Know Your Rights: Survivors of Violence

Violence Against Women Act

Despite its name, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) supports help for all survivors of intimate partner violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking—and since 2013, VAWA prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in providing help. You have the right to access help as a survivor regardless of your gender, transgender status or gender expression. 

VAWA may apply if you are seeking help from any of the following:

  • Police and sheriffs
  • Prosecutors
  • Courts
  • Rape crisis centers
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Housing
  • Legal aid
  • Hotlines or counseling
  • Support groups
  • Education Programs

If a program or agency accepts any VAWA funds for anything it does, it cannot discriminate against LGBT people in anything it does. VAWA also prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, or disability. 

I’m a transgender woman. Can I be turned away from a women’s shelter or program?

Under VAWA, you have the right for your gender identity to be respected—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 or and you should not be asked about your body parts.  

You have the right to ask for an individual accommodation to provide greater privacy or safety if you desire to (such as by being housed in a separate area)—but a program cannot isolate or separate you just because you’re transgender. 

I’m a man (transgender or not). Can I be turned away because a program is only for women?

Under VAWA, programs can only segregate based on gender if it is necessary to effectively serve survivors. If you think a program is only open to women, or divided by gender, without good reason, you can file a complaint. Even in programs that are gender-segregated, equal services must be provided to people of all genders. Providing lesser services to men because of their gender is prohibited. This usually means that if there is a program designed just for women, similar services must also be given to any men who seek help. 

What if another client complains about me being there?

A complaint from another client about being around a transgender person does not give a program an excuse to discriminate. If a client believes being around a certain type of person is interfering with their ability to receive services, an agency may offer alternate accommodations to the person who is uncomfortable, but that accommodation cannot limit services to the transgender person. 

I was told I could only be served if I dressed as my birth gender.

If the program is covered by VAWA, this is unlawful discrimination. You have the right to express your gender identity and be served just like anyone else.

What if I am harassed, profiled, or abused as a transgender person by police or the courts?

No agency funded under VAWA can discriminate in anything it does—that includes police officers, prosecutors, judges, and courts staff if their agency accepts VAWA funds. While not all of these agencies accept VAWA funding, there may be other protections if you face discrimination or mistreatment by government officials. We strongly recommend seeking legal help.  

How do I report discrimination?

You can file a complaint with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) online at: The DOJ investigates complaints and takes action to ensure agencies comply with the law in the future.  

Provide as many details as you can in the complaint—who did what, where, on what dates. Write down details as soon as you can after the incident. Your privacy will be protected. You can also file a complaint on behalf of someone else. 

How do I know if a program or agency is funded by VAWA?

Figuring out if a program or agency gets VAWA funds can be difficult, as there is no central list. Many organizations are listed on the US Department of Justice website at: However, many agencies are not on this list because they receive VAWA funds indirectly through their state government. Some of these VAWA sub-grants can be looked up on, and some states list them online too.  

If you’re not sure, you can still file a complaint against any victim service, law enforcement, or other agency, and the Department of Justice will determine if they are covered. If they are not covered under VAWA, you may still be protected under other federal, state, or local laws.  You can also seek legal help to explore all your options. 

What happens when I file a complaint?

The US DOJ investigates complaints and takes action to ensure agencies comply with the law in the future. VAWA does not provide a right to sue in court or be compensated financially, but other laws might. If you have been seriously harmed by discrimination or mistreatment, seek legal help. 

What if I need legal help?

While you don’t need a lawyer to file a complaint under VAWA, you may want help exploring all your options—especially if you were discriminated against by government officials, or were seriously harmed.  

There are many groups that may give you referrals or maintain lists of local lawyers. You can try your local legal aid or legal services organization, or national or regional organizations such as Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the ACLU, and the Transgender Law Center. 

I’m a domestic violence/sexual assault service provider and want to better serve transgender people. Where do I start?

Contact the National Training and Technical Assistance Center on LGBTQ Cultural Competency, which can be found at:  

Additional Resources

US Department of Justice guidance on LGBT discrimination and VAWA  

File a VAWA discrimination complaint 

Partial list of VAWA grantees 

Links to Legal Services Organizations 

24-hour support for LGBT survivors 
(212) 714-1141 (English/Spanish)  

More trans resources for survivors, professionals, and advocates  

National Training and Technical Assistance Center on LGBTQ Cultural Competency 

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