#IAmOneOfThem: Why We Need To Represent Trans People In Sexual Assault Advocacy

Trans people face unique barriers to finding open and accepting places to heal.

Every April we celebrate Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a national campaign that aims to empower survivors and to call for action in the fight to end sexual violence. The month-long event brings people together from college campuses to advocacy organizations in a powerful display of solidarity that helps to remind survivors that they are not alone, that they have a voice, and that they deserve respect.

But, too often we return to the same narrative when it comes to discussing sexual assault. We imagine that it only occurs in the context of heterosexuality, that the victims are always cisgender women and that the perpetrators are always cisgender men. While this is certainly true in many cases, there is a community that is repeatedly absent from this conversation despite being highly vulnerable to sexual assault: trans and gender non-conforming people.

According to the 2015 US Trans Survey, 37% of transgender women and 41% of non-binary AMAB (assigned male at birth) people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes. That’s a rate of greater than one in three. Although statistics seem to vary from survey to survey, the rate for cisgender women is typically cited at around one in five or one in six.

And, as I wrote in my piece It’s Time to Break the Silence About Transmasculine Survivors of Sexual Assault, transgender men and non-binary AFAB (assigned female at birth) people face some of the highest rates of sexual assault of any group. The 2015 US Trans Survey found that 51% of transgender men and 58% non-binary AFAB people are survivors. Again, to put that more succinctly, that’s more than one in two. Let that sink in.

Because race, ability and class only compound the issue of sexual assault, trans people who experience multiple vectors of oppression face even higher rates. For people of color and especially, for Indigenous (74%), Multiracial (67%), Black (65%), and Middle Eastern (62%), these numbers were significantly higher. Those people who had participated in sex work (72%), been houseless (65%), or have disabilities (61%) also reported incredibly high rates.

Despite the fact that we are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, trans competent resources can often be difficult to find.

In an anonymous survey I put out to collect stories from transgender men and non-binary AFAB people, only two of 80 respondents felt that our community was adequately represented in organizations and resources aimed at supporting survivors. Because so many sexual assault advocacy organizations are mainly intended for women, trans men and non-binary AFAB people often have a hard time finding spaces that will accept them. One respondent was rejected over the phone because, despite the program’s supposed trans-inclusive policy, he sounded “too male.” And, men’s spaces, in addition to being few and far between, have a tendency to focus on cisgender men. It’s hard to know whether these spaces will be safe and competent for trans men.

Given that we live in a society in which many people still hatefully believe that trans women are not women and do not deserve to occupy women’s spaces, trans women face unique barriers to finding open and accepting places to heal. Women’s spaces not only need to accept trans women, but they also need to learn to be more sensitive to trans issues, sexual assault being only one of them. With trans women, especially trans women of color, facing incredibly high rates of often fatal violence, we cannot wait to make these spaces more inclusive.

For people who identify outside of the binary, resources are almost entirely absent. Organizations dealing with survivors tend to gender resources and, in particular, support groups aimed at empowering survivors. However, for those who identify outside of the binary, gendered spaces can feel incredibly uncomfortable. Worse, we can be rejected from binary gendered spaces because of how we identify. We need to have places where those who fall outside the binary will not only be accepted, but can also talk about their experiences safely and without fear of judgment.

And, that’s not to mention the fact that trans and gender non-conforming people face high rates of discrimination in our interactions with medical professionals, the court system, and the police. Finding people who believe survivors is hard enough; finding people who believe trans and gender non-conforming survivors seems near impossible. The US Trans Survey also found that 4% of survivors had been assaulted by a medical professional and 2% by a law enforcement officer. We are often told that turning to these people, with whom we experience discrimination and even the risk of further sexual assault, is our only option.

As a non-binary trans survivor, I have struggled to find space to talk about and to heal from my experiences. I have never really seen myself reflected in campaigns that attend to the issue of sexual assault. My experiences have often occurred within the context of queer relationships, involving both cisgender men and cisgender women. With the focus so narrowly trained on heterosexual, cisgender people, it took me a long time to even admit to myself that what had happened to me was non-consensual and unacceptable. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I didn’t deserve to be treated that way and that, even as someone who reads as a man, I had the right to say no.

My ability to speak openly about my experiences was hard fought. I was emboldened by a strong community of trans people, of women (cis and trans), and femmes who refuse to be silent. I speak to make sure that other trans people know that they are not alone, that they are loved, and that they deserve to have safe, consensual sex.

We need to see ourselves reflected. We need to have a space in the conversation. We need to be recognized as an especially vulnerable population, as well as an especially fierce, beautiful, and empowered community. We need these things now.

So, this month, I’m calling on trans and gender non-conforming people who want to share their stories to use the hashtag #IAmOneOfThem on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook. I’m calling on organizations that do sexual assault advocacy to include trans people in your SAAM campaigns and to use this time to reflect on how you can make your spaces, your resources, and your work safer and more inclusive for trans and gender non-conforming people.

#IAmOneOfThem. And, we won’t be silent anymore.

If you are a trans survivor who needs support check out these websites:

Trans Lifeline (www.translifeline.org), FORGE (http://forge-forward.org/anti-violence/for-survivors/), or the Survivor Project (http://www.survivorproject.org/index.html)