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Domestic Violence in the Transgender Community

Rates of intimate partner violence are high and barriers stand in the way of getting help

  • August 16, 2017
  • By domesticshelters.org
Domestic Violence in the Transgender Community

Domestic violence affects people with any gender identity, and transgender people can find themselves at especially high risk. A report by the Williams Institute found that 31 to 50 percent of transgender people have experienced domestic violence, compared to the general population at 28 to 33 percent. And one survey found that 19 percent of respondents were subject to domestic violence at the hands of family members because they were transgender or gender nonconforming.

Certain unique factors may play into this high risk. For example, transgender people might have been rejected by their families or subjected to emotional abuse as children and teens. Research found that 57 percent of transgender people experienced some rejection by family members. This early trauma may make them more likely to experience domestic violence later in life, experts say, and make them less likely to have family members they can turn to for support.

A 2015 survey of 28,000 transgender people in the United States and its territories by the National Center for Transgender Equality found high rates of intimate partner violence in the community. Overall, 42 percent of respondents reported intimate partner violence, and rates were higher for many transgender subgroups including:

  • 67 percent of those who had done sex work
  • 61 percent of those who had been homeless
  • 61 percent of American Indians
  • 59 percent of undocumented respondents
  • 54 percent of multiracial respondents
  • 49 percent of Middle Eastern respondents

Transgender people may face unique barriers in seeking help for domestic violence. According to the Williams Institute report, they may experience:

  • The risk of rejection and isolation from family and friends if they “out” themselves
  • Not knowing where to find support and resources specifically for transgender people
  • Possible discrimination from staff or other domestic violence survivors
  • Fear that police and court officials may not be sensitive to their needs

Struggles with Shelters

Transgender individuals can experience discrimination when they seek help in escaping domestic violence. “Shelters are often divided by gender, and there have been a lot of transgender women who experience being turned away from women’s shelters because they don’t have legal documentation that says they’re female,” says Jay Wu, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“This comes from the erroneous belief that transgender women are the ‘man in a dress’ stereotype. The concerns come from a place of wanting to protect the other women in shelters—and everyone’s priority is the safety of women who have to be in shelters. But it’s based on harmful stereotypes of transgender women. If someone is seeking shelter at a women’s shelter, it’s because she needs that. She has been through some kind of violence or situation that necessitates that, and she probably has nowhere else to go.”

Many shelters receive federal funds, and those that do have to follow the rules of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which prohibits discrimination against transgender people. “A lot of people still do face harassment,” Wu says. “They are turned away, told they have to go to a men’s facility, or told they have to dress like the gender on their legal documents.”

Wu says that making the shelter aware of the law can be a good first step. “Sometimes the people turning folks away aren’t aware that what they are doing is illegal.”

In 18 states, laws further help protect the rights of transgender people, so individuals in those states can seek legal assistance. Some cities also have their own nondiscrimination laws. Local LGBTQ community centers can be good places to turn for help, as can the Legal Services Corporation and the Transgender Law Center’s cooperating attorney network. The Transgender Legal Services Network can provide free or reduced cost legal assistance and can help transgender people get their identification and documentation changed. Filing a complaint with HUD is also an option.

In addition to contacting a local shelter or hotline, transgender individuals can turn to FORGE, a national transgender anti-violence organization, for help in dealing with intimate partner violence beyond the issue of shelter discrimination. The shelter search feature at DomesticShelters.org allows people to see whether a shelter has specifically indicated whether they serve the LBGTQ community.

Problems with the Legal System

Transgender individuals may face frequent police bias. A 2011 study by the Williams Institute found that 22 percent of transgender individuals surveyed said they had been harassed by police because of bias; 6 percent said they had been physically assaulted by police. And, nearly half—46 percent—said they were uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

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Which explains why, oftentimes, they may not perceive calling the police for help as a reasonable option. They may also fear being blamed for the domestic violence and arrested themselves.

If they end up in jail or prison they may find themselves not treated according to their gender identity or attacked physically or sexually. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that transgender people are especially vulnerable when they are incarcerated because they are often not housed in facilities that correspond with their gender. And if they are placed in solitary confinement they may face abuse by staff. One study of 92,449 inmates found that more than 34 percent of transgender inmates had been sexually abused in the previous 12 months. The risk of sexual abuse for transgender inmates is nearly nine times higher than it is for the general prison population.

Finding Survivor Support

The following are nonprofits focused on reaching out to the LGBTQ community through education, sharing of stories, support and activism:

If you’re still struggling to find support, you may want to check out, “When Your Support System Isn’t Clear.