Proposed legislation prefiled for the 2017 Legislature by State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, aims to close a longstanding loophole in Louisiana’s domestic violence statutes by including same-sex couples.
House Bill 27 would alter the state’s civil and criminal statutes by opening harsher sentencing possibility for abusers in same-sex cohabiting relationships and by providing key public welfare assistance options to same-sex victims.
The bill simply removes the phrase “of opposite sex” from the state’s definition of a household member, a definition that forms a foundation for the domestic abuse battery and domestic aggravated assault charges, as well as support services for victims.
Louisiana law defines domestic violence as that perpetrated against family members, such as spouses or household members. State law identifies a household member as “any person of the opposite sex presently or formerly living in the same residence with the offender as a spouse, whether married or not …”
Louisiana and South Carolina are the only states that currently include explicit “opposite sex” distinctions in their domestic violence statutes. In 2013, the Montana Legislature voted to remove “opposite sex” from its partner and family assault statute.
According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, many states’ statutes are silent on same-sex applications, thus extending domestic violence protections to same-sex dating couples through broadly applied gender neutral language. Only three states — Hawaii, Maine and Washington — and Washington, D.C., explicitly apply the law to same-sex couples.
Connick said he filed the legislation on behalf of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, where Assistant District Attorney Sunny Funk is spearheading the change. Connick said that office handles domestic violence cases daily and understands the community’s needs.
Society is evolving, Connick said, and the legal change is necessary to ensure the state is doing its best to protect all of its residents.
“Everybody needs to be protected no matter what your sexual orientation. Everybody needs to be protected from abuse.”
Funk said the current law prevents the judicial system from treating victims and offenders in same-sex cohabiting relationships the same as their heterosexual counterparts, and those offenders found guilty receive lesser sentences.
Mariah Stidham Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the state has strong penalties in place to counteract domestic violence, especially in instances of domestic abuse battery. The state’s battery law includes enhancements that increase sentencing when strangulation, burning, or serious bodily injury occur, she said.
Closing loopholes like the one outlined in HB 27 is crucial if the state is serious about ending this sort of violence, she said.
Wineski said the legislature’s strong stance against domestic violence in recent years is encouraging for the bill’s success. In 2014 and 2015, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal signed approximately 10 bills related to domestic violence protections and requirements for offenders.
Louisiana has a bad record on domestic violence. Currently, it is ranked second in the nation for the number of women murdered by men, and has been in the top 10 for the last six years, according to the Violence Policy Center. In 2016, Louisiana noted 50 domestic homicides.
While domestic violence statistics for heterosexual couples are well documented, little information exists about abuse in the LGBTQ community.
According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, “lesbian women and gay men reported levels of intimate partner violence and sexual violence equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals.”
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control survey had 16,507 survey respondents, including 9,086 women and 7,421 men. Of the women, 118 self-identified as lesbian and roughly 200 self-identified as bisexual. Among the men, 148 self-identified as gay while 89 self-identified as bisexual.
In the survey, lesbian women, bisexual women and gay men all reported higher levels of severe physical violence by intimate partners than heterosexual respondents. Of the 118 lesbian respondents, 34 reported experiencing severe physical violence in their lifetime. Twenty-four of the 148 gay men reported similar experiences.
Wineski said state data on LGBTQ domestic violence is minimal or non-existent, but the organization and its network of shelters does receive assistance calls from same-sex victims. Hopefully, she said, “long-overdue” changes to the law and greater understanding that same-sex offenders will be held equally accountable will encourage victims to report abuse.