For months, the landmark Violence Against Women Act has languished in Congress, and last month, funding for the bill expired, putting programs that support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking at risk. On Thursday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers reintroduced the bill, hoping that in 2019, with a Democrat-stacked House, Congress will finally reauthorize the critical piece of legislation.
On Thursday morning, four people appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to testify on VAWA: Ramona Gonzalez, a Wisconsin family court judge who oversees cases of domestic violence; Sarah Deer, a law professor who has built her career advocating for the rights of Native Americans in sexual assault and domestic violence cases; Rob Valente, a policy consultant for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and finally, Julia Beck, a self-identified radical lesbian feminist who has, in recent months, become a beloved figure in conservative media for her exclusionary, anti-trans views.
While the first three witnesses drew on years of policy experience to focus on the need to close loopholes in gun laws, enhance protections for Native American women, and expand focus on homelessness and housing needs for victims of domestic violence, Beck’s testimony focused on the mythical dangers of transgender people: “VAWA now protects the nebulous concept of gender identity,” Beck said in her opening comments. “While sex is a vital statistic, gender and identity are not. VAWA was created for women and girls. Not for those who feel like or identify as female. Woman is not a gender or a feeling.” For these protections, she called VAWA a “misogynistic Trojan Horse,” and implored, “please, remove gender identity [protections] from VAWA.” Beck was referring to the 2013 reauthorization which included nondiscrimination protections, broadening the scope of VAWA to ostensibly include LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence. The nondiscrimination clause also prohibited groups funded under VAWA from discriminating on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
“New gender identity laws allow male people to claim womanhood,” Beck continued. “The Violence Against Women Act has become the Violence Against Anybody Act. Its original sex-based protections are now meaningless, because men with gender identities who commit violence against women, are protected by federal law. When gender identity wins, women and girls always lose.” In another portion of her testimony, she said: “I still call trans women men because they are.”
On the witness list, Beck’s title appears as “former Law and Policy Co-Chair at Baltimore City’s LGBTQ Commission.” Beck was voted off the commission last fall because she doesn’t believe transgender women are women (she wrote about the ousting in a post titled, “How I became the most hated lesbian in Baltimore”). Since then, Beck, 26, has amplified her anti-trans message through the right-wing media (she is also a reporter for Women’s Liberation Radio News, billed on its website as a radical feminist collective). In February, she told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that trans people threaten the safety of women. “If any man, any male person can call himself a woman or legally identify as female, then predatory men will do so to gain access to women’s same-sex spaces,” Beck said, “and this puts every woman and girl at risk.” Beck opposes The Equality Act, which would add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She has also spoken as a panelist at a Heritage Foundation event where she said, “There are only three sexualities: homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. All the hip new identities in the alphabet soup like non-binary, gender fluid, pansexual, are not real sexualities. Sexualities are based on sex while gender identities are based on stereotypes.”
Though Beck told the Baltimore Sun that she does “feel kind of nervous about working with the right wing because they have opposed women’s bodily autonomy, and lesbians’ sovereignty,” it has not stopped her from forming an alliance with Republicans.
After I reached out to Beck on Twitter, she sent me an email saying that she was invited to speak by Republican Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee (Beck did not respond to my request to talk on the phone). A representative for the committee’s Democrats confirmed to Jezebel that Beck was the sole witness invited by Republicans. A committee spokesperson for Republicans told me via email: “Democrats allowed Republicans to invite a witness to today’s hearing, and Ms. Beck has a compelling, informed perspective to offer on an important piece of legislation.”
While VAWA has bipartisan support—Thursday’s reauthorization hearing was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California—historically, Republicans have previously blocked provisions that protect same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants. The bill expired amid the 2018 government shutdown, and was excluded from the 2019 spending bill Donald Trump authorized to re-open the government.
That Beck was the Republican contingent’s sole witness is significant: It indicates that, in the face of reauthorizing a landmark bill that could protect marginalized people—one that Congress has repeatedly and overwhelmingly supported—their priority is to find ways to weaken those protections. By giving Beck a platform in Congress and entering her bigotry into public record, they prioritized the invented dangers they say women face from trans people over the actual dangers women face—the dangers that VAWA means to address. Furthermore, allowing Beck to testify in Congress creates an avenue to use to VAWA to discriminate against trans people, who face disproportionally high rates of violence.
Republicans and the Trump administration have been expanding a series of anti-trans bills and policies that target trans people predicated on similar myths spread by Beck. The idea that trans people are lurking in the shadows, pretending to be women in order to assault them, is akin to propaganda in the 1960s that suggested gay men are pedophiles who lurk in bathrooms to assault boys.
“Do you think that there might be people that are gaming the laws and are pretending that they are women in order to attack in women in, let’s say, a domestic violence shelter designed for women,” Republican Debbie Lesko asked Beck. “Of course,” Beck replied. “And this is already happening,” she said, citing the case of Karen White, a trans woman who sexually assaulted inmates in a female prison.
White’s case is not indicative of a larger trend among trans people, rather it is the case of someone with a long history of violence continuing to be violent. There is no evidence that expanding transgender rights leads to violence, for example, but there is ample evidence that trans-exclusionary policies harm trans people and contribute to mistreatment, abuse, and harassment that can negatively affect their employment, health, and participation in public life. According to a 2015 survey by Trans Equality, 47 percent of trans people experience sexual assault.
After Lesko, who seemed to share Beck’s concerns about trans people, described them as men “pretending” to be women, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) interrupted and said, “I think the suggestion that transgender individuals are pretending they are of a different gender is deeply offensive.”
Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), said Thursday’s testimony was “very critical” to the reauthorization of VAWA and called Beck’s testimony “shocking.”
“I will say that I know what she was doing there. That was to offer a different opinion. Unfortunately, her opinion is not based in fact,” Glenn said. “And it was very hurtful to hear what she had to say about a community that is disproportionately experiencing violence, whether it’s sexual violence or domestic violence.”