While we know that a person of any gender or sexual orientation can be sexually assaulted, transgender and non-binary individuals and communities experience shocking amounts of violence and discrimination. According to a report by the Office for Victims of Crime, one in two transgender people are sexually abused and assaulted at some point in their lives.
These rates are even higher for transgender youth, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and sex workers. A 2011 report found that 12 percent of trans or non-binary students reported being sexually assaulted in K-12 settings by peers or staff. And this does not account for the likely higher numbers of unreported incidents.
In order to effectively serve trans and non-binary survivors, it is important to know how this population is disproportionately affected by sexual violence.
Transgender is an umbrella term that includes the many ways that people’s gender identities can be different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Many people who are labeled male at birth turn out to identify as men, and many who are labeled female at birth identify as women. However, some people feel that the sex they were assigned at birth doesn’t match their gender identity, or the gender that they feel they are inside.
A transgender woman lives as a woman today, but was thought to be male when she was born. A transgender man lives as a man today, but was thought to be female when he was born. Some transgender people identify as neither male nor female, or as a combination of male and female. There are a variety of terms that people who aren't entirely male or entirely female use to describe their gender identity, like non-binary or genderqueer.
People whose gender is not male or female may use many different terms to describe themselves. One term that some people use is non-binary, which is used because the gender binary refers to the two categories of male and female. To be a non-binary person is – essentially – exactly what it sounds like: To identify yourself, and your gender, as existing outside of the binary definitions of man or woman, masculine or feminine. There are many identities and expressions that can exist within this definition.
Gender identity is separate from sexual orientation – being transgender doesn’t mean you are gay or lesbian. Gender identity refers to your internal knowledge of your own gender. Sexual orientation has to do with whom you’re attracted to. Like non-transgender people, transgender people can have any sexual orientation.
So who decides our gender identity? You do! Everyone—transgender or not—has a gender identity, and only you get to decide what your gender identity is.
Oppression in all of its forms is among the root causes of sexual violence. Ending inequality allows us to create spaces where trans and non-binary people are seen as equal and reduce the amount of violence they experience, including sexual violence. Transgender and gender non-conforming people report high rates of harassment, physical assault, and sexual assault in a variety of settings including, but not limited to, schools, workplaces, prisons, and homeless shelters.
Perpetrators, victims, and others sometimes “blame” the attack on the person’s gender identity. There is also a fear of discrimination and higher rates of denial of care against transgender people. 1 in 5 transgender individuals have been refused medical care, and 28% of trans people have postponed needed medical care for fear of discrimination. Opening up about a sexual assault in any sphere and setting is difficult for survivors, but for trans and non-binary people, added barriers related to homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia in our society make it difficult for survivors to seek the help and support that is necessary for healing.
In a relationship, abusers may leverage power over their transgender partners by threatening to reveal their gender identity to others. Transgender survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner violence may face increased barriers to accessing medical care and other assistance as well.
In addition to high rates of domestic and sexual violence, trans and non-binary people are also often the targets of transphobic hate crimes and state violence. It is common for perpetrators to use sexual violence as a way to exert power and control over someone for being LGBTQ+.
Despite the fact that people who identify as transgender or non-binary experience violence and harassment in every aspect of life at astoundingly high rates (NCTE, 2016), there are still significant gaps in services (Seelman, 2015) for these survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Supporting survivors means promoting inclusivity and affirming, accessible resources to all, and if you know someone personally who has been affected by sexual violence, listening without judgment, with empathy, and simply being there for them is critical for the healing process. Sexual assault is never okay, no matter what.
Survivors may not want or need to tell the story of what happened. Instead, they need to be heard in whatever way they feel most comfortable with. Many people who identify with more than one marginalized identity face multiple levels of oppression.
Listen. Many people in crisis feel as though no one understands them and that they are not taken seriously. Show them they matter by giving your undivided attention. It is hard for many survivors to disclose an assault, especially if they are not out yet and by disclosing would have to come out at the same time, so make sure you are there for them.
Validate their feelings. Avoid making overly positive statements like “It will get better” or trying to manage their emotions, like “Snap out of it” or “You shouldn’t feel so bad.” Make statements like “I believe you” or “That sounds like a really hard thing to go through.”
Express concern. Tell them in a direct way that you care about them by saying something like “I care about you” or “I am here for you.”
Use inclusive language that affirms the survivor’s gender identity and sexual orientation. Rather than assuming someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, use neutral language like “partner” or “date” instead of “boyfriend/girlfriend.” Try not to assume what someone’s gender identity or preferred pronouns are; it’s a better idea to let them tell you, or you can ask what they prefer. You can always use “they” instead of “he/she” if you are unsure.
Do not ask about the details of the assault. Even if you are curious about what happened and feel that you want to fully understand it, avoid asking for details of how the assault occurred. However, if a survivor chooses to share those details with you, try your best to listen in a supportive and non-judgemental way.
The reaction of the first person a survivor discloses to can affect if they choose to tell others or seek additional resources. Remember to listen without judgment, acknowledge the difficulty of what they went through, and tell them that you care about them.