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“Gender identity” in the Violence Against Women Act

Recently, I got some messages asking me to press for transgender and lesbian, gay and bisexual inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act, a law that sunsets regularly but has just been reauthorized by Congress. The action alerts also talked about “gender identity,” and the definition that came to mind is this one from GLAAD, which is echoed in other definitions around the country: “One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl).”

I was concerned about the use of “gender identity” in this bill. Being white and middle-class I’m at relatively low risk, but there are other trans people from all ethnic and economic backgrounds who occasionally go out in public presenting as women, with male bodies unmodified by hormone or surgical treatment, and without a strong belief that we are women. We may be seen by others as women, as trans people or as gay men. We may be targeted for sexual assault, stalking or other violent actions based on those perceptions. A law that is based on the “internal sense” definition of gender identity would fail to protect us.

Today I took a closer look and discovered that this fight actually is relevant to people like me. The Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, provided grants for nonprofits and government agencies to run programs aimed at preventing violence against women and providing support for women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The expanded version of the law passed by the Senate last year, but rejected by the House of Representatives, and then passed this week by both houses of Congress, includes new protections that weren’t in the original bill. Overall, it includes “dating violence” and “stalking” as eligible categories of violence in addition to “domestic violence” and “sexual assault.” It also includes provisions for “men, women, and youth in correctional and detention settings.”

One part that relates to transgender and LGB victims is the definition of “underserved populations.” There are grants for organizations working with underserved populations.

UNDERSERVED POPULATIONS.—The term “underserved populations” means populations who face barriers in accessing and using victim services, and includes populations underserved because of geographic location, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, underserved racial and ethnic populations, populations underserved because of special needs (such as language barriers, disabilities, alienage status, or age), and any other population determined to be underserved by the Attorney General or by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as appropriate.

Another section expands the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to include support for the following:

developing, enlarging, or strengthening programs and projects to provide services and responses targeting male and female victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking, whose ability to access traditional services and responses is affected by their sexual orientation or gender identity, as defined in section 249(c) of title 4 18, United States Code

In section 249(c) of the hate crimes law is where we actually get a legal definition of “gender identity,” and it turns out to be very different from that given by organizations like GLAAD:

the term ‘gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics

This definition is much broader than the “internal sense” definitions, but does a better job of delineating the class of victims who are underserved, and who are often actually denied services when people perceive them as “queers” or “trannies,” with no knowledge of their internal sense of gender.

The people who refuse to investigate or prosecute crimes against transgender people don’t give a rat’s ass what internal, personal sense of gender those transgender people have. If I (or someone like me who’s black or Mexican) get bashed and a cop won’t write it up, telling the cop that I really don’t have an internal, personal sense that I’m a woman isn’t going to get me any better treatment. That’s probably why the definition in the hate crimes law didn’t reference a sense of gender, and why this expanded Violence Against Women Act doesn’t either.

A final note: in the spirit of the Delhi protesters who said “Don’t tell your daughters to stay at home, instead teach your sons to behave,” I like this program in the new Violence Against Women Act:

ENGAGING MEN AS LEADERS AND ROLE MODELS.—To develop, maintain or enhance programs that work with men to prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by helping men to serve as role models and social influencers of other men and youth at the individual, school, community or statewide levels.

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