Q&A: Making Anti-Violence Programs More Welcoming for Transgender Survivors

A young person wearing a tie-dye t-shirt.

As we shared last month, anti-violence programs face a new charge to provide services to survivors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). The legislative change marks progress for survivors who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, but may pose additional challenges for shelters and programs that typically separate services for men and women.

Kristie Seelman, an assistant professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has researched the experiences of transgender survivors who feel they receive unequal services or treatment when accessing domestic violence and rape crisis programs. Seelman’s recently published study is the first to explore the ways that race/ethnicity, disability, and other personal factors may impact these experiences. We spoke to Seelman about the findings from that study and steps programs can take to offer more inclusive services.

NCFY: What motivated you to take a closer look at the experiences of transgender individuals who try to access rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs?

Seelman: I was studying social work at the University of Denver, and was interested in ways of improving different settings for the transgender population. The domestic violence shelter movement in general was so informed by feminism, and that’s affected the way we go about offering services. For example, so many shelters are targeted to female survivors, but this was one of the risks in the literature I saw around being transgender.

The transgender population brings forth areas where we can do better serving people related to gender. This is an important critique to grapple with, that addressing gender inequality means transgender inequality as well.

[Discover tips for serving transgender and gender non-conforming youth.]

NCFY: What do you consider the most important findings for staff members who may serve transgender survivors at family violence shelters and programs?

Seelman: People at highest risk for [feeling that they received unequal treatment or services due to being transgender] were non-citizens, people with low income, those with a history of trying to commit suicide or engaging in sex work, and those disconnected from family. Those most in need of help are facing a closed door keeping them from services that they need.

Another important finding is differences by gender identity. There are some patterns where transgender women [male-to-female] are reporting more unequal treatment. A lot of the domestic violence and sexual assault shelter history is based on gender equality, yet transgender women are reporting the greatest discrimination. It’s a call to action for people in these settings to ask, “How can we better serve this population?”

At the same time, some researchers have suggested that transgender men [female-to-male] may be less likely to seek out formal support in situations of violence. One of the things [to consider] when it comes to best practices is communicating openness to identities that include trans men so they seek help when they need it.

[Explore common challenges faced by transgender individuals seeking out community services.]

NCFY: How can service providers make their programs more inclusive of transgender survivors?

Seelman: When I have students introduce themselves, I have them state their preferred pronouns and tell them that this is a best practice. One of the turn-offs for a trans person is assuming a gender identity and using that pronoun rather than asking them. But if someone expresses to staff that they are trans, don’t share the information widely, outing them, unless they ask you to.

Place people in shelters based on how they identify their gender. In some ways [the practice of serving people based on biological sex rather than gender identity] is to protect non-trans women and make a safe space, but a best practice is having services that match how individuals define their identity, as well as keeping everyone safe across the board.

One of the challenges trans people face is how they can find a bathroom they can use safely. If possible, it’s really helpful to have at least one bathroom on site that’s a single-stall bathroom with a locking door, where gender is not a requirement to get in the door.

Be aware that this is a diverse world, and reaching different communities takes practice. It’s a constant educational process in oneself, to see the potential for growth over time.

[Read an abstract of Seelman's study.]

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