Transgender people face structural and social discrimination that increase their chances of experiencing domestic and family violence. Intimate partner violence against transgender people is underreported, under researched and not well understood.
What we do know is that rigid gender norms, transphobia, and hetero-cis-normativity put transgender people at increased risk of abuse in their relationships. This is particularly the case for trans women who have relationships with cisgender men. We recently spoke with Starlady, Program Manager at Zoe Belle Gender Collective, about how her current prevention project is attempting to create greater awareness and change.
Can you tell us about your transgender advocacy work and about the current project you are working on?
Starlady: Social justice advocacy and activism have been my life’s mission. My transgender advocacy is an extension of that. As someone who identifies as trans, this work is deeply important to me. There is still so much stigma and a lack of understanding about being trans in the community, and our community is suffering. The Transgender Family Violence Primary Prevention Project that I’m currently working on is attempting to address that. One of its aims is to increase the family violence sector’s understanding of the drivers and issues impacting the relationships between trans women and cisgender men. We will be drawing upon interviews with trans women and cis men to create a website to support both of them. There will also be some focus on the importance of supportive families in addressing trans shame and stigma.
How do rigid gender and sexual norms impact on trans women’s experience of relationships?
Starlady: Trans women can have issues with their partners controlling how they look, how they sound, and what they do with their bodies. There is often of pressure on them to look hyper feminine for example. Some trans women may be coerced or pressured into taking hormones or having feminisation surgery. It vital that the partners of trans women are supportive of their gender autonomy, to ensure that they feel supported and affirmed with their individual choices in regards to their social, legal and/or medical affirmation.
Whilst many trans women and their cis male partners identify as heterosexual, their relationships are often seen as homosexual and invalidated or seen as inferior. We can misgender trans people through proscribing them sexual identities that do not match their gender identity. In doing so we may also stigmatise their cis male partners who often have internalised fears of being labelled homosexual. Families of cis men can place pressure on them to marry or date cis women who can have biological children, all to the detriment of their relationships with trans women. There appears to be direct links between transphobic beliefs and actions of the families of cis men and increased risk of violence being enacted towards trans women from their partner.
What have you found talking to trans women about their experiences of relationships with cis men?
Starlady: Firstly, we need to acknowledge the real and ongoing impacts of trans misogyny on trans women. That the intersection of transphobia and misogyny exacerbate the risk of trans women experiencing intimate partner violence and increases the barriers to access to services for support.
To understand trans women’s experiences of relationships we need to be aware that they are an incredibly diverse community. People don’t fully understand that. For example, not all trans women want to transition medically or they may not have access to surgeries such as facial feminisation. Being feminine also means different things to different people.
Experiences of trans misogyny can differ depending upon what medical interventions they’ve had or not had, and whether they pass [as a cisgender woman] or are read as trans.
Due to stigma and discrimination many trans women find it difficult to enter a relationship and, when they do, they often feel less deserving and feel they may have no other options except to accept bad behaviour because they think ‘at least I have a relationship, at least I feel loved’.
How does transphobia and trans misogyny increase the risk of intimate partner violence?
Starlady: It’s more difficult for trans women to access relationships because of transphobia. There’s so much pressure on those relationships from society that they’re more likely to break down. Trans women have to do excessive amounts of emotional labour when they are in a relationship with cis men, often because of the shame and stigma that their partners might be experiencing. There’s a lot of work that goes into supporting their male partners and helping them navigate the discrimination that their partners experience from their friends and family, all on top of the discrimination that they themselves face. It’s a heavy burden. This shame can be a trigger point for men enacting violence.
Trans women also talk about being objectified and seen as a fetish. Trans women of colour have spoken about this intersecting with racism and being fetishised because of their race as well.
What are some of the risks and vulnerabilities for trans women in their relationships?
Starlady: They have to navigate their safety in different ways, often because their relationships are more hidden. There is more risk around hidden relationships.
Navigating disclosure of their trans identity in their relationships is also another area of risk. For trans women who pass, often their greatest risk is around points of disclosure and not knowing how their partner will respond. They will be struggling with questions like: ‘How do I disclose? At what point do I disclose? Do I disclose at all? And if so, how do I do that safely?’
Whilst for trans women who don’t pass and are read as trans, it’s less likely that they will be able to meet men in public because there’s more shame around it.
How can a prevention focus help trans women’s experience of relationships?
Starlady: Preventing intimate partner violence against trans women needs an approach that focuses on cis men as much as it does for trans women. Many cis men in these relationships don’t have any appropriate services or programs that can help them deal with their shame and stigma which can impact badly on their relationships. The capacity of the family violence sector and men’s services in particular needs to be built. This is crucial.
Men’s behaviour change programs do not target the specific needs of cisgender men who have relationships with trans women. If other men have misogynous, transphobic and homophobic views then it would be an unsafe environment for these men to access. This can then have harmful consequences for trans women in their relationships.
“Until we deal with transphobia in a prevention space and change our approach to service delivery, we’re going to continue to see this violence.”