Despite many strides, ours is still not a society that supports and rewards individuals who violate gender norms. Little boys are still kept in line with phrases like, “Don’t be a sissy.” Little girls and particularly older girls face fierce disapproval if they behave or dress too “boyishly.” This early punishment for simply expressing gender identity leaves many scars, but the experiences that lead trans domestic violence survivors to believe that it’s normal for “people like me” to live with abuse only increase in magnitude as the trans survivor matures. Many of the barriers trans survivors face when trying to free themselves of domestic abuse are similar to those faced by all survivors: self-doubt, a belief that the known abuse is better than potential future unknown abuse, worry about the children and worry about finances. But because they have had to struggle to find pride in bodies and lives society labels “wrong” and because discrimination against them is so strong, trans survivors have many more hurdles to leap.
Statistical research for violence towards the transgendered population is still in its infancy. The preliminary data of transgendered and intersexed individuals gathered by the Gender, Violence and Resource Access Survey found that 50% of respondents had been raped or assaulted by a romantic partner (Courvant and Cook-Daniels, 1998). A 2004 study (N=265) was conducted by FORGE, which launched the Transgender Sexual Violence Project (TSVP) to begin bringing resources and hope for healing to the transgender community and the professionals who serve them. Their study found similar numbers, and their results showed that among those surveyed, 1 in 2 trans individuals has experienced sexual violence.
How is DV different in queer and transgendered communities?
In a community that is already oppressed with homophobia/transphobia, DV can be something that goes unspoken about, in an effort not to draw more negative images or views to a community fighting for equality and recognition. However, domestic violence happens in all types of relationships: men hit women; women hit men; men belittle their FTM partners; FTM’s emotionally castrate the men they are with. DV has been conceptualized from such a binary gender construct that the lines of what does and does not constitute abuse can become unclear or blurred in relationships where one or both partners are not cisgendered.
Consider the following scenarios. When Sally attempts to have sex with her partner Steve, a pre-op FTM, is it violence if she inserts her fingers in his vagina (especially if Steve has talked about not wanting to use his vagina in this way)? When Jim and Todd, both FTM’s who have had top-surgery, are drinking, Todd gets very jealous of Jim and hides his “package” before they go out to the bars. Is this emotional abuse, and therefore DV? Jeremy has decided that he is FTM, but still hasn’t begun to use hormones. His partner, Sue, tells her sister that Jeremy is “on the rag” when Jeremy is menstruating. Is that a form of emotional abuse?
Rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters are unprepared to address the issues of transgendered people. The gender segregation of survivor services can also present as problematic for trans individuals. Virtually all trans survivors go through a significant period when they are in legal or medical transition. Some intersex survivors have a unique body that prevents identification with either a male or a female gender. Some trans individuals have a gender identity and gender expression that is neither male nor female, but mixes elements of both. For all of these people, turning to a gender-segregated service agency may be inconceivable. Medical personnel respond with judgment and have been known to withhold care to people they perceive to be cross-dressing. The criminal justice and the legal systems often re-traumatize victims. The complexity of issues facing the transgendered person who is sexual assaulted can only be addressed by broad changes in the delivery system and extensive education regarding the needs of this community.
Barriers Specific to MTF IndividualsAn MTF child whose parents are disturbed by the child’s femininity may glorify violence or minimize the child’s trauma from any peer violence in an attempt to encourage behavior deemed masculine. As an adult survivor, this may be translated into feelings of guilt for not fighting back in violent situations, reinforcing the common perspective of survivors that they are responsible for their own abuse. The vast majority of resources for survivors of domestic violence targets women. While this benefits the few MTF individuals who have completed medical, legal and social transitions, it typically excludes the majority. Unfortunately, the few who do have resources nominally available often find themselves feared as invaders if they attempt to access women-based services. Some MTF survivors may refuse to seek shelter or assistance from women-centered agencies out of a respect for the fears or discomfort of non-trans female survivors. Others may avoid seeking help from those agencies out of low self-esteem or feelings that others will not perceive them as “real” women. Lastly, MTF survivors battered by women often fear that their stories will not be believed.
Barriers Specific to FTM IndividualsBecause their gender identity (and probably also their gender expression) is male, FTM individuals cannot be served by agencies that only serve women. An FTM survivor may hesitate to access services for men out of fear that the other survivors may discover his trans status and ridicule him or worse. Many FTMs lived within the lesbian community prior to their transition, and oftentimes their partners still identity as lesbian and keep ties to that community. Since lesbian communities are often tightly-interwoven and heavily involved in anti-domestic violence work, an FTM battered by a female partner may well fear that if he seeks help the battery may become public, he will not be believed and/or advocates and community members will side with his partner’s version of events.
Defining ResponsibilitiesBecause trans individuals are victims of abuse, and because our society is complicit in creating conditions which perpetuate this abuse, those who have dedicated themselves to helping survivors of domestic violence must include trans survivors as a part of that mission. Every community should have a visible place to which survivors may turn, regardless of trans status. It is important not to revictimize trans survivors, in the same way that it is important to not revictimize any survivor of DV. At minimum, every staff member and volunteer who works with survivors must be made aware that trans survivors exist and that the agency is committed to working on their behalf. This is the first step in ensuring that the cardinal rule of domestic violence assistance is implemented for trans survivors: welcome them, and believe their stories.
Courvant, D. & Cook-Daniels, L. (2000-2003). Trans and intersex survivors of domestic violence: Defining terms, barriers, and responsibilities. Retrieved July 21, 2009 from http://www.survivorproject.org/defbarresp.html.
Ginny, R. B. (2006). An Introduction to SGO. Retrieved July 21, 2009 from http://www.kreativekorp.com/miscpages/gender/SGO.pdf .
Jentzen, Rich. (1999). [Electronic version]. Domestic violence within our community. FORGE Newsletter, 4(10), 5. (Found here: http://my.execpc.com/%7Edmmunson/Nov99_1.htm)
Lev, A.I. & Lev, S.S. (1999). Sexual assault in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities. In J.C. McClennen and J. Gunther (Eds.), A professional guide to understanding gay and lesbian domestic violence: Understanding practical interventions. Retrieved July 21, 2009 from http://my.execpc.com/%7Edmmunson/Nov99_7.htm.
- There are a bunch more great resources and reading materials concerning LGBTQ issues of DV here.
- Please check out the Power and Control Wheel for LGBTQ relationships. It’s almost the same as the heterosexual one, except for the added heterosexism and homo/bi/transphobia that is added to the outside of the wheel, indicating of the internalized homophobia and heterosexism that many LGBTQ individuals deal with, as well as the frustrations of living daily in a society in which they are shunned.
- And lastly, I just received my copy of Unfinished: A GLBT Domestic Violence Workbook in the mail yesterday. While it is far from perfect, I’m glad that I found it. There are some chapters that specifically address DV and LGBTQ issues concurrently, and we have NO other resources at my site beyond the Power and Control Wheel that I linked to previously. It needs a lot of work, but it’s the first edition of the book, and was just published in March of this year. It’s the first book of it’s kind, and I’m glad to own it.