sealPurdue News

August 2000

Domestic violence laws ignore lesbians, gays

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Same-sex couples began forming civil unions in the state of Vermont in June, a legal status that qualifies them for more than 300 rights and benefits that were formerly exclusive to marriage. The new law does not, however, protect them from each other should one partner become abusive.

"Our legal system has a lot to say about people in marital relationships, and it has a lot to say about people in familial relationships," explains JoAnn Miller, an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University. "But if you study the state statutes that define what constitutes domestic or family violence, there is little mention of same-sex partners. This isn't just a crack for people to fall through in our legal system; it's a gaping hole."

Miller, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and victim resources, says same-sex partners are as likely to experience abuse as married and non-married heterosexual couples, but their legal options are far more limited.

"The most recent national survey on family violence, conducted from 1995 to 1998, attempted to measure systematically the incidence of emotional, physical and sexual abuse across all types of intimate relationships," Miller explains. "The numbers are what you would expect them to be in terms of the majority of respondents being heterosexual and married. But when you look at the prevalence of violence or abuse among gay and lesbian couples, you find that they experienced a higher incidence of emotional abuse than heterosexuals couples reported and just as much physical abuse."

Miller says it's also reasonable to assume that same-sex partner abuse is significantly under-reported for the same reasons that incidents of spousal abuse are under-reported: shame and fear.

"We know domestic violence happens among upper- and middle-class couples because of anecdotal evidence, but the majority of police data comes from lower income households," Miller explains. "That stratum of the population lives in closer proximity to each other, and the police are more likely to be called to apartment buildings with thin walls than to well-to-do homes in suburbia where the neighbors can't even hear the shouting."

Abused partners who do seek help from law enforcement and social service agencies quickly find there are very few options available to them.

"There's an argument among lawmakers that partner abuse is just like any other physical assault and can be pursued through a battery charge, but in reality it doesn't always work that way," Miller reports. "If I'm beaten up on a street corner or attacked by a stranger, I don't have to go home and live with the person who assaulted me. And a typical domestic violence shelter is prohibited from taking in a lesbian, let alone a gay man."

This is because shelters are generally set up to respond to what state statutes define as domestic violence, which goes back to Miller's original assertion that same-sex couples are not protected by current law.

"If the law does not protect all victims, then you can't expect public service agencies to provide services for people who don't fall into the legal categories," Miller says. "It's also a reality that many domestic violence shelters and victim assistance programs are publicly funded and locally supported, so they have to respond to those agencies in order to insure funding in subsequent years. In some smaller, more politically conservative communities, it could be the end of a shelter if it tries to provide services for lesbian and gay victims."

Miller says the first step toward fixing the problem is to amend current domestic violence laws to be more inclusive.

"Our laws already recognize that people who are abused by intimate partners have special needs; we just need to apply them to everyone regardless of sexual preference or living arrangements," Miller says. "The next step is making sure all people can get the assistance necessary to avoid becoming victims again."

Miller is writing a book that she hopes will foster a greater understanding of who the victims of domestic and family violence are, and why the present systems for dealing with both abusers and their partners are not adequate.

"The federal and state governments have developed programs aimed at punishing the offenders and programs to assist victims, but they are very uncoordinated, and there is an entire segment of the population that is shut out from the resources that are available," Miller explains. "The courts in this country are just now beginning to tackle the very difficult question of how to recognize other forms of families and other co-habiting couples, and how to insure they get the legal protection they need. This is a problem that requires a major social response."

Source: JoAnn Miller, (765) 494-4699;

Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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