President Obama has signed into law historic new protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault with the expanded reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Initially passed in 1994, the bill lapsed in 2011 after Republicans blocked it over the new protections. The measure was approved after House Republicans finally allowed a vote last week. It includes a landmark addition that empower Native American tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native Americans for abuses committed on tribal lands. For the first time ever, it will also specifically include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender survivors. We’re joined by two guests who attended Thursday’s reauthorization ceremony at the White House: Juana Majel Dixon, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, and Mara Keisling, a transgender rights activist and founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: On this International Women’s Day, we turn now to historic new protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in the United States. On Thursday, President Obama signed an expanded reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes new provisions for Native American and LGBT survivors.
The original Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994 and drafted by, well, now-Vice President Joe Biden. It lapsed in 2011 for the first time in its nearly 20-year history after Republicans blocked it over the new protections. But the Republican-led House finally passed the bill last week.
Obama spoke during a signing ceremony at the Interior Department on Thursday.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because this is a country where everybody should be able to pursue their own measure of happiness and live their lives free from fear, no matter who you are, no matter who you love, that’s got to be our priority. That’s what today is about. Today is about the millions of women, the victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, who are out there right now looking for a lifeline, looking for support. Because of this bill, they will continue to have access to all the services that Joe first helped establish 19 years ago: a national hotline, network of shelters, protection orders that carry across state lines. And because of this bill, we’re also expanding housing assistance, so that no woman has to choose between a violent home and no home at all. That’s what today is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: The updated Violence Against Women Act authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars annually for domestic violence programs. It also issues new rules for handling violence on college campuses, where one in five women will be a victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during her time there. It adds stalking to the list of crimes that make undocumented immigrants eligible for protection. For the first time ever, it specifically includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender survivors. And in a landmark addition, it empowers tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native Americans for abuses committed on tribal lands.
Diane Millich, a domestic violence survivor from the Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado, introduced Vice President Biden at Thursday’s signing ceremony by telling her own story.
DIANE MILLICH: When I was 26 years old, I dated a non-Indian, a white man. After six months, we were married. My non-Indian husband moved into my house on the reservation. To my shock, just days after our marriage, he assaulted me. After a year of abuse and more than a hundred incidences of being slapped, kicked, punched, and living in horrific terror, I left for good.
During that year of marriage, I called the police many times. I called our Southern Ute tribal police department, but the law prevented them from arresting and prosecuting my husband, because he was non-Indian. The county sheriff could not help me, because I am a Native woman, and the beatings occurred on tribal reservation land. After one—after one beating, my ex-husband called the tribal police and the sheriff’s department himself, just to show me that no one could stop him. All the times that I called the police and nothing was done only made my ex-husband believe he was above the law and untouchable. My ex-husband told me, "You promised us until death do us part, so death it shall be."
Finally, he arrived at my office armed with a gun. I am alive today only because my co-worker pushed me out of harm’s way and took the bullet in his shoulder. For this crime, he was finally arrested. But because he had never been arrested for any of the abuse against me, he was treated as a first-time offender. The state prosecutor and him reached a plea agreement of aggravated driving under revocation.
If the bill being signed today were law when I was married, it would have allowed my tribe to arrest and prosecute my abuser. When this bill is signed, the Violence Against Women Act will finally reach Native American women like me.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Diane Millich of the Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado speaking Thursday at the signing ceremony for the Violence Against Women Act.
To talk more about the expansion of the law, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by two guests who were at that ceremony. Juana Majel Dixon is the first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians and co-chair of the group’s Task Force on Violence Against Women. She serves on the legislative council for the Pauma Tribe in San Diego County, California. Mara Keisling is a transgender rights activist, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Juana.
JUANA MAJEL DIXON: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the significance of this act, the Violence Against Women Act, for Native American women, if you could follow up on the story we just heard.
JUANA MAJEL DIXON: Oh, my gosh, being in that room listening to her. I’ve known Diane for a few years now and, hearing her story the first time, knew that we had to make a difference. And the women across this country, as allies, the National Task Force, as—and our tribal women, we knew every breath, every step we made, was to make sure that we could effect change to protect our Native women who chose to be in a relationship with non-Native relative—non-Native spouses and protect them from the violence that we did not know was happening on such a scale until we began to listen and hear. And we realized we had to change the law so that they could be protected with just protection orders and the right for our tribal police to come in and remove them and to alleviate the harm and the pain that was being caused.
The impact, you could hear it in the room, but it felt—it was palatable. The heart—the rhythm of the heart was so strong of the women in this nation, that when we breathed out, the lulus that you sound when you’re excited, and you praise creator’s will that this has been done in a good way.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa was one of 22 Republicans who voted against the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill when it passed in the Senate. He generated controversy, including a letter of condemnation from your task force, Juana, when he explained his reasoning at an Iowa town-hall meeting.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: You get non-Indians going into a reservation and violating a woman. They need to be prosecuted. They aren’t prosecuted. So, the idea behind this bill is: We’ll try them in tribal court. But under the laws of our land, you’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Some Republicans had used a constitutional argument to object to the expansion of protections for Native American women. This is Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas speaking against the expansion on the Senate floor last month.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: This is a bill that could do so much good in the battle for victims’ rights, but unfortunately it’s being held hostage by a single provision that would take away fundamental constitutional rights for certain American citizens. And for what? For what? In order to satisfy the unconstitutional demands of special interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Juana Majel Dixon, your response?
JUANA MAJEL DIXON: Well, there’s a couple of reasons. We took a letter to Grassley to let him know that our selection that we would use for—to help at a prosecution would be fair, that the community we come from, by nature of the fact that we have intermarried with our non-Indian partners, they would be a part of that. Plus, our community, we have plans to—because we live side by side with non-Indian communities throughout Indian country, as well as our tribal—our tribal groups within our territories, there’s a natural blend of coexisting together, that it seems logical and sensible that we would somehow have the same kind of faith, same kind of trust, to give fair and just decisions in terms of a case. We also know that there’s an appeals system in it, that they could choose to go to a federal court, but there’s a process.
In terms of what was said of the unconstitutional piece, it’s very hard to realize that inside the Constitution itself, we exist. We’re a part of the Founding Fathers’ language of this country, and our relationship with them is sovereign to sovereign, essentially government to government. And in that relationship, if you don’t know that and if you’re not taught that, you just don’t know. And you can’t get angry at what they don’t know, but you can try to help them to understand that it isn’t unconstitutional. We even have the Indian Civil Rights Act, which mirrors several provisions that are in the Civil Rights Act that allow, as you know, the protections for—in a case where prosecution and defendant, that this outline is in there, that we wouldn’t deviate from it just because we now have this opportunity. It only seems logical that the safety and wellness of any society would be given at least fair measure to effect change for that kind of protection, and this affords that. And I understand—I’ll tell you again, I understand if they didn’t know. The way that they do know is because they didn’t learn how—how the Constitution, we’re a part of it. And I don’t want to repeat myself, but I think I said what I needed to say there.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Mara Keisling into the conversation, head of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Talk about the significance of this legislation, Mara.
MARA KEISLING: Well, it’s hugely significant. LGBT people, including transgender people, are frequently victims of domestic and sexual violence, at levels equal—at least equal to other people in society. But we are much more likely to face discrimination when trying to access services. And like a lot of other populations, like immigrant women populations, like American Indian populations, we’re often less likely to seek assistance either from the police or from the services that are available for violence victims, because maybe we don’t think we’ll be treated fairly, maybe we feel like we’ll, you know, lose our right to be here in the country. When you’re at the intersection of these things, for instance, if you’re a transgender immigrant or a transgender undocumented immigrant, you can imagine the fear of accessing these services. But we see now people being turned away from domestic violence programs, including shelters, specifically because they’re lesbians or gay or transgender or bisexual.
And something Juana said that is really true here, a lot of this is just about ignorance. And while the Violence Against Women Act is largely about creating the services and funding the services, it’s also very important as an educational moment to understand—to make America understand and to make violence programs even understand that LGBT people do face violence and do need services, that immigrant women can be held hostage by people for whom—people who have control over their right to be here. And for—and, by the way, to educate the American population, that tribal courts do do justice and are fair places where people can expect to get justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Mara, can you talk about the organizing of the trans, the gay, the lesbian, the bisexual community around this, around achieving inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act?
MARA KEISLING: Sure. You know, there were a lot of really great folks who led the charge here: the Anti-Violence Project, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center was great, the Human Rights Campaign, a lot of groups that really were able to organize our community and to work with other communities. Juana talked about the National Task Force and the amazing work that that task force, which included lots of different kinds of communities and activists, did. You know, our job was to make sure our people understood the significance of this; to transgender people, that was specifically our role. And the other groups, you know, really, really stepped up. And I think it was a really great model for how different advocacy communities can work together to get something done that matters to all of us, and against people who—or, I should say, in response to people who are just against it because of the type of people it would protect. So, I am very impressed.
AMY GOODMAN: Mara, as we wrap up, this is the second-ever LGBTQ-inclusive legislation.
MARA KEISLING: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the first?
MARA KEISLING: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act, which has been a significant thing. This is also the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity are explicitly protected in anti-discrimination protections in federal law.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mara, I want to thank you for joining us on this International Women’s Day—
MARA KEISLING: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —part of the array of voices that we hear, a transgender woman, head of the National Center for Transgender Equality. And Juana Majel Dixon of the National Congress of American Indians.
We end with the words of one congresswoman. Late last month, before the House approved the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act, Wisconsin Democratic Congressmember Gwen Moore gave an impassioned speech against Republican efforts to block its expanded protections. We’re going to end with that clip.
REP. GWEN MOORE: I pray that this body will do as the Senate has done and come together as one to protect all women from violence. I would just—as I think about the LGBT victims that are not here, the Native women who are not here, the immigrants who are not included in this bill, I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, "Ain’t they women?" They deserve protections. When we talk about the constitutional rights, don’t women on tribal lands deserve their constitutional right of equal protection and not to be raped and battered and beaten and dragged back onto Native lands because they know they can be raped with impunity? Ain’t they women? And I would yield back the balance of my time.
AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin Democratic Congressmember Gwen Moore speaking for the Violence Against Women Act and its expanded protections of the Native American and transgender, gay, lesbian community.
This is democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back on this International Women’s Day special, Indian physician, activist Vandana Shiva joins us. Stay with us.