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North Carolina Discriminates Against Queer Abuse Survivors


It’s the only state where domestic violence laws only cover opposite-sex couples.

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a North Carolina law that makes it difficult for same-sex victims of domestic violence to obtain protection.

Currently, North Carolina state law only allows full protective orders for couples who are "of the opposite sex." That includes provisions that allow judges to take guns from accused abusers and relocation services for victims.

For same-sex couples, those protections are only available if the accused and the victim live together. If they live apart, they can only get a lesser form of protection known as a no-contact order.

Sherry Everett, legal policy analyst for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told justice-journalism nonprofit The Marshall Project, "Though protective orders alone cannot guarantee the safety of a victim, they are much more than 'just a piece of paper.'"

A full protective order could result in an arrest if the accused sends a harassing text message, for example. It also entitles victims to trauma therapy.

The ACLU's current lawsuit was triggered when a woman, identified only as M.E., sought a protective order against her ex, who had been physically aggressive and threatened violence. After the ex tried to force her way into M.E.'s house, M.E. asked a district court to grant a domestic violence protective order. Acknowledging that M.E. was "terrified" and that her ex had "caused [her] to suffer substantial emotional distress by placing her in fear of bodily injury and continued torment," the order was denied.

The ruling in the case was clear. The law "would have supported the entry of a Domestic Violence Protective Order ... had the parties been of opposite genders," the court wrote. News accounts from the time do not identify the judge by name.

Last year, a lawsuit in South Carolina resulted in its Supreme Court ruling that a nearly identical law was unconstitutional. Most states amended their laws to be inclusive after the Supreme Court's marriage ruling in 2015, but North Carolina is now alone in failing to do so.

North Carolina judges have openly said that state law ties their hands in issuing protective orders to same-sex couples, and there's been a growing call to overturn the law from politicians and commentators. State Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, has called for an end to the prohibition, writing in a brief, "It is now clear that this discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples is untenable and unconstitutional."

The need for reform is particularly urgent in light of a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control that found domestic violence to be underreported in the LGBTQ+ community. Though a quarter of gay men will experience domestic violence in their lives, lesbians and bisexual women are at particular risk, the report found.

According to the North Carolina Department of Justice, over 157,000 North Carolinians suffered domestic violence in 2014.

North Carolina's General Assembly could fix the law now, rather than waiting for the rest of a lawsuit. But the assembly has expressed open hostility to LGBTQ+ residents in recent years, passing such legislation as a "bathroom bill" blocking trans people from using facilities.

RELATED | North Carolina Files Bill to Make Gay Marriage Illegal Again

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Matt Baume