Statistics tell us that every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten in the US. And around the world, at least one-in-four women has been coerced into sex, beaten, or harassed.
Helpful as these figures can be in discussing the ubiquity of violence against women, they conjure up very certain images of women and abusers. And as such, they give us limited views on domestic violence and almost never include the trans* community.
While there are no national statistics available for the relatively hidden trans* community, The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) 2011 survey showed that one-in-five trans* people experienced domestic violence at home for their non-conforming gender identities.
An alarming 78 percent reported being harassed by teachers and staff, and about half of the 6,500 respondents had been harassed at work.
Domestic violence is happening in trans* communities. We need to talk about it and what you can do to help.
But first: a word about wording.
In discussing domestic violence, we often hear policy makers and journalists refer to the recipients of domestic violence as victims. Using the victim label allows us to clearly delineate roles and further understand the power dynamics in domestic violence.
However, service providers who actually work with individuals affected by domestic violence will usually refer to their clients as survivors.
Referring to oneself as a survivor allows the individual to begin the process of recovery and move on from the victim role. For this purpose, we will be referring to victims as survivors in this piece.
Also: a word about domestic violence.
Domestic violence goes beyond physical abuse. It can also include verbal and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse.
Domestic violence also goes beyond intimate partners. Domestic violence abusers can include family members and close friends.
That being clear, we want to talk today about how domestic violence can be nuanced in trans* communities.
1. Trans* DV survivors often settle for abuse because they think this is the best they will get.
Often, trans* people experience a history of abuse due to their gender non-conforming identities. This could range from physical violence to unfair treatment in the home, in school, and at work as adults.
When abuse is commonplace, anyone can come to believe that abuse is natural.
When there are no other options, survivors often cope with abuse by enduring it.
If core relationship development as a child and young adult is based on abuse and shaming, survivors may eventually see these behaviors as natural.
However, domestic violence and abuse are not the survivor’s fault; they are always the abuser’s fault.
Here’s What You Can Do:
Refrain from passing along disempowering trans* stereotypes.
You ever think that trans* folks are so different that they may have difficulties sustaining relationships with others? This is a disempowering stereotype – because trans* people end up feeling like they are freaks, and thus, unlovable.
Conversation pieces like “Would you ever date a transman or transwoman?” seem harmless. However, the question is reminiscent of a “Would you rather?” game where the choices are implicitly undesirable. The question also implies that there are “real” men and women and then trans* men and women.
Yes, stereotypes are based on some truth. Because of prejudice on the part of some non-trans* people who will not date a trans* person, the pool of potential dates for trans* people may be smaller, but disempowering stereotypes perpetuate and exaggerate myths.
Disempowering trans* stereotypes connect one’s gender “realness” with the ability to be loved. These stereotypes tell survivors that they deserve less love and that they deserve abuse, because they are different.
Give affirmations that do not rely on physical appearances and the ability to pass.
Instead of complimenting a trans* person for their success in passing as a man or woman, focus on their other traits.
When we focus too much on someone’s gender presentation (i.e., chest size, muscles, facial hair, feminine or masculine voice, and so on), we run the risk of overvaluing gender indicators.
By focusing on gender presentation, we send the underlying message that a trans* person’s worth lies in the “correct” presentation of gender rather than being helpful, resilient, thoughtful, brave, and other really awesome personality traits!
2. Domestic violence against a trans* person can look a bit different.
Domestic violence and abuse are never just about yelling and hitting.
But for trans* survivors, abusers can engage in several specific isolation tactics to gain personal power.
For example, an abuser (this can be a close friend, family member, or partner) can purposefully out a trans* person. Outing a trans* person decreases the trans* person’s sense of safety and forces them to rely more on the abuser.
Abusers can also exert their power by stating that the trans* person is not a “real” man or woman. This micro-aggression may sound harmless, but it really labels the trans* person’s true gender identity as fraudulent.
By misusing pronouns or calling a trans* person “it,” an abuser disrespects the trans* person’s gender identity and objectifies the individual. Individuals are not the sum totals of their body parts. We are more than that!
Abusers can also exert their power by patrolling the trans* person’s gender presentation.
Some abusers hide transition materials such as binders, wigs, and hormones. This can lead to increased violence when they cannot pass.
Other abusers will control identification cards and papers as well as a trans* person’s access to money, making it difficult for them to leave.
Here’s What You Can Do:
Don’t let your friend become reclusive.
Some reclusiveness is normal in the beginning of a relationship when people are getting to know each other, but if your friend is spending significantly less and less time outside of the home, it may indicate domestic abuse.
Social isolation is a cyclical process. Isolation begets isolation. Reach out to your friend to let them know that they are respected and valued.
Remember that leaving an abusive relationship is not easy. Be someone that your friend can count on to listen and be supportive without telling them what to do.
Be careful of the language you and others use in regard to gender pronouns. Refrain from making sweeping generalizations about male and female bodies and behavior, recognizing that there is no one norm.
There is no right or wrong way to be.
If you catch anyone else using careless language, stand up for your friend. It’s not “just” a pronoun or “just” a joke. It’s someone’s identity.
3. Domestic abuse is about power and control, and trans* people can be abusers, too.
Domestic abuse occurs when one person uses power to coerce and restrict another individual. Thus, the abuser is whoever holds the power and uses it to gain control.
Often, trans* people will exhibit feelings of distrust in non-trans* people as they are transitioning.
Trans* people may assume that non-trans* folk do not understand them, won’t be open to dating them, and will abandon them.
Some trans* people will have their partners behave in a certain way to maintain safety by controlling whom their partner can invite into their home.
Some trans* people will use guilt to make their partners pay for their transition costs, citing cisgender privilege: “It’s tough for me as a trans* person, so you need to help fund my transition.”
NCTE reports that more than 40 percent of trans* people have attempted suicide. This can begin as a coping mechanism, but it can also be used as a way to gain power and control: “If you leave me, I will kill myself.”
Trans* people can be abusive in their own way.
Abusers do not always fit one image. Domestic abuse is about power.
Oftentimes, bullies used to be bullied themselves, and domestic abuse is a learned behavior used to gain power and control.
Here’s What You Can Do:
Don’t be fooled by myths around domestic violence and sexual assault.
There is no “typical” survivor. The domestic abuser is not always male. Domestic abuse is about power. Females can be abusers and males can be survivors. LGBTQIA+ couples are not immune to domestic violence. Do not assume that a trans* partner is the survivor of domestic violence.
Along the same lines, recognize that “violence against women” is a problematic phrase and concept. Do not pass along articles and statements that perpetuate the idea that violence is always against women.
Violence is not a women’s problem.
This lets female abusers off the hook and erases the possibility of male survivors.
4. It’s tough for trans* DV survivors to get help out there!
Trans* communities are tight-knit and small.
This is both good and bad for members of the trans* community. In a small community, trans* people can often rely on a comfortable level of support.
But in the case of domestic violence and abuse, this small community can have adverse effects.
When everyone knows everyone, trans* survivors may hesitate to open up to the group for fear of losing personal connections by disclosing such personal information about another member. Members of the small trans* community may feel forced to choose a side.
Sometimes instances of domestic violence may also be misunderstood as “high drama” as members struggle to separate abuse from “typical” relationship strife.
On a greater scale, some members of the trans* community may try to silence the survivor for fear that it will produce “bad PR” for the already stigmatized trans* community.
There may also be risks to leaving the abusive relationship.
Without the abuser’s support, the trans* individual may experience heightened violence on the streets. Without the proper identification, possibly controlled by the abuser, a trans* individual could experience heightened harassment. Trans* individuals may also stay in an abusive relationship when the abuser threatens to out them to an employer.
In addition, service providers are very often limited to two genders.
For instance, domestic violence shelters are often separated by men and women and may not accept trans* individuals.
When trans* survivors have incongruent ID, they also face obstacles in receiving services, such as medical care.
Here’s What You Can Do:
You don’t need to be an expert. Be resourceful and be there for support.
Check out FORGE’s safety planning tool for more on how to help a trans* survivor of domestic violence.
FORGE also offers monthly training webinars for those who work with transgender survivors of violence! Some are Trans 101 and others focus on specific topics like working with trans* people who are incarcerated or those who have disabilities. These webinars are free, and recordings are available here.
Navigating the gender binary terrain can be overwhelming.
Be there for your friend when they are talking to service providers to prevent embarrassing and uncomfortable confrontations. If your friend agrees, call ahead to explain the situation and insist upon the use of correct gender pronouns.
In the end, domestic violence is about power.
When one’s trans* identity challenges conventional gender definitions, its boundaries, and its performances, domestic violence survivors can often feel disempowered.
Having a say in their recovery process can be an immensely powerful and empowering experience for survivors. And with the right knowledge and tools, you can help facilitate that process.
This article was written in collaboration with Loree Cook-Daniels, the Program and Policy Director at FORGE. FORGE was founded in 1994 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to provide peer support primarily to those on the female-to-male (FTM) gender spectrum and local Significant Others, Friends, Family, and Allies (SOFFAs). Over the years, FORGE’s scope has grown to include everyone in the transgender community (which they define as including SOFFAs), and many of their programs have become national.
Loree has been a policy analyst and advocate for LGBT issues for more than 35 years, and began working on anti-violence issues in the 1980s. She holds degrees in Women’s Studies and Conflict Management, and a Certificate in Trauma Counseling. She currently provides training, technical assistance, and/or services to transgender sexual violence survivors and the professionals who serve them under grants from the U.S. Office of Victims of Crime and the U.S. Office of Violence Against Women. Find out more at www.forge-forward.org.
Amy Sun is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. She has worked with providing resources and support for Asian/Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas. She also holds her Masters in Women’s Studies from the George Washington University, where she has researched the coming out processes for trans* folks who identify as FTM and MTF.