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“If we only speak of our oppression from the position of safety, we’ll be forever silent.” – from the zine Betrayal: a critical analysis of rape in anarchist subcultures
Yesterday, I had a panic attack. Although I am a trans woman who has been physically and verbally harassed multiple times for being who I am, I was not ready for it. Although I am a trans woman who has survived suicide attempts and considered killing myself many more times before, I could not handle this sudden wave of anxiety. Because despite all these problems I have had in my life, I have lived a relatively privileged existence. My periods of anxiety, fear and stress have either been within my control or directly resulting from a source outside of myself.
Never before have I had my own fear knock me down, literally making my knees buckle as I gasped for breath in between unsuccessful attempts to soothe myself by repeating, “They are not even in the same state, they are not even in the same state…” I am sure this is hard to imagine for people who have only known me as the gregarious, ditzy, carefree person that I regularly present myself as. It is probably even harder for the people who have seen me on stage in one of my various punk and metal bands or walking through the streets with a megaphone yelling about how Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the U.S. government. But now I’m showing y’all this part of myself: the damaged, vulnerable me.
The LGBTQI community, including the radical leftist community inside and outside of it, talks big shit when it comes to love and ending violence but very seldom confronts intimate partner violence. Although the word “abuse” has become synonymous with intimate partner abuse in a broader sense, you only need to search for “trans abuse” online or in a library to see that the standard narrative is that most, if not all, violence against trans* people comes from individual community outsiders, though sometimes there is a recognition of the hate being part of a larger social problem.
Even pieces written in an attempt to expose the problem, such as Kae Greenberg’s “Still Hidden in the Closet: Trans Women and Domestic Violence,” spend a significant amount of time going over how non-LGBTQI people harm trans* women. The idea of the normative trans woman—the heterosexual, white, skinny, shaved, dolled-up skirt-wearing femme—makes it hard to conceive of intimate partner violence coming from within the community. After all, why would a trans woman be getting intimate with anyone except for a straight man? Or rather, why would a cis lesbian be with someone who looks so straight? Greenberg’s use of the term “domestic violence”, as well as uses in similar reports, is very appropriate. It is difficult to apply domesticity to survivors and victims who are lesbian and queer (thus the increasing use of the term “intimate partner violence”), but the trope of the normative trans woman fits it. Furthermore, aside from her trans* status, she also fits the mainstream image of a domestic violence victim. And just as with cis women, the compounding factor of racism makes women of color more susceptible to being the targets of intimate partner violence (Toni Newman gives a stunning account of this here and in her memoir I Rise).
I burst through the door to the outside. It’s cold, especially since I took off my jacket to show off my Siouxie Sioux-esque outfit to the other attendees of the goth-themed party. A few people smoking cigarettes look over at me, the looks of confusion and curiosity written across their faces like a bolded, laminated and italicized warning to me to not say a word. Soon after, a friend opens the door behind me. “Hey I, um, followed you,” he says, awkwardness slowing down his normally brisk and cheery voice.
“I can’t believe this,” I say, “She’s following me around. When I try to talk to Edwin, she walks up to talk to him. When I try to get closer to the stage to listen to the band, all of a sudden she has to go over to that section. Can you please tell her to stop?”
He pauses in sour contemplation long enough for a person nearby to interject, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Is there someone predatory here?”
“No, no, she’s fine,” my friend says immediately, though just as quickly realizes his mistake and, stumbling, says, “I mean it’s not okay, you’re not okay, I’m sorry.”
Perhaps the Men’s Rights Advocates are to blame (I’d like to think this is true on a number of issues). Their hyperbolic presentations of the situations of male domestic violence victims (such as one guy who told me that 60% of domestic violence victims were men) often blame society for not perceiving women as being capable committing intimate partner violence. I would also like to think that trans women being read as men, even by those who try consciously not to, does not play into the denial—but it almost certainly does. I would like to think that the role that trans women are often regulated to in queer polyamorous relationships, so aptly described by Savannah Garmon, of being someone’s “thing on the side” does not play into the ability to minimize the nature of the violence—but it definitely could. BDSM, trans women with large bodies “being able to defend themselves,” and the old “well, why haven’t you called the police?” are all possible excuses for and dismissals of trans women’s experience of intimate partner violence.
I feel so lonely but can’t talk to anyone but myself. Have you ever been at that point? You forget what it feels like, what it feels like when you first were together. Her happiness is now difficult to view as anything except a prelude to anger; her romance only comes to haphazardly patch up the holes she has torn in your trust. Sound familiar? You look into her eyes when she says “I love you” and you only see every look of disgust, every cissexist and transphobic gaze. Why would you subject yourself to this? But it has so thoroughly become your life: you feel like you depend on her for everything. After all, she is the woman who has “been a woman for much longer than you have.” She tells you how to dress, how to eat, what to watch, what to read, who to hang out with, who to like, who to talk to, who to interact with online, how to spend your time. She has control, yet you both can feel it is precipitous. If you are not with her you must be with someone else: she tells you that you are in an open relationship but becomes enraged if you ever discuss attractions to others. She has no problems explaining to you how attracted she is to your best friend, though. She can’t help it, she is attracted to masculine people. She tells you that she was first attracted to you because you were, and are, manly; she tells you that she has supported you in every step of your transition and you have been selfish the whole time and only thinking of yourself. She hits you, but she was just drunk, she was just so angry, she was just joking. Why can’t you take it? Your needs are too much for her and her needs can never be met by you because you are inferior. You are an annoyance, a chore, a child: dirty, lazy, ugly, smelly, macho, stupid, slow.
In places like New York City, where I currently live, there are many resources for trans women and other queer and LGBTI people who have suffered intimate partner violence, most of them free and peer-conducted. And yes, legal recourse for a trans woman survivor against her attacker is near impossible (even with the help of a wonderful group like the Sylvia Rivera Project), but I generally distrust the state’s ability to liberate or protect us anyway, so it’s not discrimination I am particularly concerned with. What is really worrying is that we, the LGBTQI community, pretend that intimate partner violence is not an issue.
Maybe it’s karma.
I watch them arguing again. It’s my senior year of college in Virginia and I’m hanging out with my friends at a party. Roman and Gabriel, two of my best friends, are yet again fighting. He shoves her, she shoves him back; she giggles, but for a second I think I see fear in her eyes. Everyone looks at the ground or laughs nervously. Later I ask her if she’s okay and she gives me her characteristic big smile: “You know Roman, that’s how we kid around. Besides,” she winks at me, “You of all people should know how hot it is.” I try to smile back, but the effort only barely hides the grimace that surfaces as soon as she turns away. Sure enough, when she visits my partner and me many months later, she recounts to us how abusive the relationship had been and how it would take her awhile to ever trust anyone, to ever open up to anyone ever again. As soon as she leaves, my partner turns to me: “She acts like she’s such a victim when obviously there was abuse on both sides.” Awkwardly, I shrug my shoulders and look around the room. My partner doesn’t notice how uncomfortable she’s making me because she’s caught up in her own conjectures: “It’s like how we are sometimes.”
If you are or have been the victim of intimate partner violence, I want you to know that I believe you. I trust you and I know that you are unsure, confused, anxious and may be a bit of a mess, and I want you to know that that is okay. You are beautiful and worthy of love, protection and respect. I want you to look at the following list of resources and even if you can’t call or email them right now, maybe go to the website and read more or put the phone number in your contacts list. As trans women, it is not fair that we must so often be survivors not only of a transphobic, transmisogynist, cissexist society, but also survivors of intimate partner violence committed by those we trusted to help us exist amidst the oppression. But we are amazing for being able to do it, and we can change our communities to stop these types of violence from happening to more of us.
 See”Domestic Violence: A Resource for Trans People” by Barking and Dagenham
The Anti-Violence Project
Manhattan, NY (212) 714-1184
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish hotline: (212) 714-1141
Center for Anti-Violence Education
Brooklyn, NY (718) 788-1775
Self-defense classes, free for survivors and special programs for trans* youth
Oakland, CA and National
Child sexual abuse survivor advocacy
The Network la Red
Survivor-led advocacy group for trans inclusion in survivor programs and shelters
NYC Domestic Violence Hotline
24-hour Bilingual English/Spanish
(718) 964-7781 and (888) 215-7233
Free rides home in service area on Friday nights from 12 AM – 3 AM
Sanctuary for Families
Counseling for trans women survivors, especially immigrants and victims of sex trafficking
Intimate partner violence hotline: (800) 621-4673
Rape, sexual assault and incest survivor hotline: (212) 227-3000
Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program
Counseling for survivors of violence who practice the Jewish faith
Trans Pride Intiative
Advocates for making shelters more inclusive of trans women
About the author: Emma Caterine recently left Virginia to move to her dream city of Brooklyn, New York. She completed a B.A. in English and a B.A. in African-American Cultural Studies from the College of William & Mary. She has done work in the past with labor organizing, archival science, LGBTQI activism, radio and venue management and volunteer coordination. Emma brings her diverse set of experiences to Red Umbrella Project, a sex worker advocacy group, as a Program Officer and will be helping to coordinate RedUP’s advocacy for the “no condoms as evidence” bill S1379/A2736 as well as other legislation and policies which impact sex workers in New York. For more info on NCAE you can reach her at emma [at] redumbrellaproject [dot] org or for other questions, comments, or concerns at emmacaterine [at] gmail [dot] com.