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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