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Home / Articles / Diversity Matters / Including They and Them When Talking Domestic Violence

Including They and Them When Talking Domestic Violence

Non-binary survivors feel excluded from the domestic violence conversation

Including They and Them When Talking Domestic Violence

While anyone can experience harm as a result of intimate partner violence, domestic violence most often involves a male abusing a female victim. Statistics support this, which is why advocacy and shelter services for victims mainly target women. Though these female-focused resources are well-meaning and direly needed, they also inadvertently exclude survivors who don’t identify as women.

For individuals who fall outside the categories of male and female, who feel most comfortable with “they/them” pronouns, and who may identify as queer, trans, non-binary or some other combination of identifiers, searching for domestic violence support can feel alienating. They don’t fit the stock photo image of a woman being beaten by a man. They don’t know if they would be allowed in a women’s shelter. But they also don’t feel comfortable accessing services offered to men. So, they stay silent. Isolated. And the abuse continues. 

Em Jackson, 30, who uses they/them pronouns, is the director of financial security initiatives at FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that creates pathways for survivors of gender-based violence to live free from abuse and achieve long-term safety and economic security. It was at this organization that Jackson first saw themself as a survivor and understood what economic abuse was. And, where they saw other people like them who had survived what they had. 

“I don’t feel like I wear it as a badge,” Jackson says about the label survivor. “It’s something I’m still working through. It’s something that’s difficult to name. It can be seen as ... one more identity you’re putting on yourself. A lot of my family doesn’t even know about it. I am very selective with who I choose to discuss the topic with because it is still a difficult space to navigate.”

All Kinds of Violence

Jackson’s mom passed away when Jackson was a child. 

“I was constantly in relationships looking for love, doing whatever I needed to do to stay.” 

They admit experiencing “different forms of violence” in their life, but when Jackson married their wife in 2015, the emotional and economic abuse that began soon after felt foreign. Jackson didn’t recognize what was happening as domestic violence and they took a significant amount of time to truly open up to anyone about everything that they were experiencing, even though Jackson felt controlled, trapped and constantly on edge.

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“It was difficult to see it as abuse with my ex because I didn’t want people to look at them as this terrible person, and I knew that I wasn’t perfect either.”

Jackson’s wife mainly controlled the money and they recall times they were yelled at for inquiring about finances. At the same time, Jackson didn’t have their own financial means with which to even consider leaving the relationship. 

“It felt like I was trapped but if I spoke out about it, she would say I could just leave.”

Jackson’s wife was also physical in her abuse a few times, at one point getting upset with Jackson for drinking at a party and strangling them in the car on the way home when she felt Jackson wouldn’t allow her to leave the car. Their wife later apologized and said she should have never lost her temper, but that they should no longer continue to have a relationship. Jackson insisted they were both at fault and the abuse became physical again in the future.

Jackson’s mindset at the time was, I should have done better. I need to do whatever it takes to get her to stay and know that I will do my part to make sure I don’t make her that angry. 

“I felt a lot of self-blame ... I begged her to stay many times.”

When Jackson came out as trans/non-binary, they say their wife would purposefully misgender them  and use their birth name when upset as a way to discount Jackson’s identity. Jackson started to wonder if they should maybe just not be trans and non-binary in order to keep their wife. 

Speaking Out

Jackson never thought about getting help and never even considered the possibility that what was going on was abuse. In 2017, Jackson and their wife separated, which Jackson says she was initially strongly against. While separated, their wife gave them an ultimatum to go to individual counseling and work on themselves or they would not consider remaining married. It was during counseling that Jackson first saw the situation for what it was, which began their exit from the marriage. The pair divorced in 2018, the same year Jackson took the job at FreeFrom. 

It was at last year’s FreeFrom Survivor Wealth Summit that Jackson took advantage of a break between presenters and jumped up on stage for an impromptu speech. Jackson reminded the crowd of several hundred to be inclusionary in the discussion around domestic violence. There are people who fall outside of male and female who are experiencing abuse. I want us to be mindful when speaking. 

“Some folks had come up to me on the first day and said the presenters in general, the speech, was very women-focused, so they didn’t feel included. I spoke with our CEO about the comments and how we could affirm each survivor present and bring awareness to the necessity of inclusion in the space. She immediately gave support and offered me the floor to speak on the morning of the second day of the summit.”

It may be an unintentional oversight, but an oversight all the same, and one that often leaves people like Jackson feeling ignored.

“When ... certain events [start with] ‘Good afternoon women or ladies,’ then immediately I’m thinking, ‘They’re not talking to me.’ I don’t feel included.”

But it’s more than just language or the politeness of remembering one’s audience. It’s a life-and-death discussion. Transgender individuals are the victims of domestic violence at significantly higher rates than the non-trans (or cisgender) population, and Black trans individuals are at the most likely to be murdered in anti-trans homicides, according to the Human Rights Campaign (in fact, all of the trans murder victims HRC were able to track in 2019 were Black trans women). 

“We need to do better with this. People like myself don’t see themselves as survivors. They don’t know how to seek services,” says Jackson. 

Steps Toward Inclusion

We asked Jackson what advice they’d give shelters, advocacy groups or other nonprofits like FreeFrom to be more inclusionary. 

  • Change the conversation—make sure language is inclusive to all identities, starting with intake forms at shelters or nonprofits that include a box to check for those who want to identify as non-binary or trans. 
  • Bring on trans, non-binary and queer individuals as staff, board members and volunteers so survivors can see themselves and know they’re included. 
  • Make sure individuals are still offered support even if they’re not comfortable identifying as a “survivor” or “victim” regardless if they leave or stay.
  • Help educate the community about the range of survivors of gender-based violence. 
  • Talk to trans, non-binary and queer individuals and ask them what your nonprofit needs to do in order for them to be seen.