Serving Transgender Populations
Program Coordinator (Underserved Populations and Training)
A silent epidemic
When Vanity Fair released their July 2015 cover, the public was blown away. There gracing the cover was Caitlyn Jenner. Many of us grew up with Caitlyn as the male-identified gold medal winner of the 1976 Olympics, Bruce Jenner. Assigned male at birth, Caitlyn powerfully declares on the cover “Call Me Caitlyn” and introduces the world to her experience as a transgender woman. As portrayals of transgender individuals are becoming more common, the American public is starting a dialogue that was unheard of 50 years ago. However positive this apparent acceptance is (and I am not belittling the magnitude of Caitlyn Jenner’s declaration and the good that will come of it), the media is still missing the point. By focusing on transitioning as the paramount experience of a transgender individual's life, the media erases the reality of violence that so often shapes the transgender community. We clamor for transgender celebrities smiling on the newsstands, yet turn our backs to our trans sisters dying in the streets.
Within the first seven weeks of 2015, seven transgender women and gender non-conforming individuals were murdered across the county. Six of the victims were women of color, and at least three were murdered during acts of domestic violence: B. Golec
, 22, was brutally stabbed by their father; Ty Underwood
, 24, was shot by a previous partner; and Yazmin Vash Payne
, 33, was stabbed by her boyfriend and left in their burning Los Angeles apartment. Kristina Gomez Reinwald
, 46, Penny Proud
, 21, and Lamia Beard
, 30, were all shot by an unknown assailant. Taja Gabrielle de Jesus
, 36, was stabbed by an alleged attacker who then committed suicide. These murders were not classified as hate crimes. Due to mis-gendering by the media and law enforcement, the number of murdered transgender women may be much larger than accounted for. The national media very rarely covers violence against transgender people; moreover, the news coverage that does exist frequently favors portrayals of white transgender victims and focuses on archetypal tropes and curiosity over trans bodies. This sensationalizing and dehumanizing coverage glosses over the real issues transgender and gender non-conforming individuals face daily.
In its 2012 report on hate violence, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) found:
73.1% of all homicide victims in 2012 were people of color, with LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color representing 53% of total survivors and victims.
50% of total victims were transgender, all of whom identified as transgender women.
Sexual assault and/or genital mutilation before or after the murders of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are a frequent occurrence.
Another study found that an estimated 50% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.
Responding to Transgender Survivors of Sexual Violence
Statistics like these highlight the ongoing systematic violence against the transgender community. Despite alarming data, there is a long standing myth that sexual violence is an issue that only affects heterosexual and/or cis-gender individuals. Transgender experiences of sexual trauma are often minimized, not labeled as such, or sensationalized. Incidents of transphobic treatment by the police and at hospitals and rape crisis centers further traumatize the community. Because many areas lack LGBTQ services, these traumas frequently go unremedied and unadressed. While shelters appear to be increasingly responsive to the needs of cis-gendered lesbian survivors, cis-gendered gay male survivors and transgender victims still face many barriers. As advocates we have a duty to all survivors to address gaps within services and better our knowledge of victimization models specific to underserved populations.
In order to serve all survivors, we must examine our own privilege. Privilege is any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and based on actual or perceived traits. Privilege creates its corresponding oppression, and then creates a cycle; cis-gender
privilege produces transphobia, and transphobia feeds back into cis-gender privilege. Recognizing our own privilege, is not about feeling guilty about our “social sins” or about denying our part in oppression, but about becoming more aware of the nuanced experiences of an underserved, marginalized population. In addition to their gender identity, each client also has a unique experience of racial heritage, education, socioeconomic status, and many other experiences that shape them as individuals. An advocate cannot merely rely on transgender and gender non-conforming survivors to educate them on issues affecting their community. Providing all staff with information, education, and diversity training related to LGBTQ populations is of utmost importance.
When serving transgender survivors, it is important to listen attentively and avoid making assumptions. Mirroring the language of the person you are serving, using the survivor’s chosen pronouns and name in language and on forms, is one of the easiest ways to show respect and gain trust from a client. When working with transgender and gender non-conforming survivors, it is also especially important to “know and tell why” questions are being asked. Ask yourself, “Why do I/we want this information?” Knowing why information is needed both prevents unnecessary or inappropriate inquiries and also helps providers to explain their reasons for asking. Telling clients why you are asking a question helps build rapport with survivors whose previous experience may make them particularly wary of potentially inappropriate or invasive questions. Ultimately, “Know and tell why” gives survivors a sense of control over what is happening to them.
Yes, the hashtag #CallMeCaitlyn is trending on twitter--but what does this mean for the well-being of the community at large? When we as a culture fail to grasp the painful realities of trans lives in America, we continue to exclude and invalidate the trans experience. There is a clear necessity for LGBTQ inclusive survivor-centered care. By deepening our commitment to best serve the trans community, we can begin to craft resources that best address obstacles and challenges faced by survivors. As advocates it is our responsibility to listen and learn from the statistical data, flawed media coverage, and personal experience that we have gained. Rather than turning our backs, we must turn towards the transgender community with outstretched arms and altruistic intentions.
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2012,” 2013.
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, “Hate Violence Against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Communities in the United States in 2009”, 2010.
Stotzer, “Violence Against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data,” 2009.
individuals whose gender identity aligns with their assigned gender at birth
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Frontline.