If the woman known as M.E. had lived with her girlfriend in North
Carolina, she could have gotten significant legal protection once their
relationship turned abusive. She would also have been eligible for that
help—a domestic violence protective order—if her ex had been a man.
But because she did not share a home with her same-sex partner, a
judge said she could not use the threat of jail to try to keep her
alleged abuser away.
That decision—and the state statute behind it—are now being
challenged in the state’s Court of Appeals by the American Civil
Liberties Union, with the support of the state’s attorney general.
It’s unclear how many people would be affected if the court rules in
favor of M.E., who is identified in court documents only by her
initials. But social workers and legal experts say that a favorable
ruling would encourage people who are being abused to seek help.
“There are huge barriers for people coming forward, generally,” said
Todd Brower, a law professor who trains judges and court personnel about
LGBT issues through the Williams Institute at UCLA’s law school.
The situation is particularly acute in North Carolina, he said,
because of the state’s historic antipathy to queer people. Just last
month, the state agreed to stop banning people from using the public
bathrooms that match their gender identities; in February, state
legislators introduced a bill that would redefine same-sex unions as
Under current law, if people in North Carolina are in abusive relationships—so long as their partners are “of the opposite sex”—a
judge can issue a 50B protective order. It allows a judge to take away
guns from accused abusers or order them to attend violence counseling.
It also opens up opportunities for the victim to get relocation
services. If an order is violated, police can arrest the offender.
Same-sex couples who live together are also covered by 50B orders.
But for those who don’t live together, the only option is a 50C, a
no-contact order that doesn’t carry the same legal repercussions or
No central database tracks or maintains records on the sexual
orientation of those who request protective orders, so it’s unclear how
many people fail to get a 50B and opt for the lower-level protection
instead. A handful of studies question the efficacy of protective orders, which critics say are not always enforced by police officers.
But civil rights lawyers generally agree that while they may not be a
silver bullet to stop violence, protective orders give judges more
power to help the abused. “Though protective orders alone cannot
guarantee the safety of a victim, they are much more than ‘just a piece
of paper’,” said Sherry Everett, legal policy analyst for the North
Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When there’s a protective
order, she said, even a text message can result in a misdemeanor charge
against the offender.
The 50B orders also give victims the opportunity to get court-offered
services, such as relocation or trauma therapies, said Amily McCool,
the lead attorney in the case of M.E. (Her client declined to comment.)
According to a brief filed in January,
when M.E. tried to leave her girlfriend last year, she was threatened
and had to call the police for help. She tried to get a 50B protective
order against the girlfriend, but the judge denied the request and
issued a 50C instead. But when the girlfriend violated that order—and
allegedly had access to guns—the plaintiff went back to court to try
again for a 50B.
The judge in that decision ruled against her but said that had the
two been in a straight relationship, the case would’ve easily triggered a
50B protective order.
Most states that excluded same-sex couples from getting protective
orders in domestic violence cases changed their laws after the 2015
Supreme Court ruling that legally established same-sex marriage. North
Carolina has not.
But some local judges—and even the state’s attorney general—disagree with the law.
District Judge Shamieka Rhinehart, who was elected to the bench in Durham
last year, said she’s presided over multiple requests for protective
orders from gay and lesbian victims and rarely turns one away.
“When people are in front of me asking for help, it’s my job to help them,” Rhinehart said.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein argued in a brief that “it is now clear that this discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples is untenable and unconstitutional.”
The defendant, who is representing herself, did not respond to a letter or voice-mail message requesting comment.
Sam Watson, the LGBT services coordinator at the North Carolina
Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that if the lawsuit changes
the state’s position to include same-sex couples, that could have a
ripple effect and encourage more people in abusive relationships to seek
Last year, a similar lawsuit forced South Carolina’s judges to issue protective orders
for same-sex couples. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that the statute
that limited protective orders—which was almost identical to North
A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control shows that intimate partner violence is underreported in the LGBT community
and estimates that lesbians and bisexual women face the highest
prevalence of abuse over their lifetime, at 44 and 61 percent,
respectively. A quarter of gay men also experience domestic violence in
their lifetime, according to the CDC study.
“There is still the myth and stigma around being involved in domestic
violence,” said Ruth Glenn, the chief executive officer at the National
Coalition Against Domestic Violence, adding that the prevailing image
of domestic violence is a woman battered by a male partner. “People
think they just won’t be believed.”