Recently there’s been significant positive media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner, especially relating to the new E! TV show documenting her experiences in coming out as a transgender woman. Some people’s comments have ranged from ignorant to downright cruel, but much of the public has supported her.
It is great to see increased acceptance and support of transgender individuals within our society, but it’s important to remember that not every transgender person has the same experience. Even within the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals face specific barriers, especially those who are survivors of domestic violence.
Imagine that you have been mentally, physically, sexually or verbally abused by your partner. You decide that you want to leave your partner and you’ve heard of a local organization that helps women survivors of domestic violence. When you call them, you are so anxious and nervous that your abuser might discover you on the phone that you immediately blurt out everything that your abuser has done to you and what you fear they will do to you. As you stop to catch a breath, the hotline advocate lets you know that this is a battered women’s shelter and refers you to a local homeless shelter that men can access. You realize that they’ve assumed you’re a man based on the sound of your voice, so you say you are a woman. A long silence ensues.
You explain that you don’t feel safe at a homeless shelter. Your abuser might find you. The advocate responds by asking you a series of questions: What is your name? You answer. What is your real name? You repeat your previous answer. You explain that you are a trans-woman and that your wife has been abusing you for nearly your entire relationship. The advocate states that she is unsure of what you mean by transgender and asks whether you have had “the surgery,” how often you dress as a woman/man, what your sexual orientation is, and what your wife’s gender identity is.
You feel uncomfortable and humiliated, but you need a safe place away from your abuser, so you answer all the questions briefly. The shelter advocate says that unfortunately, the shelter is full. They hang up the phone, and you feel defeated, alone and hopeless. You muster up all you have left to call another women’s shelter and share your story of abuse again, only to be told that they don’t accept “male-bodied” clients.
Denying transgender individuals access to safe spaces endangers not only their physical well-being, but also their emotional and mental health. This treatment of transgender survivors of domestic violence is unacceptable and needs to stop.
But we can’t point fingers at other individuals without reflecting about how we, members of the LGBTQ community, also support and further transphobia. The recognition of violence within our community needs to start from within ourselves. We need to acknowledge the transphobia in our own conversations and actions. By acting as an example of what should be done, we can create an environment where everyone feels safe.
This means being aware of the language we use when talking with our friends, family, and co-workers. Asking all individuals, regardless of their outward appearance, what their preferred gender pronouns are. Being aware of the transphobic slurs we hear every day, ensuring that we are not using them ourselves, and calling out those who do if we feel safe doing so. Listening to the transgender community and working every day to be a better ally. Out of this awareness and understanding, a transgender-accepting culture will be created within our community.
Once the LGBTQ community truly supports our entire community, support will spread to the larger society. As acceptance and understanding grows, violence within and across communities will lessen and all survivors of violence will be able to fully access services.
Cayla DeChane is the programs associate/advocate at the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. KCAVP’s vision is to end all types of violence in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.