I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years working to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), our nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence. In assessing the evolving needs of survivors of violence when working to reauthorize VAWA, a bill that historically responded to violence in heterosexual relationships, advocates across the country consistently found that one of the greatest needs was the inclusion of LGBT survivors. Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Defense: Navy won't reinstate fired captain | Dems probe use of federal officers in DC | Air Force appoints woman as top noncommissioned officer Dems request watchdog probe use of federal law enforcement in DC during Floyd protests Fights over police reform, COVID-19 delay Senate appropriations markups MORE (D-Vt.) introduced, and stood behind, an LGBT-inclusive VAWA. In February 2013, Congress agreed and passed the bill – including the first ever national LGBT-explicit non-discrimination protections.
Now this same Congress is being called upon to consider a comprehensive immigration reform bill to address the evolving needs of immigrants and their loved ones in the United States. Once again, the question of LGBT inclusion in a fundamental policy in this country has come before Congress. With VAWA, Congress voted definitively for the principle that we could not leave anyone behind – that protection under VAWA had to include everyone who needed the protections of the bill.  With immigration reform, Congress has the opportunity to affirm the principle that they cannot leave any family behind. However, right now, the immigration reform bill fails to affirm that principle: the current proposal is not truly “comprehensive” because it leaves LGBT families behind.
Once again, Leahy is championing a truly inclusive and comprehensive bill. He has filed two amendments, one which recognizes permanent partnerships and one which recognizes marriages for immigration purposes, either one of which would keep LGBT immigrant families together. Families who cannot sponsor their partners and spouses for immigration risk a future of uncertainly, separation and exile – and LGBT people should have the same protection against this insecurity as every other family protected by the reform bill. Leahy’s sensible amendment improves the bill and makes it truly comprehensive.
There are some in the Gang of Eight Republican and Democratic senators who have come together to craft this necessary and complex bill, who say that including LGBT families will “kill” the bill. This thinking not only places opponents on the wrong side of history, it is factually incorrect. Adding LGBT people to the list of people who deserve protection from violence did not kill VAWA; nor will doing so kill the immigration bill.  When some in Congress would have left immigrants behind in VAWA, the LGBT community said “no – we must include everyone.”  When some in Congress could have left LGBT people behind in VAWA, the immigrant community said “no – we must include everyone.” LGBT people are citizens, we are families, we are children of parents and grandparents who immigrated not so long ago. We exist, we are a part of the fabric of this country, and our families are real. The Uniting American Families Act simply acknowledges this fact, as LGBT-inclusion in VAWA did for victims of violence.

If we have learned anything from this Congress, this country and this year, it is that it is possible – and, indeed, critical – to include all people in the bills that address the needs of the people of this country. Leaving immigrants behind is unacceptable. So is leaving LGBT people behind. We must include all families in comprehensive immigration reform to make it truly comprehensive. Congress has done it before and they can do it again – and we will watch, and remember, who stands with immigrants and LGBT people and who does not.
Members of Congress must decide what side they are on: the side of families or the side of homophobia. Congress has proven that it can be on the right side of history and include LGBT people in this country’s laws and rights. It is time to do it again. Those of us who work with immigrants, families and LGBT people are watching – and we will remember those who believe that “comprehensive” means everyone in this country, and those who do not.

Stapel is the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy.