“There are no domestic abuse resources for trans men. Even though we experience at least as much violence and trauma as cisgender women, it’s harder for us to escape bad situations. There are no shelters and no support groups that will take us.” That’s one reason, Jack says, that he stayed in an abusive relationship for the better part of a decade: there was nowhere to turn. (All names in this article have been changed to maintain the subjects’ privacy.)
No one knows exactly how many transgender people live in the U.S.—researchers’ best guess is 0.6% of the population, or about 1.4 million. The overall trans population may be small, but it’s no secret that we’re disproportionately affected by gender-based violence. And while activists and advocacy organizations recognize and acknowledge the epidemic of violence against trans women, little has been written about the violence transmasculine people face.
It’s not because we’re at a lower risk—almost every trans man and nonbinary person assigned female at birth that I’ve talked to has a story to share. But the larger cultural conversation has pushed sexual and intimate partner violence against men under the rug, and trans men and nonbinary people in general have little visibility in the media.
While exact numbers are difficult to come by, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that the trans community faces staggeringly high rates of violence, with 54% reporting that they’ve experienced abuse at the hands a romantic partner, and 47% reporting a history of sexual assault.
While those familiar with the violent transmisogyny in our society might assume that trans women make up the bulk of those victimized, research by the transgender advocacy organization FORGE found thattrans men actually experience slightly higher rates of most types of sexual and domestic violence.
This actually makes trans men more vulnerable than cisgender women—according to the CDC, 31.5% of women are estimated to face intimate partner abuse at some point in their life, 22% of whom have experienced “severe” abuse. And it’s certainly much higher than the 14% of cisgender men the agency says have been severely abused.
It may seem counterintuitive, because it’s a common assumption that trans men are gaining male privilege when we transition. But given that trans men are raised as girls and many date and marry men before coming out, it makes sense that we would experience the same type of misogyny and gendered violence that cis women do.
There are also factors that make us more susceptible to abuse than our cisgender sisters. Anti-trans discrimination in employment and housing can make us dependent on abusive partners, who are likely to be more financially stable. It’s also common for romantic partners and family to manipulate trans people by making us feel unwanted and unlovable by anyone else.
Few Resources are Equipped to Handle Transphobic Abuse
The resources available for men who are victims of violence are few and far between—and when shelters and support services advertise as “trans friendly,” what that usually means is that they’re open to trans women. It’s not uncommon to see “inclusive” services advertise themselves as open to anyone “woman identified,” which forces transmasculine survivors to make a difficult choice—to get the help we need and go back in the closet, or forgo it entirely. Those who’ve transitioned and look too “masculine” to fit into women’s spaces may not even be able to do that much.
“When I left, I didn’t know where to go for help,” Jack told me. “I avoided looking for resources for a long time because I was afraid of being misgendered or having the transphobic abuse I faced minimized by peers or service providers.”
Even if he found a space that would accept him as a trans man, Jack fears that providers wouldn’t be equipped to help him process the abuse he experienced related to his gender identity.
“When you talk about being constantly misgendered by a partner, or a partner not allowing you to transition, a lot of cis people don’t get it. They wave it away as the other person ‘having a hard time adjusting,’ or they tell you that you’re asking for too much. I knew that if I went to a group oriented toward cis survivors, they wouldn’t understand why this was so painful for me. So I’ve mostly ended up just talking about my experiences with friends instead.”
Even “Inclusive” Spaces May Fail to Live Up to Promises
Other spaces may claim to be inclusive in theory, but in practice fail to protect vulnerable trans people.
One young trans man, Blaine, told me about his experience trying to access housing in Portland. “While staying at a transitional housing program here, myself and two other trans guys were the target of repeated verbal attacks, consistent misgendering, and violent threats. When we finally brought it up, the housing staff didn’t really do anything.”
After being assaulted within their own home, Blaine and his friends were asked to have a “restorative conversation” with those who had been threatening and harassing them for months. They refused, believing this solution would put them in more danger, and were kicked out of the program. He said, “I’ve been homeless ever since. None of the folks who were violent were removed from housing.”
He’s continued to struggle to access the mental health resources he needs to deal with his trauma—sometimes being turned away outright, and sometimes being treated so poorly that going without help seemed to be the healthier alternative to continuing to seek services.
Instead, he’s found what support he can among friends, as well. “The queer community here is so amazing, and does so much for each other. But there’s only so much we can do when we are all in the same boat.”
Compounding Factors Make Asking for Help Dangerous
Riley, a nonbinary person (or “enby” for short) who recently broke up with an abusive partner, told me that support was hard to find. “It’s been really difficult, impossible actually, to find a sexual assault group that recognizes the existence of nonbinary people. You would think that by now that wouldn’t be a problem, especially in Portland. My therapist told me today that it looks like a group for enbies might be starting soon. That’s how much support there is for enby survivors right now.”
Matters get even more complicated when someone is marginalized in more ways than simply their gender.
Riley found that even asking for support put them in more danger. Because they’re disabled, their therapist was required to report the abuse Riley discussed in a session to Adult Protective Services. They didn’t have the resources to move out on their own, and they were terrified that their partner would retaliate by kicking them out of the house—and that they might have nowhere safe to go. All in all, they said the involvement of the police and APS was re-traumatizing during an already stressful time.
Like Jack and Blaine, they credit the queer community with helping them stay safe during the breakup. “I reached out, and had three people keep me company when my ex came to get his belongings. I had folks here for me while I went out to get new locks, and they helped me install them. I still haven’t found a support group that includes enbies, but for now I’m finding other groups and working on those traumas.”
Despite It All, We Have a Vision for the Future
Everyone I spoke with was hopeful that things could change.
“I want to change careers to work in mental health,” Jack told me. “I know so many people who have suffered trauma who are falling through the cracks right now. I want to be able to create the services that don’t exist yet, but it’s going to take time.”
“I’d like to see gender stop playing a role in who gets services, to be completely honest,” Blaine said, when I asked him how the system could better serve transmasc survivors. “I don’t want to have to choose between living my authentic life and getting help. Nobody should have to make that choice.”
Riley, on the other hand, thought larger social changes were necessary to address the root of the problem. “Ideally, housing would be free for everyone. Then nobody would have to stay in a bad relationship and put up with the abuse. After that, guaranteed basic needs—food, medical care, transportation, caregiving, childcare, education—so that nobody has to be in a relationship just to survive, or turn to sex work if they don’t want to.”
What Allies Can Do To Help
While finding resources can be a struggle, there are steps that allies can take to help make life easier for trans survivors:
Donate to FORGE
VAWnet has compiled a list of resources with more information
Finding help doesn’t have to be such a struggle for trans survivors. Together, we can make the changes needed to create better support in our own communities.