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A Walking Map Through the Oppression Of Trans & Intersex People

By Diana Courvant, Survivor Project

First Published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A friend recently pointed out that her first experience with a trans woman led her to believe that all trans women are neurotic, withdrawn, and unpredictable. Through their friendship of years she never questioned this opinion. Finally, upon coming to know me as her second trans woman friend, she realized that had her first experience been with me, she would have considered trans women to be universally centered, social, and reliable. It was a wonderfully honest and accurate assessment of her own willingness to draw and perpetuate stereotypes of transsexual, transgender, and intersex people.

Unlearning the oppression of trans and intersex people is extraordinarily difficult in contemporary American society. Though scattered and often hidden, trans and intersex people do exist in all circles of American life. Recently I and others organized a series of conversations through a collaboration between the Lesbian Community Project and Survivor Project in Portland, Oregon. In them, I learned that it was not at all uncommon for a person to have few, limited interactions with one or a very small number of trans or intersex people. From these interactions, people were more apt to remember details about trans or intersex friends that supported stereotypes than those that contradicted them. Without ongoing, meaningful interactions, exposure to trans or intersex people does nothing to guarantee that oppression will lessen or end. This makes unlearning and undoing institutional oppression within DV survivors' service organizations particularly difficult.

With this in mind, many will remember the expression, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Already within our movement it has become exactly that. One person seeking emergency services in the United States was deemed to be displaying masculine "cues". As a result, she was offered a choice between being denied shelter or submitting herself to a police body-cavity search before accessing shelter services. The search was performed because shelter staff had assumed this client to be a transsexual woman and needed to insure that a vagina was present before admitting her to shelter. This need was the natural consequence of a policy that was willing to help transsexual women, but only those who had completed sex reassignment surgery. This woman later left the shelter voluntarily despite an ongoing need for services and a confidential location, in large part, if not solely, because of the trauma of this search. Ultimately, it was never discovered whether or not this particular client identified as trans or intersex or had had genital surgery of any kind. Because of fear and ignorance of trans people, unnamed "cues" of masculinity were used to justify a traumatizing invasion of the client's body.

While not clear to the staff involved at the time, it is clear to me that this behavior dramatically decreases - not increases - safety in our movement's programs. We cannot give agencies the power to police women's gendered appearance or behavior that these policies create. With violation of the most intimate spaces of our bodies as the penalty for displaying masculine "cues", what woman would not check her own behavior, ensuring that it falls within culturally acceptable limits of femininity? How many women would avoid our programs if this became common practice? The danger is heightened not only for trans and intersex women, but also for aging women whose natural changes (more plentiful, prominent, and bristly facial hair; deepening, more throaty voice; etc.) may carry with them connotations of masculinity. Butch women, already frequently uncomfortable in our programs, may be alienated further by the heightened possible consequences of displaying masculine traits. Moreover, closeted trans and intersex women would continue to access our programs without being identified, and without receiving treatment and safety planning that addresses all of their concerns. Policies that do not arise out of ongoing, meaningful interactions between the activists, advocates, professionals, and agencies of the DV survivors' movement and members of the trans and intersex communities are rarely productive, and, as the example of a policy based on surgical history shows, potentially very dangerous.

Naturally then, the first step in unlearning oppression of trans and intersex people on a personal level or undoing it on an institutional level is to build the trust that makes meaningful cross-community relationships possible. This does not necessarily mean changing an organization's policies right away. Changing a policy before a shelter is capable of following through positively creates a huge potential for revictimization, which will damage or destroy the trust that the policy changes were intended to create. Other actions may be more productive in the long run, such as brainstorming among staff and volunteers about the stereotypes of trans people that exist, or including local trans or intersex organizations or individuals among the recipients of announcements of local conferences or coalition gatherings. Critically thinking with the knowledge that you have available and beginning to extend invitations to members of the trans and intersex communities are two excellent ways to work towards the relationships necessary to truly transform an organization or agency.

Although ideally it would come sooner, often it is at this point that a true commitment to end the oppression of trans and intersex people begins. Before critical thinking occurs or personal relationships exist, it is common to see behaviors as reasonable and safety-related that afterwards are recognized as unnecessary, based on stereotypes or prejudices, and oppressive. The above case of requiring a body-cavity search to certify a person as "safe" is only the most extreme example.

With this commitment and some initial critical thinking, individuals involved in the DV survivors' movement may find contacts with members of trans or intersex communities in their area to be developing into relationships of trust and cooperation. This is a time of gaining information, when a person unlearning trans or intersex oppression may not only read books on the subject, but also put information from books or articles into a local perspective through the help of working or friendly relationships with trans or intersex people. It is important to remember, however, the lesson of my friend who made too much of a personal interaction with only one trans person. Each trans or intersex person comes from specific racial, ethnic, class, religious, family and other backgrounds. Each of these circumstances of a persons' life can dramatically impact an individual experience of trans or intersex oppression. Taken together, these create a unique perspective on the oppression of trans and intersex people. While invaluable, it is also limited. There will never be one trans person who can identify every significant barrier for any/every member of a trans or intersex community. A variety of perspectives on trans and intersex oppression will be even more valuable to individuals or organizations who wish to be allies.

After taking these steps, it becomes possible to identify barriers within a program to adding trans or intersex people to staff or to serving trans or intersex clients. It is inevitable that each program will fail to anticipate some barriers, but doing an advance review of policies and personal attitudes is vital to minimize revictimization. Inviting input from trans or intersex people familiar with serving survivors of domestic violence can make this review much more successful. General outreach to prospective volunteers, staff or clients from trans and intersex communities is the next step, but it is important to continue gaining information, analyzing policies, and removing barriers even - especially - if there is little immediate response to outreach efforts. Oppression of trans people has been constant, pervasive, and lethal for a very long time. Much of the violence trans and intersex people have suffered has come from organizations nominally there to help them: law enforcement officers and hospitals to name two. Although intentions may be good and an agency may in fact have done an exceptional job of removing internal barriers, there will likely remain a distrust of helping agencies on the part of trans and intersex individuals. This distrust will prevent them from accessing services or responding to calls for volunteer/staff applicants until an agency has established a positive track record within local trans and intersex communities. This is especially true for any agency that provides gender segregated services, which includes most services to survivors of domestic violence.

Once a program has trans or intersex members on its paid or volunteer staff, or once a program has trans or intersex clients, it is vital to maintain a consistent refusal to tolerate oppressive remarks, actions, or stereotypes that target trans or intersex people. Among the agencies with whom I have spoken, several have accepted trans clients into gender segregated shelters. The universal experience of these programs is that trans or intersex oppression is not a problem if staff and volunteers set a positive example. When staff and volunteers have failed to set the correct tone, problems do arise between clients. In those situations, it has always been the trans or intersex client who was made unsafe. There has never been a situation of which I am aware where a trans or intersex client has threatened the safety of another client, a volunteer, or a staff person. Because as much diversity exists within trans and intersex communities as within the world as a whole, eventually there will come a day where a trans or intersex person does threaten the safety of another person within a program. When this does happen, it is vital that this situation is treated no differently than the same behavior in a person who is neither trans nor intersex. Communicating that threatening behavior will be tolerated does not help a trans or intersex client. These clients have as much need as any other to unlearn previous coping strategies and learn new, positive, non-threatening ones. Additionally, being clear among program staff that this is personal behavior for which an individual must be responsible will help to prevent blaming whole communities and a step back from an original commitment to serving trans and intersex survivors.

Although this article presents one model of moving toward allying with trans and intersex communities in unlearning/undoing oppression, it is of necessity simplistic. Many programs are likely to receive a request for services long before completing this progression. Others may have a valued staff member begin a gender transition. How does a program that has yet to analyze how it contributes to the oppression of trans and intersex people ethically balance the needs of survivors and staff members with the need to avoid revictimization? How does a program access the necessary personal perspectives on trans and intersex oppression if the only members of those communities to respond to invitations are displaying racism or classism? How does a program with limited experience with trans or intersex clients recognize horizontal oppression within trans or intersex communities?

These questions must be negotiated carefully, drawing upon experiences of unlearning other oppressions, but there is significant help available. Not only are many other mainstream survivor service organizations struggling with the same issues, but a number of organizations in trans and intersex communities are working to help. The Survivor Project was created specifically to address the issues of trans and intersex survivors of domestic violence and the programs that serve them. The Transgender Aging Network includes Loree Cook-Daniels who has done ground-breaking work on the abuse of trans elders by their caretakers. One of the primary purposes of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is the elimination of Intersex Genital Mutilation, a form of surgical sex abuse designed to create "normal looking" genitals despite the physical and psychological health effects on intersex children.

For those who wish for help in beginning the process of thinking critically about the oppression of trans and intersex people and the issues of survivors who belong to trans or intersex communities, I recommend writing to the Survivor Project for a resource packet. Additionally, Survivor Project training, workshops or consultation may be exceptionally helpful at several points, including at the beginning of critical thinking, at the point of initial policy/barrier reviews, or while preparing staff and volunteers to implement newly written policies. Access to resources should not hold back programs in addressing trans or intersex oppression. Although there is no such thing as an over-funded survivor services agency, many foundations that would not normally fund the routine operation of a shelter may be willing to give money to a program attempting to address the issues of trans or intersex survivors. The Gill Foundation, National Gay and Lesbian Health Foundation, and the Astrea Foundation are among those who may provide additional money for these efforts.

Finally, I wish to note that this paper is strategic, but not specific. This is a broad view of how to move toward an unlearning of the oppression of trans and intersex people but does not address specific stereotypes, forms of oppression, or examples of supportive actions. A valid critique of this paper is that it need not be much less specific to become a roadmap for unlearning/ undoing any oppression. While true, it is also true that the oppression of trans and intersex people is so widespread, and the tactics of oppression so varied, that any attempt here to address the specific tactics and results of trans and intersex oppression would have been woefully incomplete. It is my hope that individuals reading this article will take it upon themselves to begin acquiring information about trans and intersex oppression through libraries, independent bookstores, organizations mentioned within this paper or other organizations working on these issues, and above all, the trans and intersex members of their own communities.


The author would like to thank the women of the Lesbians of Color caucus for their united stand on behalf of trans women at the 1998 NCADV conference. There could be no better example of ally work in action.


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