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Why Serve Trans or Intersex Survivors?

By Diana Courvant, Survivor Project

First printed in the journal of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Across North America, from Ontario to Kansas to Key West, many programs are asking difficult questions about how to serve trans and intersex survivors within existing programs. As they speak, write, or sign about their experiences, others are still at the point of asking, "Why?" Why should our programs, especially those targeted towards women, serve trans or intersex survivors of domestic violence?

When the DV survivors' movement was founded almost 30 years ago we did the work first and foremost because it was needed. Tara Hardy of the Northwest Network remembers when her organization was called Advocates for Abused and Battered Lesbians (AABL). At the time, many services were closed to survivors who identified as bisexual. Hardy helped them anyway, because there was a need. When trans women first came to AABL, she was just as pragmatic. She first helped them "because they showed up," she says.

Bradley-Angle House, a survivor service organization in Portland, Oregon provides support groups, an emergency shelter, long term transitional housing, and other services. Several years ago, Bradley-Angle House also began to consider serving trans women because they had begun to receive calls from trans-identified survivors. After consideration, BAH made the decision to open its services to anyone identifying as a woman. Erika Silver, BAH's executive director, identified one of the key reasons for this decision as the organization's mission statement itself. Silver saw the mission to serve women as inclusive of all women, as defined by the program participants themselves. The wisdom here is recognizing that being defined by others is a common experience of survivors. Giving survivors self-sufficiency skills not only in work or acquiring food or housing, but also in defining personal experiences and identities is a vital part of giving survivors the tools to recognize and set personal boundaries in future relationships.

Connie Burke, also of the Northwest Network, was working in Lawrence, Kansas at Women's Transitional Care Services when she first encountered the issues of trans people. With a co-worker, Becky Ow, she attended a Minneapolis conference where one presenter kept mentioning the term "trans" without defining it, so the two of them wrote the word down and read up on the subject after arriving home. Burke's values included an imperative to "stretch". She explained, "We had a mission in that program [Women's Transitional Care Services] that encourages us to do that. There was a real culture of moving, movement." Their curiosity and desire to stretch themselves translated into a proactive desire to provide services to trans clients.

The Northwest Network, Bradley-Angle House, and Women's Transitional Care Services have all served trans or intersex survivors, despite serving very different communities. Having had a chance to serve these clients, other benefits became apparent. Hardy was enthusiastic about her experiences, "I' ve learned so much from trans survivors. They've completely transformed my analysis of Domestic Violence." Certainly working closely with trans or intersex people provides a rare opportunity to identify and unlearn our own assumptions and stereotypes concerning sex and gender.

Other reasons that become apparent only after service are less positive. In one North American program, a woman seeking shelter was told that she could only access services after a police body-cavity search because she had displayed masculine cues. She submitted to the search, but left the program while still in need of services in part, if not wholly, because of this traumatic invasion. This eligibility test raises several issues. The first is the tremendous harm done by this type of invasion. Certainly this does nothing to help a survivor recover. Second is the blatant illegality of police participation in this type of search. Even strip searches can only be performed by police after meeting strict criteria. Third is the terrible damage that can be done to a vital program if a survivor violated in this way chooses to file a lawsuit. The potential damage to a rural community is even larger since there are rarely multiple agencies acting within a single rural community.

Even if some less invasive eligibility test is instituted, how does an agency determine which clients should be subjected to this extra test? The likely answer is that each worker will use a subjective idea of masculine cues. The result of that is placing additional barriers to service for any survivor that does not conform to a dominant culture definition of femininity. Ultimately, this can only reinforce sexism and further damage relationships with local communities of lesbian and bisexual women.

Finally, in many jurisdictions, applying any test may be illegal in many jurisdictions. In Oregon discrimination against transsexual people is illegal under laws preserving the civil rights of people with mental and physical disabilities. In Minnesota, discrimination against any trans or intersex person is illegal under statutes equalizing the rights of people regardless of sexual orientation. In any state that prohibits discrimination based on physical sex, as opposed to gender, denying service to intersex people may be illegal, depending on ruling of state courts. In many cities and counties, civil rights laws explicitly include trans or trans and intersex people. The only way to insure protection against lawsuits, especially considering how quickly these laws are changing across the country, is to avoid discriminating against clients or potential clients who may be trans or intersex.

Perhaps the most basic reason to serve trans and intersex survivors, though, is our movement's sense of community responsibility. Kahlil Gibran once wrote that we are born owing nothing to anyone, but everything to everyone. We do not serve survivors in our programs because we owe them money or a favor. We serve them because as members of our communities, they deserve our communities' help during the difficult and dangerous transition out of an abusive relationship. Our trans and intersex neighbors deserve no less.


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