A broad measure to address violence against women has cleared Congress with language that extends a provision prohibiting domestic violence shelters from denying access to biological men who identify as women.
Lawmakers reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994 but had lapsed due to a partisan battle over provisions in the bill, earlier this month. The VAWA language was tucked inside a massive omnibus spending bill that will keep the government funded until October.
The VAWA provision, more than 300 pages long, represents a compromise negotiated last month between Senate Democrats and Republicans. They hailed it as a victory for victims of domestic violence in need of intervention and support, and said the modernized measure will increase funding, improve access and expand services.
Republicans successfully fought to exclude language that would have prohibited gun ownership for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor stalking or abuse charge, which gun-rights advocates said was overly broad.
But the legislation leaves in place a prohibition on denying domestic violence services to individuals based on gender identity, including men who identify as women.
While some Republicans had fought to remove the language from the bill, citing safety and privacy concerns for biological women seeking domestic violence help, Senate negotiators left it in the reauthorization, which expires in 2027.
Non-discrimination language for transgendered individuals was first added to VAWA in 2013, defining who cannot be turned away from services by listing “gender identity” alongside race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
The provision means that domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, homeless shelters and other facilities serving vulnerable women and also accepting federal dollars under VAWA cannot turn away biological men who identify as women.
“It’s been sort of surprisingly under the radar,” said Sarah Parshall Perry, a constitutional scholar with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “I think a lot of people believed fully that these definitions are gone, but unfortunately they’re still very much enforced.”
The language doesvetails with recent executive action by the Biden administration changing how transgendered individuals are incarcerated in federal prisons.
The new Transgender Offender Manual, issued in January, restarts an Obama-era policy that was paused under the Trump administration. It calls for federal prisons to consider housing transgendered inmates “on a case by case basis,” and not based solely on biological gender.
“In making housing unit and programming assignments, a transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his/her own safety must be given serious consideration,” the manual states.
Mrs. Perry said “the door is left open” in the just-passed VAWA legislation for encoding into law Mr. Biden’s executive order allowing biological men to be housed with females in federal prisons if they identify as transgendered.
The measure establishes an office for determining the placement of “individuals” in federal prison, based on whether they have children as well as “any other factor the office determines to be appropriate.”
Several blue states have already started allowing transgendered women to be housed in women’s prisons, and some female prisoners forced into cells with biological men say they’ve been sexually assaulted.
The requirement in VAWA for accommodating transgendered women is stringent for homeless and domestic violence shelters, where organizations that accept money from the program, including the many shelters run by religious groups, are banned from turning away men who identify as women.
Trans-rights activists promote the law to transgendered women, assuring them they cannot be turned away from a women’s shelter or program if it accepts VAWA money, even though they are biologically male.
“Under VAWA, you have the right for your gender identity to be respected,” the Washington DC-based group Transequality advises on its website. “That means being treated as the gender you say you are. You should not be asked to prove your gender with medical or legal documents. A program cannot isolate or separate you just because you are transgender.”
Advocates of the policy say transgendered individuals have been denied access to shelters, leaving them vulnerable and lacking protection from domestic violence situations. Forcing transgendered women to utilize mens’ shelters is dangerous, they argue.
Republicans sought unsuccessfully to remove the transgender language in the House version of the bill, which passed last year and served as the basis for the Senate compromise.
“This bill puts partisan political priorities ahead of women in need,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, Arizona Republican and a domestic violence survivor.
Mrs. Lesko argued against allowing transgendered women in shelters and accused Democrats of putting “leftist ideology” ahead of the needs of vulnerable women.
“Sex-segregated shelters provide a safe place for women who have been abused, often at the hands of men, and to offer them a sense of privacy and security,” she said.