Friday, 9 September 2016

Ending the Silence: Addressing Domestic Violence in the Trans/ Non-Binary/ Queer Community

This month I've been very fortunate through my Twitter trans activism to connect with a rather fabulous group of volunteers (Gender Free DV) who have something really valid and important to say about domestic violence within the LGBTQIA community: trans, non-binary, queer and gender-fluid people feel completely locked out when trying to access domestic violence support services and local charities because of their chosen gender status. This has been made worse with the closure of Broken Rainbow, a UK national LGBT domestic abuse charity that provided telephone support and online chat service for victims which recently went into liquidation. Sean, one of the amazing volunteers at Gender Free DV who has reached out to provide a way for trans/non-binary/queer domestic abuse victims and survivors to voice their concerns and fears regarding UK domestic abuse support provision recently told me the closure of Broken Rainbow has led to a crisis which they are trying to address at grassroots level by engaging with local police and NHS service providers to help LGBTQIA people to get over their physical and emotional scars and to try and prosecute their persecutors in court. Gender DV aims to get providers to see beyond gender differences to allow every victim of domestic violence to access the support they need in a non-judgemental, appropriate way.

Just think about this: if you are a middle aged trans woman who has been abused for years by a female partner/ wife before, during and after your transition process either through financial blackmailing, physical/sexual assault or even attempted murder, you will feel helpless, unable to speak out for fear of being ridiculed. A trans woman should feel that they have a place to turn to where you will be offered a sympathetic ear by passionate, caring advisors. We have to remember that trans women may not have a strong support network out of their partnership/marriage, so who else can they turn to who understands their plight and  can reassure them it isn't their fault that they had to suffer such horrendous abuse?

A common slur that's used to delegitimise trans women's domestic abuse stories in particular is that their right to choose to change their bodies to align with their expressed gender choice makes them rightly open to abuse: "they should never have transitioned...they were asking for it" or that "they should have left their wife prior to making the decision transition...she didn't deserve the grief". Such opinions are outdated, referring to a dual binary system based purely on the biological sex organs that you just happen to have been unlucky to have be born with. Nobody deserves to be punished for exercising their rights as enshrined under the Human Rights Act (1998) under Article 10 - Right to freedom of expression and Article 14- Protection from Discrimination as guaranteed under the
Equality Act (2010) protected characteristic of Gender Reassignment. How you choose to identify gender wise is your own affair. Unfortunately trans people who are married can still be subject to a "spousal veto"- i.e. a partner can choose to deny you the right to transition or even to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) unless you gain a divorce from them. Even worse you have to be unmarried to gain a GRC anyways. Partners can use this fact against trans husbands/wives to coerce them to stay within an abusive relationship.  You can read more about the history behind the "spousal veto" in Sarah Brown's blogpost here: http://www.sarahlizzy.com/blog/?p=154.

Identifying Key Statistics:

Gender DV's  blogpost Evidencing the need for diverse DVA provision (July 2016) highlights the disappointing fact that trans survivor statistics are "not accurately recorded because the incidents are aggregated with reports relating to sexual orientation" - i.e. the organisations involved in recording stats for UK police forces/ Crown Prosecution Service/Home Office push trans stats in with LGB stats which can lead to a level of distortion which precludes specific reasons for trans domestic abuse. Gender DV decided to quote qualitative research conducted by LGBT Youth Scotland and Equality Network (2010) that has been collated from a range of trans DVA survivors to try and show the extent of the issue. Here are a few stats from that report:
  • 80% of trans respondents stated that they had experienced emotionally, sexually or physically abusive behaviour by a partner or ex-partner.
  •  18% felt that the most recent domestic abuse they experienced was "just something that happened".
  • 51% felt that the most recent domestic abuse they experienced was "wrong but not a crime."
  • 73% experienced abusive behaviours from partners or ex-partners which specifically aimed to oppress or invalidate the trans person's gender identity, undermine their ability to transition or to influence their decision about coming out to others.
  • 60% experienced threatening behaviour of some description.
  • 25% experienced a partner threatening suicide or self harm.
  • 32% were threatened with violence.
With such startling figures about UK trans domestic abuse being revealed by just two qualitative research bodies, it shows that domestic violence campaigners need to understand more about the dynamics of trans and non-binary relationships to help victims become survivors. What's more we need to conduct updated research to see whether the Equality Act has helped to increase the number of trans abuse victims and survivors speaking out about their experiences or whether the situation has remained depressingly static. Charities such as Gender Free DV can help to collate and deliver such information to show an accurate picture of trans/non-binary experience of DV and perhaps even extend to other underrepresented groups.

Exploring The Current Findings:

Gender Free DV have identified that trans people who are queer/non-binary are particularly at risk of gender invalidation because of  mainstream societal attitudes towards gender. Not knowing which support services you can turn to when you go are trying to escape an abusive relationship when you are non-binary only increases feelings of insecurity. All DV campaigners and providers should be aware of modern gender identity theory and act with respect, dignity and compassion when supporting trans, non-binary, queer and gender-fluid survivors.

Equally if a person hasn't yet transitioned in public and has only been able to express their chosen identity preference with their partner because they validated them, they may find it hard to talk about the abuse they are suffering because they don't want to lose this level of validation. Pre-transition abuse victims therefore may not talk to others about their transgender status and not attempt to seek any help and support outside the relationship.

It's certainly true that some people decide to date and be with trans people to "satisfy their curiosity". This may include seeing whether they can exercise a level of control over a trans partner to coerce them into performing sex acts for their own pleasure which is against a trans person's will- e.g. by penetrating their mouths to force them to provide oral sex relief or to place their mouths on a trans woman's penis (prior to transition) to enact oral sex. They may say that "they're doing a trans person a favour" by educating them on how to perform sexually in their new gender" or that "they're lucky anyone wants to have sex with them". This deliberate shaming tactic makes it less likely a trans person will speak out about being forced into unwanted sexual behaviour and rape.

Acts of domestic abuse can also stall a trans person's transition process; being bruised/full of cuts prior to meeting a GP for baseline tests may stop trans people from being referred to a Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) because the GP may suspect self-harm and an instable state of mind as opposed to evidence of domestic abuse by a partner. Equally victims reporting domestic abuse openly may lead to advisors/GPs/clinicians arguing they are not in the "right frame of mind" to continue transitioning until they have recovered from the abuse they suffered. Sometimes the worst thing that can be done to a trans person who has survived domestic violence is to tell them they cannot continue using the hormones/attending the GIC they attended whilst in the relationship. It may make them ask "what reporting the abuse was all for" if it prevents them trying to identify fully with their chosen gender or non-gender .

What is most important for trans victims of domestic violence to understand is that it is a genderless crime, even under the UK definition of DV:“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 and over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: – psychological – physical – sexual – financial – and emotional.” Coercive or controlling behaviour is now punishable as an offence (December 2015) which can be committed by anyone, regardless of gender or sexuality and carries a maximum sentence of 5 years if found guilty. Any victim who experiences serious psychological and emotional abuse which falls short of physical abuse can now bring a case against their partner for this offence. Trans, non-binary and queer domestic abuse victims should be made aware of this change in the law.

How the LGBTQIA can help reduce trans/non-binary/gender-fluid/queer DV:

LGBTQIA people need to understand that:
  • "Outing" is a form of control- trans people may get threatened with being "outed" to their family/friends/colleagues/online before they are ready to reveal that they are changing their gender. The partner/ex partner may use the fact that the LGBTQIA community is relatively "close-knit" and propagate a sense of a lack of support for trans people outside the community to keep the trans person fearful of being "exposed".
  • Same sex financial blackmailing, sexual or physical assault within the home is domestic violence and can be reported to local police in the same way as heterosexual domestic violence.
  • It is essential to know how to respond if they believe a LGBTQIA friend is being abused by a partner and to try and spot warning signs of this- e.g. if their friend is eager to hide bruises/make excuses for cuts/emotional mood.
  • Don't encourage trans domestic abuse victims to stay "longer" in an abusive relationship in the vain hope their partner's behaviour will change as they continue through their transition process. Support them to leave by offering them a place or stay, reporting the abuse to the police ASAP and getting them in touch with a local DV charity or Genderfree DV who would be more than happy to help. You can find out more about the charity and their work here: https://genderfreedv.wordpress.com/ and contact them via Twitter here https://twitter.com/genderfreeDV