Note: This blog first appeared on November 20th, 2017 on the Ms. Magazine blog site, and can be directly accessed there at:
Gender-based violence (GBV) is no abstraction.
GBV’s impacts are grievous, debilitating—and can be fatal. Women and girls are most often the victims of GBV, and by far the majority of perpetrators are men and boys. The fact that GBV is dramatically split along gender lines is disturbing—but for those of us who identify as feminist researchers, we feel fully committed to studying GBV, determining the most effective prevention practices and discerning the best ways to support victims.
We already know a great deal about the prevention of GBV and how to care for those affected. We just don’t know how to stop it. But opening up the conversation on trans-directed GBV may lead us to new and much-needed solutions.
The transgender community is largely synonymous with the experience of gender-based stigma, humiliation, bigotry, exclusion and violence—violence that is physical, situational and structural. Transgender persons are often the lightning rod for GBV—but why? As a transgender woman myself, it lies beyond my comprehension to understand how our personal claims to our authentic sense of identity serve to trigger such widespread extremes of violence. We’re simply being ourselves, and our authenticity brings little if any direct harm to anyone else.
My consciousness of GBV as it affects the transgender and gender non-conforming population is heightened at this time of the year. Around the world, November 20th is commemorated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). For those of us who are transgender, it’s a somber day of reflection and sorrow. Yet TDOR is also a day of solidarity, validation and sensitivity to context.
We know from the many stories shared within our community that those who are remembered today suffered not only a truncated, and frequently grisly, end to their lives, but that they experienced violence and exclusion on a daily basis, for years or even decades. That pervasive ostracization forms the backdrop—as well as the enabler—of so many incidents of acute, debilitating, tragic violence directed at the transgender community, also referred to as trans-directed GBV.
It’s not easy to talk about. By sharing GBV accounts through anecdotal narratives, we tend to elicit either puzzlement or pity. Those who are puzzled often simply can’t relate to such suffering. Those who express care and concern think of transgender people as sad, powerless and marginalized. “Marginal” isn’t a good place to be, and this simplified narrative leaves transgender persons with little hope for change.
Trans-directed GBV comes from a place of rejecting otherness and maintaining foundational gender norms within society. The gender binary, and the unassailable assignment of sex and gender at birth, are central planks in that platform. In so many ways and often with self-righteousness, society staunchly polices that most inflexible societal barrier.
Gender, sex and the panoply of associated gender roles drives a wedge into the heart of our humanity. At its most benign, that policing is a form of structural violence forcing transgender persons to confront ridicule and humiliation, assaults upon our dignity and the comprehensive loss of opportunity and choice in our lives. The doors to a meaningful and dignified life are closed to us, and in most countries, our authentic gender identity is officially repudiated. We become invisible—with no legal, economic, political or social recognition of the names and gender identity that we know ourselves to be.
For many of us, that bleak scenario is simply unbearable. Yet to deny our authentic gender identity would be more unbearable. Yes, the daily reality of living lives of exclusion, stigmatization, rejection and violence is bad—but not as bad as living a lie every day. For many of us, life in the wrong body is wrenching. We transition because we must. We feel a deeply-rooted compulsion to live life as ourselves, despite it all.
“Despite it all” is a heavy package. The anecdotal evidence backs this up, but there’s been very little support for establishing solid data. What happens to us really doesn’t have a measurable impact on the larger society. We’re few in number, estimated now to be just 0.6 per cent of the adult population in the U.S. Decision-makers will argue that there are more important issues towards which we should direct precious research dollars. It’s a common assertion, yet transgender persons offer singular insights into the meaning of gender that are relevant to people everywhere. Our “curious” status may offer an opening to learn more about the causes of GBV, as this affects both us and the cisgender population. Were we to be taken seriously, our sense of gender identity might even shed some light on the path to universal gender equity.
However, we’re rarely taken seriously, at least not in the sense of having our human dignity and worth respected. Arguably, the most reliable current source of data is the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of 2015, which included responses from nearly 28,000 persons above the age of 17 who identify as transgender within the U.S. That’s large for a survey—certainly the largest survey ever to capture the lived experiences of transgender persons.
The results of the USTS tells a powerful story of trans-directed violence, one of the deeply entrenched structural violence faced by the transgender community every day. The USTS notes that 14 percent of transgender respondents in 2015 were unemployed, and 29 percent were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent and 14 percent respectively within the larger U.S. population. The psychological impacts of encountering exclusion and stigma each and every day are harsh, with 39 percent of respondents, compared to just 5 percent of the U.S. population, saying that they experienced deep psychological distress.
The USTS bears witness to the reality that—over time—these levels of distress are unsustainable. 40 percent of respondents admitted to having attempted suicide in their lifetime. This rate is almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population—4.6 percent. The data from the USTS is even worse for transgender persons of color, with attempted suicide rates cited at an alarming 54 percent.
For transgender persons now, and for all those who stand in solidarity to commemorate TDOR each year, we must move forward. Research must be carried out with respect and should include transgender participants. And funding is vital as we aim to get to the roots of trans-directed GBV, moving us all towards solutions based in a greater understanding of diversity.
The precious notion of universal human dignity and human rights demand nothing less.
Chloe Schwenke is the Director of the Global Program for Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House and in the dual role of Senior Advisor on Human Rights at the Africa Bureau and Senior Advisor on LGBT issues globally at USAID during the Obama administration—becoming the first-ever openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs agencies. Chloe received her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park.