyday tasks were impossible less than a year ago. Her husband, Jordan,
who abused her regularly throughout their 12-year marriage, controlled her
life with violence.
Finally, a police officer suggested to Marianne that she
go to family court for help. She filed a restraining order against her
husband, keeping him away from her home, work and children’s school. It
isn’t perfect, but Marianne can at least live without fear.
However, a majority of states don’t guarantee this
protection to Lorena Adams. Razor cuts crisscross Adams’ arms, scars of the
nearly daily abuse she suffered at the hands of her partner, Miranda, for
almost five years. Only Hawaii’s domestic-violence law explicitly gives gays
and lesbians the right to restraining orders against abusive partners, and
courts in only three other states—Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky—have
consistently interpreted their states’ laws to include same-sex
In the rest of the United States, the ambiguous
gender-neutral language of domestic-violence laws allows courts to deny
protective orders to homosexual domestic-violence victims at their discretion.
New York, which has 46,490 gay and lesbian households, second only to
California, is one of seven states with statutes that specifically exclude
same-sex partners. The others are Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, South
Carolina and Virginia.
“It is a matter of the government providing equal
protection to all families, without distinction because of sexual
orientation,” said Joe Travers, a spokesman for Empire State Pride Agenda, a
New York gay and lesbian advocacy group.
As courts and legislatures nationwide debate whether
same-sex marriage should be legal, there is little question that the violence
that can plague heterosexual couples also affects lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgendered relationships. A 2002 study, financed by the National Institutes
of Health, showed that domestic violence occurs between same-sex partners in
one out of every four couples, a statistic that matches such occurrences in
For gay men, “this study demonstrates that intimate
partner abuse among men is a very serious public-health problem,” the
study’s researchers wrote in the American Journal of Public Health’s
December 2002 issue. “It sheds light on a subject that has long been taboo
both within and outside this community—that is, men are also victims of
battering and not solely perpetrators.”
Domestic-violence restraining orders are the most
significant legal remedy available to abuse victims, according to the New York
City Mayor’s Commission on Domestic Violence. Such orders ensure that
abusers stay away from a victim’s home and workplace, but also can
evict an abuser from a shared household and sometimes
require an abuser to pay temporary monetary support, especially if the couple
has children together. Without this help, partners, including Adams of New
York City, often cannot escape a cycle of violence.
“I created a situation where I couldn’t leave for
five years because my little girls and I were dependent on Miranda for
money,” said Adams, who has two daughters from a previous marriage.
Adams had her partner arrested four times, but never
pressed criminal charges against her. If she had been in a heterosexual
relationship, she could have gone to family court to petition for a protective
order without filing fees and domestic-violence advocates who provide for
But New York state law gives family courts jurisdiction
only over people related by blood or marriage or who have children
biologically in common—all categories that gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgendered couples do not fit. Her partner would have had to face jail time
for assault for Adams to get a restraining order, which is also dependent on a
prosecutor pursuing the case.
“Victims hesitate to have their partners arrested
because it will mean they have to testify in court against someone they love
or have children with,” said Jeannette Kossuth, a policy intern at the
National Gay and Lesbian Antiviolence Project.
The New York State Assembly has passed bills every few
years to reform these laws since 1987, most recently at the beginning of
February. The new law would include anyone who lives together under the
domestic-violence statute. The bills have never passed the state Senate,
Other states deny same-sex partners protective orders
through strict laws on sodomy. Florida protects people “residing as a
family,” and Mississippi grants orders to persons “living as spouses,”
but because sodomy laws in both states criminalize homosexuality and ban
same-sex marriage, courts can limit protection to heterosexual couples. North
Carolina broadened its law to include “former and current household
members,” but a clause says that the law should not protect persons charged
with a “crime against nature” prohibited by state sodomy laws.
In New York and these states, an abused partner must
choose to leave a dangerous situation without protection. On Jan. 4, 2003,
after her third visit to Harlem Hospital’s emergency room in six months,
Adams made a decision. She said she realized that her partner would kill her
if she stayed, so she moved her children and herself into a battered women’s
shelter, where the family still lives.
“I know I don’t have to be afraid of Miranda every
day any more, but I also know New York laws don’t protect me like a
heterosexual woman,” Adams said. “And that still scares me.”
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