RCASA Friday Facts: Sexual Assault in the Transgender Communities

In Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on June 29, 2012 at 5:00 am

Sexual Assault in the Transgender Communities

By Arlene IstarLev and S. Sundance Lev

Transgendered Victims of Sexual Assault

Transgendered people are the targets of the most vicious and blatant forms of violence. They are routinely abused by the police and medical professionals, in addition to being subjected to random street violence and domestic partner abuse. Intimate partners, often appalled to discover the gender transgression, can verbally, psychologically, physically and sexually abuse the person.

Statistical research for violence towards the transgendered population is still in its infancy. The preliminary data of transgendered and intersexed individuals gathered by the Gender, Violence and Resource Access Survey found that 50% of respondents had been raped or assaulted by a romantic partner (Courvant and Cook-Daniels, 1998). Eyler and Witten (1999) have began a longitudinal study of violence against the transgendered community, and the preliminary data clearly show physical and sexual violence perpetrated on those who express cross-gender behavior. Our trans-phobic bigotry, like racist violence, allows us to falsely identify the victims of violence as the provocateurs of violence. As Dallas Denny (1992) says, “Despite the fact that they are much more often victims of violence than they are perpetrators, transgendered persons are frequently portrayed in the media as psychotics and criminals.” Given the virulent violence against transgendered people by the police this is especially ironic.
Transgendered people are often sexually targeted specifically because of their transgendered status. The sexual perpetrator will stalk them, or attack them, infuriated by their cross-gender behavior. Wilchins (1998), in the video “Transgendered Revolution” says, “Trans people are never killed from 300 yards away with a high-powered rifle; they’re always killed up front and personal … People want to see us die … there is a level of almost unhinged deranged violence about gender hate crimes.”
Claudia is an African-American, male-to-female transsexual woman who was sexually molested before her transition by her then wife. When Maria returned home early one evening and discovered Claudia dressed in female clothes, she flew into a rage.  She began beating Claudia, cursing and calling her sexually abusive names.  Claudia was ashamed to have been caught, and passively accepted this behavior.  This infuriated Maria even more, who began sexually molesting Claudia, while degrading both her feminine appearance, and her masculine body. Maria raped Claudia and then left the marriage.

Terence is a female-to-male transgendered person of Korean descent. He has lived most of his life as a butch/tomboy identified lesbian, until he began to address his gender dysphoria. He began to transition, identifying as a “bi-gendered” person — neither male nor female, both male and female.  His lesbian partner was resistant to this transition initially, but became increasingly more supportive over time. Terence began taking testosterone injections and his body began to masculinize, however he was not interested in pursuing genital surgery. Terence was walking home from work late one evening, when he was accosted by a group of young hoodlums. Unsure at first “what” Terence was they began to tease him, first as a small guy, but then slowly they began to suspect he wasn’t really a “guy.” The taunts increased to a racist verbal assault, with increasing hostility at “the woman who was pretending to be a real guy.” Terence was beaten and repeatedly raped by these boys, both vaginally and anally. He refused to report the crime or to receive medical help, afraid that the police and medical system would just further abuse him.

It is clear from examining the above vignettes, that categorizing Claudia and Terence’s experiences as either opposite-sex, or same-sex abuse becomes confusing — and somewhat irrelevant — classifications. Both are being targeted because of their transgendered status, and defining the assaults as “heterosexual” or “homosexual” depends on

the perceptions of transgendered people within a bipolar gendered system. Terence was raped “like” a woman, precisely because he was not a woman. Claudia, also was raped as a woman, in this case because she was not a man. Witten and Eyler (1999) say, “Violence against members of the transgender community shares many similarities with violence stemming from anti-female hatred and anti-homosexual (and other hate crime) attacks. Furthermore, distinguishing the motivation behind a violent attack against a transgendered person is often impossible because of the intersection between misogyny and hatred of other person whose existence undermines perceived male sexual supremacy and the gender dichotomy which is its necessary underpinning… For example, a male-to-female transsexual may concurrently experience physical or sexual assault as a woman (targeted by her assailant because of anti-female hatred) and hate-crime victimization as a (perceived) effeminate, homosexual male, or as a “gender-deviant” person.  (p. 6)”

Our societal discomfort with transgenderism has rendered transgendered victims of sexual assault, gay-bashing, and domestic violence without necessary services. Rape Crisis Centers and domestic violence shelters are unprepared to address the issues of transgendered people. Medical personnel respond with judgment and have been known to withhold care to people they perceive to be cross-dressing. The criminal justice and the legal systems often re-traumatize victims. The complexity of issues facing the transgendered person who is sexual assaulted can only be addressed by broad changes in the delivery system and extensive education regarding the needs of this community.

This is an excerpt from an article Sexual Assault in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities that will be published in a forthcoming book McClennen, J. C., & Gunther, J.  (1999).  Same-sex partner abuse: A professional’s guide to practice intervention.  Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press  (In Press).


Courvant, D., & Cook-Daniels, L.,  (1998). Transgender and intersex survivors of domestic violence: Defining terms, barriers and responsibilities.  In National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Conference Manual, POB 18749 Denver, CO 80218, -0749; 303-839-1852.

Eyler, A.E., & Witten, T.M. (1999). Violence within and against the transgender community: Preliminary survey results. Technical Report: International Longitudinal Transsexual and Transgender Aging Research Project. 1-12. 12846 Maple Park Drive, San Antonio, TX, 78249, 1.210.691.3351. http://www.int-trans.org.

Denny, D. (1992, April). Violence against transgendered persons: An Unrecognized problem. The Advocate, 601.

Wilchin, R.A., (1999, January). A Hate crime by any other name. Girlfriends magazine, 6, (1), 10.

Witten, T.M. & Eyler, A.E. (1999). Anti-transgender violence: The “Invisible” Human Rights Violation. Peace Review: An International Quarterly. 1-10. (In Press).

[Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev is a family therapist who specializes in working with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.  She is in Albany, NY.  AFM Spotlight – “Gay and Lesbian Parenting” (http://www.altfammag.com/ari-qlp.html) or on AOL: Parent Threads 4344:2138.onqparen.22621297.596940590]


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