The Isolation Of Transgender, Undocumented Victims Of Domestic Violence

02/21/2017 10:27 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2017
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“Illegal Alien pervert Arrested.”

That was the alternate headline suggested in an anonymous posted comment to a CBS News article. The article detailed the story of Ms. Gonzalez, a transgender woman who was arrested last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for being an undocumented immigrant. The arrest was reportedly made at the El Paso County Courthouse in Texas, only moments after the woman – a victim of domestic violence – received a protective order against her batterer. According to County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, ICE agents had received a tip that Ms. Gonzalez would be at the court that day. Bernal suspects that the tip was made by Ms. Gonzalez’s alleged abuser, who had also been detained earlier by ICE.

Appearing in the comments section of the CBS News article, the aforementioned post was one of dozens ranging from expressions of disregard to outright disgust for the domestic violence victim – not only because of Ms. Gonzalez’s undocumented status but particularly because she is transgender.

In analyzing these comments – totaling 86 within two days of the CBS News article being published – two popular yet false myths can be seen at work within many of the posts: (1) transgender people are deceitful, and (2) they are dangerous. As discussed below, these two myths extend well beyond the anonymity of cyberspace into mainstream society, where they continue to present barriers to safety for many transgender victims of domestic violence.

MYTH #1: Transgender People Are Deceitful

One popular myth imbedded within many of the CBS News article comments is the belief that transgender people lie about their gender identity. Nearly a quarter of the comments referred to the female-identified victim as “he,” “man,” “guy,” “dude” or “it.” One comment erroneously implied that all transgender people are confused about their identity, claiming she “doesn’t even know what sex he is.” Hearing such statements is a common experience for transgender people. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey – a national study of 6,450 transgender Americans – 45 percent of transgender people report being referred to by the wrong gender pronoun “repeatedly and on purpose” while in the workplace.

Unfortunately, this myth is not limited to the internet and workplace. Transgender domestic violence victims often face similar doubt and disdain for their identities when seeking help from the criminal justice system. For instance, some in law enforcement have insisted on referring to female transgender domestic violence victims as “mister” and “he,” and transgender victims have been referred to disparagingly as “it” and “he-she” in open court. Attorneys may at times even intentionally draw upon the myth of transgender people as inherently deceitful, as part of a legal strategy to discredit transgender people in court. This was the case in the 2007 trial of Monica James, a transgender woman charged with a series of crimes. Referring to Ms. James, the prosecutor asked the jury, “How can you trust this person? He tells you he is a woman; he is clearly a man.”

Such statements are insulting and stigmatizing. However, they go a step further, denying the very existence of transgender people, despite ample research to the contrary. For transgender victims of domestic violence, such attitudes may decrease the likelihood that they seek further help, pushing them back toward their abusers.

MYTH #2: Transgender People Are Dangerous

Other comments on the CBS News article played upon a second popular myth, that transgender people are inherently dangerous. Some posts labeled Ms. Gonzalez as a “freak,” “creature” and “pshyco,” who engages in “perverted and unseemly behavior.” One post tied this danger myth directly to domestic violence, writing, “These types violent trannies are always beating the hell out of each other and even killing each other.” This myth has reappeared numerous times in court cases involving transgender people, according to the authors of the book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBTQ People in the United States. Most recently this myth has materialized in the national conversation around North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which banned transgender people from using public restrooms corresponding with their gender identity. During a presidential campaign rally last year, Senator Ted Cruz advocated in favor of bathroom bills by describing transgender women as actually male predators in disguise: “It is basic common sense that a grown adult man — a stranger — should not be alone in a restroom with a little girl.”

The myth of a transgender threat impacts the lives of many transgender people, including those who have experienced domestic violence. For instance, a study of 172 domestic violence agencies providing shelter services reported that just under one-fourth of the agencies did not permit access to shelter for transgender women, and just under half did not permit access for transgender men. Research suggests that some female-only shelters ban transgender victims – including those who currently identify as female as well as those who previously identified as female at the time of their victimization – because of a fear that their mere presence will make female shelter residents feel unsafe and remind them of their male abusers. As a consequence, determinations of whether female transgender victims may access a shelter can rest upon humiliating tests of whether they are feminine enough: admission decisions may factor in physical appearance, voice pitch, and whether they have chosen to have medical interventions. Many transgender people understandably opt not to surgically alter their bodies – which may be costly, risky, and simply not desired. Nonetheless, shelter screenings at times may involve attempts to delegitimize transgender identities for those who have not received sex reassignment surgery, such as when one shelter worker asked a transgender victim, “What is between your legs?”

Accurate data on the prevalence of crime perpetration by transgender people is still needed, in part because major studies of crime – such as the U.S. government’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey – generally do not inquire about transgender identity. That said, as I note in my book LGBTQ Intimate Partner Violence: Lessons for Policy, Practice, and Research – which is the first comprehensive review of research on domestic violence in the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified (LGBTQ) people – studies suggest that transgender people are just as likely to experience domestic violence as cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people. Fear of transgender people thus is not only irrational but can also sharply limit the options for transgender domestic violence victims seeking shelter and safety.

Transphobia, Undocumented Communities, and Domestic Violence

Coverage of the incident by CBS News, among other outlets like The Huffington Post, has focused extensively on the undocumented status of Ms. Gonzalez, and rightly so. Research repeatedly shows that undocumented victims may remain with abusers if they fear that seeking formal help will result in deportation. In recognizing a duty to protect domestic violence victims, the federal government has developed a legal tradition of providing undocumented victims with a pathway to temporary immigration and employment, such as through a U Visa. As El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal noted when speaking with CBS affiliate KDBC-TV, “I cannot recall an instance where ICE agents have gone into the domestic violence court, specifically looking for a victim of domestic violence.”

What is equally important to recognize though is that Ms. Gonzalez’s pathway to safety has almost certainly been met with roadblocks pertaining not only to being undocumented but also transgender. The United States continues to be a hostile environment for transgender communities. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 57 percent of transgender people have experienced significant family rejection; 61 percent have been harassed, assaulted, or expelled from school specifically due to being transgender; 47 percent have been not hired, not promoted, or fired from work due to being transgender; and 44 percent have been denied equal treatment or service in public accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels. While shocking, these rates should not be surprising given the legal context. As Human Rights Campaign notes, the majority of states still do not have laws banning discrimination against transgender people in schools, employment, housing, and public accommodations. It is all the more concerning to learn that the Trump administration may have drafted and be considering an Executive Order that would effectively legalize religiously-motivated discrimination against LGBTQ people nationwide.

We may feel tempted to dismiss the numerous vitriolic, transphobic comments posted in response to the CBS News story as rare, extremist voices. This would be unwise. Research tells us that the myths represented in those comments are not the exception in society but all too often the rule, infiltrating the very systems tasked with helping victims of domestic violence. Until systemic issues of transphobia and xenophobia are addressed, transgender and undocumented victims of domestic violence will remain in the shadows, with few places to turn for help.

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