Online Violence Against Trans Women Perpetuates Dangerous Cycle

In much of the country, the absence of commonsense policies protecting transgender people from violence and discrimination means the Internet is often the one place the trans community can find a support network and real economic opportunity.
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Millions of women and girls use the Internet to navigate their personal and professional lives. Sadly, they are also the targets of the most extreme types of violent online threats. According to a University of Maryland study, women experience sexually explicit messages and online violence at a rate 27 times higher than men.

Women who enter traditionally male-dominated fields, express feminist points of view or challenge outdated social conventions, are routinely targets of extreme online threats.

As one journalist put it: hundreds upon hundreds of threats of rape and murder over years "can take a toll on your soul."

And as horrible as this is for all women, transgender women are often singled out for the worst harassment and abuse.

In the United States, the cruel reality for trans women, and particularly trans women of color, is that systemic transphobia, misogyny, homophobia and racism impacts their everyday lives.

Though strides in marriage equality have transformed the nation's attitudes towards the LGBT community, transgender women are the last to see the tangible benefits of our country's progress.

The National Center for Transgender Equality asserts that transgender women remain the most at-risk for violence, homelessness, unemployment and chronic illness.

Transgender people are four times as likely to have a household income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed. Ninety percent of transgender workers report discrimination on the job. Almost 1 in 5 reported homelessness at some point in their lives. A report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reveals that transgender women and transgender women of color comprised nearly 75 percent of anti-LGBT homicide victims.

In much of the country, the absence of commonsense policies protecting transgender people from violence and discrimination means the Internet is often the one place the trans community can find a support network and real economic opportunity.

According to one software programmer who was fired from her job and estranged from her family, she discovered Internet freelancing "as a path to independence for trans people." In her words, she "no longer had to face on-the-job discrimination and harassment if [she] didn't want to."

And while the Internet offers the promise of opportunity and economic mobility, it can also amplify the kind of intolerance and malice we've worked hard as a society to root out.

Online harassment and abuse of women has a real cost. This cost comes in the form of income lost to missed opportunities when women do not pursue jobs to avoid the crosshairs of men who think they do not belong. Some have spent a small fortune on services that protect their identities from abuse and harassment. As the targets of the Gamergate intimidation campaign can attest, the cost of doing business online as a woman can mean specific rape and death threats so severe that they've had to leave their homes and find temporary housing.

And for many transgender women, the cost can be to sacrifice the only viable path to economic success.

It's not OK.

It's not OK to tell women that this is just the way things are. It's not OK to tell women to change who they are, withhold their opinions or stay off the Internet just to stay safe.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with women in my state and across the country to demand that our criminal justice system treat Internet crimes with the seriousness they deserve. We did this because what's at stake is women's participation in an online economy and society. The Internet is a tool that promises opportunity and economic mobility, and no one should be left out.

The responses we got will sound familiar. We were told that we were overly-sensitive to the issue, and it didn't really exist. We were told that this is just how things are, and we should get over it. And we were told that what we were trying to do was never going to work.

We proved them wrong.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives backed our request and instructed the Department of Justice to intensify investigation and prosecution of the severe online threats that disproportionately target women, especially women of color and LGBT women.

This is an important start in changing a culture that tells women that if they express who they are, then they are asking for violence or harassment.

We're making progress on this issue because women from many different walks of life -- video game developers, journalists, academics, LGBT advocates, domestic violence survivors, elected officials and more -- are sticking together and standing up for what's right.

If we have any hope of making progress on issues like online harassment, LGBT discrimination, access to healthcare and equal pay, we have to stand united. If we allow ourselves to be divided because of perceived differences in our experiences, there is no way we will achieve what I know we can accomplish together.

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