Imagining a Better World For Trans Women Survivors Of Domestic Violence

I remember when I first met him I thought he was the most charming person I had ever met. I was wearing high top converse sneakers with those voluminous pants from Hot Topic. He was wearing a blue hoodie and worn jeans. He couldn’t look at me for the first 30 minutes of our first date. He was the perfect combination of shy and outgoing. He was so beautiful that a part of me wondered why he was even interested. I was too fat and too brown to be considered attractive and yet here was this person who was charming and funny and beautiful who wanted to be with me.

At the time, I was so lonely that I didn’t see the warning signs. The possessiveness. The way that he demanded I pick up my phone by the second ring. Feeling like I was walking on egg shells because I never knew what I would say that would set him off into a rage. The way he tried to isolate me from my friends because if I loved him, I would only spend time with him. The periods of tranquility where I would worry when the next outburst would be.

He never hit me. But he didn’t have to. I was under his control and I convinced myself that it wasn’t the case. I told myself that he did all of this because he loved me. Even though at the same time, he would go days without speaking to me because of some triviality and I would agonize, wondering what I could do to be better. Because it was always my fault.

It’s been 7 years since that relationship ended and it still impacts my relationships today. I find myself hiding parts of myself from the people that I love because I am afraid that if I reveal too much, they will use it against me like he did. I find myself constantly vigilant for those patterns of behavior even when I know that they are not there. I still struggle with the fear that if I express how I am feeling, that the whole relationship will fall apart.

The reach of intimate partner violence in my life still amazes me. Emotional violence in relationships leaves scars that are deep and knotted. It has taken years and lots of love, both self-love and love from others, in order to ease out the tension that ties up my body. But being a survivor has shown me how resilient I can be because I am still alive. I can take the shit that the world has thrown at me and turn it into a garden.

Now, I work as a hotline advocate for survivors of domestic violence. It is a hard job. On an average day, I will take around 30 calls and each call presents its own unique challenges and victories. I speak to callers in various stages of their escape of domestic violence, from the person who doesn’t even know they are being abused to the person who has been out of the relationship for 20 years. I often find myself at the end of the week all compassioned out.

I hear stories that are often much more lethal than my own — but I also wonder who I am not hearing from. More often than not, my callers are cis women in relationships with men. They come from different class backgrounds and while most of them are white, I do serve many women of color. Who I don’t hear from, however, are other trans women. There are many reasons for this but what I want to discuss here is the theoretical framing of domestic violence and how it excludes trans women.

We know that domestic violence happens in queer relationships at about the same rate that they occur in straight relationships. And while there hasn’t been any research yet about domestic violence and trans people, it seems like a logical step to think that the same holds true for us. But even without the research, I know that trans women are vulnerable to tremendous amount of violence.

Trans women of color are most often murdered by men that they had been intimate with. Whether this intimacy was transactional in nature or not doesn’t matter. Even perceived potential for intimacy with a trans woman of color is enough to get us killed. Behind closed doors or out on the streets, men who ostensibly desire us are murdering trans women of color. Brandy Martell was murdered in her car after someone approached her. Islan Nettles was beat on the street after being harassed by a group of men. Lorena Escalera’s apartment was burned to the ground with her inside it after men she was intimate with left her home.

The fact is violence against trans women of color is sexual and gender based violence. The murder of trans women of color who are sex workers, and the street/sexual harassment that we experience, are the everyday manifestations of a colonial project to police our existence. These acts of aggression, of course, are not actually about sexual desire. They are about power and control and the entitlement that men feel they have over trans women’s bodies.

But nobody seems to be talking about this. Trans women are erased from the narrative around domestic violence and even in the spaces where our deaths are discussed, namely TDOR, there is no discussion about intimate partner violence. The fact that trans women of color are usually only there after we’ve died is also a problem because we are only talking about it after there is nothing we can do about it. And if folks are only willing to talk about us after we have been killed, then what does that say about our communities and the nature of violence? Is violence just assaulting them physically, emotionally, sexually? Or is it also allowing it to happen in the first place? Being complicit in the system is just as violent as being the one who actually fires the gun.

So if the anti-violence movement isn’t even recognizing violence against trans women as sexual or gender based violence, why would trans women reach out for services from domestic violence agencies? Not only that, but trans women are often barred from accessing those services when they do reach out. From understanding the language that should be used to refer to us to having policies and practices in place to accommodate us to even knowing how to safety plan with us, domestic violence agencies are often ill equipped to meet out needs. And that’s even if they don’t flat out refuse to serve them because they perceive trans women as men. Cissexism and trans misogyny present significant barriers to services.

There are some organizations that are working towards including trans women, such as Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, but progress is slow. It is not enough to have us in your mission statement. We need to center our analysis on the experiences of trans women of color, particularly black trans women.

So what can we do about this? The responses are, of course, going to be different for every community, but the first step is to talk about what is going on. We need to begin by shedding light on the violence that is happening in our communities. We need to have spaces for trans women of color to share our experiences with each other and organize for ourselves. And as we come together as communities, we can begin to address the systemic reasons for violence. We can start forming autonomous communities where we support each other and keep each other safe. The state is not here to protect us because it is predicated on our annihilation. So we need to think of alternative models to create change that don’t rely on the police or the state.

As I continue to deepen my understanding of how we are marginalized, I see more and more that it is all connected. The fact that trans women are being murdered is connected to police brutality is connected to the state stealing land to the fact that corporations are gobbling up the worlds resources. Being a survivor has taught me that resiliency is in the marrow of my bones and with it I can imagine a better world.

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Morgan Collado

Morgan is a working class femme trans woman of color of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. She works in Austin as a poet, performance artist, community organizer and family builder, focusing on the uses of poetry, performance and brunch to create better spaces for marginalized people. She has been organizing for 8 years in various areas including environmental justice, racial justice, anti-violence and trans justice. Her work as an artist and performer is heavily influenced by her own political experience and the experience of her community. She believes the revolution is not some distant day in the future but is right now by living, loving and thriving.

Morgan has written 3 articles for us.


  1. Do any trans survivors of intimate partner violence have any thoughts that they’d be willing to share on the various NCAVP programs, like the Anti-Violence Project in NYC, the Fenway VRP in Boston, Wingspan in Tuscon, CUAV in San Francisco, etc, which are meant to serve LGBTQ and HIV+ people who are experiencing or have experienced violence? I ask because I volunteer as a rape crisis counselor, which often means talking to people living with intimate partner violence, and I don’t want to refer trans folks to programs that aren’t helpful for them.

    • I went to AVP and they were awesome, especially about never presenting like they had any doubts about happened (when your abuser is a cis woman, it makes things even more complicated).

  2. Another common issue trans women deal with when interacting with cis guys is how much shame those men feel at even being attracted to or sexualizing us. The feelings are so intense they need to eradicate us from their histories and this is so often when anti-trans violence occurs. The inane trope of “he didn’t know he was having attraction, sex or intimacy with a trans woman” completely masks the reality of the situation… so often transphobic violence happens with men who are turned on by these encounters initially (fully knowing the situation) and then freaked out by them after the fact. And yes, control is a huge part of those men’s obsession with trans women… they want us because they think we’re ashamed of ourselves (they way they are) and want to use that shame to gain power over us… a power they don’t feel over cis women (well, maybe not to the same extent). Thank you for this excellent article. There are way too many anti-violence groups which purposely refuse to even consider the issues trans women face as women’s issues.

    • Excellent point Gina on how society’s shaming of a cis man’s trans woman attraction goes hand in hand with the intimate partner ‘trans panic’ violence. It really is an ugly self-perpetuating cycle and MUST be brought more to the forefront of this particular conversation.

    • Do you REALLY think it’s ‘cis guys’ not ‘people’? I beg to differ. I have been repeatedly approached confidentially with an intent to make me see the light – in queer (and this time i’m not even using ‘queer’ as a substitute for LGBT+ but narrowly-subculturally) spaces no less. and various other contexts.

      I am not exaggerating, five or so years ago i turn up to an event with then-leader of a certain London transsexual-themed gathering – like lovely woman, a gayer and a cutie – half-Asian with adorable naturally curly hair and just the right amount of flesh on her bones (no i’m not sexually objectifying, at least not solely so – the point in physical detail is i want you to imagine her, not a stereotype). We weren’t gfs or anything it’s just her path towards realisation she’s gay put us in contact and on friendly terms (and maybe a bit of ‘what if’ on my part but she was in a relationship already). We’re dancing, like, and i go to get another beer and this guy turns up and asks me why do i ‘hang out with that freak’ and why not go with him instead. he says ‘you belong here’ implying she doesn’t. I, younger and not with purposefully deadened emotional responses and not yet wielding a poker queen’s composure the same way you do when loitering with a clipboard, am like insecure and whispery like, ‘but me?’ ‘You’re one of us (as in DFAB) that’s different’ I’m like looking at the girl, cute, statuesque and all – and then at him, thinking maybe now he will ask me for elven waybread or a lock of my hair and yes that’s a condescending and generally malicious under-the-belt high fantasy reference which makes me a bad person and the likes of which i generally don’t use but i’m still angry at him after all these years so there.

      WTF, really? Really really?

      Anyway, point is, this is how it happens to a gay woman, i don’t have to be a cis guy to get that. And i would imagine that if i wasn’t an undersocialised complete nerd, groupthink would kick in and i would either start caving in to peer pressure – or would start considering my being with a trans partner a favour or a sacrifice – which is acting on power imbalance and just about as wide a gateway for various forms of abuse as i can imagine.

      • @Serena I hear you.

        That said, I’d say queer/trans* (read: lesbian) circles have a lot less trans misogyny than cis male circles, namely because they have a lot less misogyny period.

        There’s no overstating just how toxic cis male circles are in terms of putting down femininity. For them, faggotry is a contagious disease, and trans women are the ultimate carriers. Just being seen with a trans woman means, socially, that you’re infected. I’ve seen an openly bisexual man try to hide his relationship with a trans woman out of fear of social stigma. This is a person who openly dated men.

        • I’m not so sure there’s less trans misogyny in queer women’s circles, but it isn’t wrapped in shame-manifesting-in-violence the way so many cis male/trans women relationships have been. Nor is it powered by huge porn-based fantasies the way a lot of cis guy’s imagery/fascination with trans women is. According to the only extensive study of Internet sex sites, porn featuring trans women is the fourth most visited type of any genre of porn on the Internet, yet I dare say the vast majority of cis straight men would vehemently deny any connection or interest towards it.

        • I’m sadly compelled to push back on the idea that queer women’s circles have less transmisogyny. If memory serves, the very term transmisogyny was devised to refer to the misogynistic roots of transphobic hatred endemic in many women’s communities. (Such as that forest jamboree up yonder let’s call Anti-Camp.)

          I have been the recipient of explicitly transmisogynistic sexualized violence of a deeply scarring and lasting caliber. And on both counts was that violence meted out against me by cis women of our rainbow tribe. They were blithely convinced that trans women are intrinsically objects, inhuman, ready to demean or use as they please. They convinced me of it, too.

          I emphatically recognize the implicit danger of hetcis men to “women like us”. The ~250 names at TDoR this year testify to that loudly enough. Yet I wonder if that’s merely a statistical predominance.

          My opinion may be skewed by sampling bias. But it’s clear to me at least that transmisogyny is nearly an absolute, a cultural universal. I’d surmise that the violence it incurs is as widespread amongst les/bi/queer cis women as hetcis men. Maybe moreso, because RadFems made it such a fad to hate teh tranz for the last 40 years. But obviously I have no study to prove that supposition. Call it a subjective impression: With a few exceptions, les/bi women’s circles are manifestly unsafe for trans women.

        • another lesbian trans woman here disagreeing with the idea that there’s less transmisogyny in queer/trans spaces than in the cishet culture.

          i’ve actually experienced about half of the violence, invalidation, and blanket erasure of my issues in my life in queer spaces, which is impressive given that i’ve been an escort with the vast majority of my clients being cis straight dudes since i was 15 (though i only presented part-time as female until i was 21 and started transition).

          it always hurts the most coming from the queer world, too. probably because it’s where i always wanted to belong. it’s all a painful reminder that my physical appearance, and failing that, the mere disclosure of my assigned sex, will always leave me a qualified member of this community, if a member at all, in the eyes of most.

          even with good lip service, a lot of the exclusion and microaggressions are crystal clear to me. just figured i’d say that.

        • i guess we have the expert judgement now: the trans women dealing with this on everyday basis themselves. Could i argue with them (if i leaned towards disagreement, which i don’t). It is a matter of Everyone. Across. The. Board. and it cannot be blamed on cishet folks alone or even ‘mostly’.

          And sadly while i do envision half of cishet society getting it, with some engineering and foot stomping by govt (who btw aren’t happy to have dead bodies as decorations and lynch crowds running around, it upsets their dinner atmosphere) – with queer community i think it would require a conscious change of course and renouncing of ideological fundaments. Actually it’s the difference between someone attempting to kill an ‘unclean’ (trans …or ‘slutty’ for that matter, it works pretty much the same with sex workers – which i have had to be for a while in my youth) woman out of sense of power and impunity, peer pressure, self-hate and fear of shaming – and someone attempting to engineer systemic rejection and denial of means to live, legal, medical, employment, housing etc. Cishet bro culture for all it’s shallowness and bigotry does not write appeals to UN.

        • Since the OP’s essay was about domestic violence (and not just generalized transmisogyny), I’m going to stick by my statement that cis men, by far, are responsible for the largest portion of violence (and of course, virtually all murder) against trans women. No one was suggesting there isn’t transmisogyny, emotional abuse and even violence in queer communities (here’s a classic example perpetrated by a trans man: but that shouldn’t take the focus away from where the murders and where the vast majority of physical abuse are coming from… and that it’s overwhelmingly trans women who are intimately involved with cis men who experience it (and that doesn’t excuse trans women who’ve been responsible for domestic violence, either, because they exist too). Yes, women and queer people rape and assault too (and this being ignored is one of the most odious aspects of WBW assumptions) but saying “everyone does it” makes the group which sits at the core of the issue all the less culpable and I don’t feel that especially helps coming to grips with the realities the issue.

        • To which i can of course line up two ex-lovers lovers (Voltaire reference, intentionally and self-ironically – and no i don’t mean the philosopher, the band rather) and a FWB’s ex-lover. Totalling all three trans women i have been involved with – and i wouldn’t be involved with straight ones. Like, ouch. Seen Piano Teacher (2001)? If yes, you now know them all. If that’s not domestic abuse, what is?

  3. Thanks for this article. And thank you for your work being there at the other end of that phone. I hope your presence helps alleviate the cissexism endemic to women’s services.

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