Q&A: Removing Legal Barriers for LGBT Survivors of Violence

A young man sitting with his chin on his folded arms.

We’ve explored ways to create more inclusive services for domestic violence survivors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). A new report released by Legal Services NYC found that more work is needed to provide culturally competent legal services for LGBT survivors who also live in—or on the edge of—poverty.

Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People” takes a sweeping look at the civil legal challenges and discrimination faced by low-income members of the LGBT community. The report includes information collected from more than 300 LGBT, low-income people in New York City, around a variety of legal issues ranging from immigration and health care to veterans’ rights.

Violence emerged as a common theme in participants’ lives, with 27% reporting experiences with domestic violence and 25% saying they had experienced sexual assault. We spoke to LGBT and HIV Unit Director Cathy Bowman about the report’s findings, common barriers to legal access for LGBT survivors, and what the legal community can do to address these challenges.

NCFY: What makes the legal needs of LGBT individuals experiencing domestic violence unique?

Bowman: What’s different for same-sex partners is their access to the legal system, the legal support services that are available, and their treatment in the court systems. There is a stereotypical idea of what domestic violence looks like, and that it does not include LGBT families or partners. They are trying to fit into legal systems that are not always designed with them in mind.

[Discover ways to make anti-violence programs more welcoming for transgender survivors.]

NCFY: What types of legal barriers do LGBT survivors face?

Bowman: With same-sex violence, we see clients encountering questions of “How bad can it be?”. People [in the legal system] may be disinclined to believe that women hurt each other, or that a man could be abused by another man. So, the situation can seem less urgent. And particularly with individuals who are gender non-conforming, you cannot overstate the level of discrimination and verbal harassment they encounter.

Legal providers are actually serving a lot of LGBT individuals, but a lot of times we might not know because they do not feel safe to share that information. Then, we miss parts of their case for things we do not know are going on. Individuals may not share their family composition because they are not sure if it is an OK thing to say. LGBT individuals may not want to address domestic violence issues legally because it seems too difficult or they are worried that they will be re-traumatized.

[Learn what affects the quality of treatment received by transgender survivors of violence.]

NCFY: How can the legal community address these barriers?

Bowman: We’re doing a lot of education. Education has to happen in different places to different degrees. Part of our job is to educate the courts, and that includes everyone in the building. Whatever prejudices people have [about same-sex intimate partner violence], it is my job to deal with those prejudices and be an advocate for my clients.

People can really reach out to these communities and represent them. Things are going to change by individuals bringing cases and having representation. There is an education that goes on one case at a time, but LGBT individuals need to feel safe and welcome in a legal environment in order to do this.

We need to tell LGBT individuals that “We are interested in representing you, and we will meet you where you are.” We have to really be saying “We will address your legal needs, and we see your legal needs as important.” We also need to show that we are culturally competent. So, when you come to our agency, our receptionist calls you by the pronouns you want to be called [by], and you know you are welcome there.

[Read “Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People.”]

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