Every year on the 20th of November, we observe Transgender Day of Remembrance. Many people and activist groups observe this day in many, different ways. Some use the day as a day of action, others to mourn. At the end of the day--despite the language and tactics we send it in--many of us are all expressing the same message. We honor those we’ve lost, reflect on the ways we are being killed (directly and indirectly), and take action to improve our quality of life. This too, comes in many forms. The day would be incomplete without discussing the ways our communities are disproportionately targeted by the criminal (in)justice system; or how—even in death—the media strips us of our identities, victim-blames, and stereotypes us. We often look at the ways our society is designed to push us further and further into the margins, via healthcare, economic structure, the war on sex workers, the housing industry, etc.
All of these are important issues and deserve room at the center of our work on this day. This year, I find myself reflecting on thoughts of those of us who have experienced sexual assault. Not only those who have passed, but those who are still with us. In 2015, the popular transgender anti-violence organization, Forge, published a self-help manual for us transgender folks who have experienced sexual violence. In this manual, I found some very important statistics that have stuck with me throughout the year. When reading this manual, I learned that the transgender suicide attempt rate increases from 41% to 64% when we only include transgender people who have experienced sexual abuse.
So, what do I think has 64% of transgender people who have experienced sexual assault to attempt suicide? Of course, there is no simple answer to that question. The trauma of sexual assault effects transgender people in many of the same ways it effects anyone else. This trauma often results in depression, guilt, blame, and most commonly, fear. It is also very common for trans people in particular—as well as many others—to experience a shift in their relationship with their own body, this can be difficult as some trans people, like myself, already have an uncomfortable relationship with their bodies.
While I have no doubt that these issues contribute to the heightened suicide attempts of transgender people who have experienced sexual abuse, I believe there is something else that is often left out of the conversation. The truth is, the anti-sexual violence movement is not fit to meet our needs. This does not apply to all the people working in the anti-sexual violence movement, but the movement itself. I have been working and interning in the anti-violence non-profit world for just over a year, putting in between 40 and 70 hours a week to work full time and earn my Masters of Social Work. I also spent most of my undergraduate career focusing on these issues. Most importantly, I am a transgender survivor of sexual assault and suicide. I believe these experiences have given me some important insight into this epidemic.
During my short time being involved in this movement, I have became quite familiar with what I now know as the problem of the “perfect” survivor. I must admit, those words are not mine. I first learned of this concept, when I was introduced to others with experiences similar to mine through the anthology Queering Sexual Violence, edited by Jennifer Patterson. The idea of the “perfect” survivor is that there is an ideal person who is at the center of the anti-sexual violence movement and the services we provide. Others, who fall outside of this ideal are often excluded from services or have the adequacy of their services sacrificed to protect the “perfect” survivor. As we all know, the “perfect” survivor rarely exists, but there are enough people who meet these expectations that we allow them to remain at the center of our services. The “perfect” survivor is a middle class, white, cisgender, woman ages 18 to 25, who are able-bodied and free from mental health struggles.
When I was sexually assaulted and found myself in a short-lived abusive relationship with that person, I didn’t even identify the possibility of reaching out to an anti-violence organization despite having spent the three years prior volunteering at one. The thought didn’t come to my mind and I believe that was a result of me being so far away from the experiences of the “perfect” survivor. I am a genderqueer person, who was always assumed to be male. My abusive partner was the first person that I was ever fully out to upon meeting. Despite the fact that she called herself a feminist, I was experiencing emotional abuse directly related to my trans identity. This pushed me outside of the “perfect” survivor requirements that I had been subconsciously trained to believe in. I also said yes in the era of Yes Means Yes. Did it matter that I said “No” 15 times already and clearly communicated my boundaries? I didn’t think so, because Yes Means Yes. This pushed me further outside of this “perfect” survivor mold. I have severe mental health problems that were amplified by the trauma that I was experiencing; yet again, I felt pushed far beyond the “perfect” survivor. Instead of contacting an anti-violence organization, I attempted suicide. Fortunately for me, I couldn’t take the physical effects of that overdose. I panicked and my mother took me to the hospital. I was very close to becoming another name on the list of transgender people we honor on this day every year.
Still to this day, I struggle to identify myself as a victim or survivor, because of how pervasive the idea of the “perfect” survivor is. I struggle as a result of the myths of our greater society and the myths within the anti-violence movement that have influenced my beliefs about my own survivorhood. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance I am honoring those who have been sexually assaulted. I am honoring everyone who has experienced sexual abuse, but especially those who don’t fit the mold of the “perfect” survivor. I am remembering those who have taken their life and holding solidarity and love with those who are still here. Lastly, I am demanding the greater anti-violence movement to recognize the faults of our movement and encouraging everyone involved with the movement to reflect on these faults. Our lives depend on it.