We Are the Dead: Sex, Assault, and Trans Women

This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. C. L. Minou is a blogger and writer inhabiting a Great American Metropolis. In addition to her work at the Second Awakening, she has written for Shakesville, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, and is a co-blogger at Tiger Beatdown.

She is also, in no particular order, a redhead, a trans woman, an anarcho-syndicalist, a player of RPGs, a reader of science fiction, and a consistently poor speaker of foreign languages.

Trigger Warning

So here’s the thing. I want to talk quite seriously about the whole issue of sexual assault and trans women, bring in all kinds of good scholarship, talk quite soberly and calmly about the facts, weighing each one with all due rational consideration. In fact, as I type this my browser has a forest of tabs open to anti-violence centers, studies on the incidences of violence in the LGBT community, articles, policy papers, and citations to more of the same.

But I really can’t be scholarly and rational, I fear. I really can’t sit back and give you the statistics that will horrify for a moment, break up your day with some hideous imagery for however long it stays in your memory. I can’t do this because for one thing, the studies are practically non-existent–not too many people have bothered to investigate the prevalence of sexual assault in the trans community (and, as we’ll see, there’s probably a lot of underreporting anyway.) That’s one reason.

The other is that for trans women especially, sexual assault rarely stops there. In a depressing number of cases, the assault isn’t even mentioned. Because the victim is dead.

For many trans women, any sex is potentially deadly. The two most publicized murders of trans women in recent years–Gwen Arujo and Angie Zapata–both involved women killed by consensual sexual partners who discovered (or at least claimed to have discovered, in Zapata’s case) their biological history. What’s depressing about public reaction to these cases isn’t the ordinary panoply of responses any woman’s assault summons up–the slut shaming of Gwen Arujo, the “she should have known better” tut-tutting of Angie Zapata–or even the usual dehumanization of the two women–the transphobe’s weapon of choice, using “it” as a pronoun for a person. No–it’s the most common and persistent accusation leveled against trans people of all stripes, the one that underlies both the bathroom libel and the exclusion from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival–the charge that trans people are committing deceit, and that we must advertise at all times, but most especially in sexual encounters, the intimate details of our past.

All trans women know how fraught finding a sexual partner can be. We are caught in the Catch-23: be open about our background and accept that many potential sex partners will simply lose interest, or not disclose and run the risk of being assaulted or even murdered by our partners. (This situation makes the old idea that trans women transition so that they can have sex with men a rather bitterly hollow joke.) Given how complicated, how perilous, simply having consensual sex can be for trans women, is it any surprise that so many of us end up the victims of sexual crimes? Or sexual assault that leads to murder? It almost goes without saying that trans women in dangerous situations–sex workers, prison inmates–suffer an absurdly high amount of abuse; one study showed that 59% of transgendered prison inmates were sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Being the victim of sexual assault is as difficult for trans women as it is for any other woman, but transness adds to that many tarry layers of confidence-shaking horror: the awful feeling of having been violated because your attacker didn’t consider you a woman, the necessity–especially for women who have not had genital surgery–of outing yourself to a large group of people, including the police, and the horrid feeling of being alone–because all too often, the response of rape assistance services leaves much to be desired:

Meanwhile, the police had been notified. Perez says that from the minute the cops showed up—first a group of uniformed men and later two detectives—they began belittling her version of the attack. “They kept saying, `Come on, admit it, you weren’t raped. Someone just roughed you up.”‘ Faced with a room full of doubting officers, Perez says she broke down. “I started crying. I was hysterical and could barely talk.” One of the detectives asked her for identification, at which point Perez handed over two ID cards issued by Street Works, a nonprofit for homeless kids. One identifies her as Joey Perez and the other as Josephine Perez.

“The detective looked at both of them, and then stared at me like he was confused. I said, `I’m a transgender woman,’ and he made a face like he didn’t know what that was.” Then, according to Perez, the detective—who, she says, gave her his name and badge number—bent over and took a long look up her skirt. As he straightened, she claims, he mumbled that “anyone with a penis can’t be raped.”

I wish I could stop here and say that this kind of…let’s be charitable and call it lack of sympathy only comes from men. But as the Kimberly Nixon case showed, even woman-positive organizations can be no haven for trans women, since those groups can, in Canada at least, refuse to hire a qualified rape counselor simply because she looked like a man in their eyes. Presumably they would do the same thing to a trans woman who had been the victim of rape or sexual assault (or domestic violence, as Nixon herself had been.) Even though a trans woman, like many other women who have been assaulted, might long for an all-female environment to aid her recovery, there is no guarantee that she’ll be accepted there. And often no guarantee that anyone else will have her. Even in large cities, finding a trans-positive or even trans-accepting victim center is likely to be impossible. There is nowhere to turn for many trans victims of rape or assault, which is why the sexual assault numbers for trans women–high though they may be–are almost certainly drastically underreported.

Of course, the lack of services available isn’t all that big a deal for far too many trans victims of sexual assault. Dead women need no assistance.

But we are the dead too, the rest of us, the ones asking for it by existing, the scrambled creatures. We are the dead, when we go looking for help where none exists. We are the dead, every time the homophobe’s hate surges because we walk down the street, every time someone marks one of us as their special victim because she hides no longer. We are our dead. We are Gwen and Angie and LaTeisha and Tyl’ia and Amanda. Until the world changes. Or we share their fate.

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20 comments for “We Are the Dead: Sex, Assault, and Trans Women

  1. Jen
    April 12, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve shared it on the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence’s facebook.

    feminist love,

  2. April 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    This is amazing, C.L. And, you’re right: The fact of sexual assault being made invisible, in reports, because the victim is subsequently murdered, is not one to miss.

  3. April 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    It’s interesting how virtually all studies of violence against sexworkers segregate out trans sexworkers as if they’re not real sexworkers or serve entirely different populations, much less likely suffer even higher rates of violence than cissexual sexworkers. The subtext is, they are really men, therefore not as vulnerable… which is bs.

  4. RD
    April 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    NYPD = fucking pigs

  5. chipchop
    April 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for this.

  6. Nicole
    April 12, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for the post. As a pre-op trans woman who generally always blends and is read as cis, concerns about attackers turning murderous and emergency and medical personnel reacting transphobically are always mingled with any concerns about sexual assault. Haven’t really come up with any solutions for myself to handle the possibility other then get GRS and don’t be assaulted.

  7. GinnyC
    April 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Thank you. Thank you, for this post. Your words are extremely powerful, and the message needs to be heard.

  8. April 12, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    This is an incredible post. Thank you.

  9. Alyson
    April 12, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    It’s a major, awful lie.

    Yes, heaven forbid someone be tricked into touching me without prior warning, so they can put on their medicated gloves first.

    • April 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm

      Sincerest apologies to those who saw the transphobic comment that was here for about 5 minutes before I saw it (and banned the person who left it). Alyson replied to it at the same time as I deleted it. It’s still in the archives, assuming that none of us empties the trash, but I won’t be reposting it unless CL specifically asks me to.

  10. Donna L.
    April 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks, C.L.

    I have to admit that having had GRS last year makes me a *little* less afraid of things like this happening to me.

    But I’d be a fool to think they couldn’t still happen.

    BTW, in case you’d like to fix the spelling, Gwen’s name was Araujo. And there are those who believe that her murderers knew about her history well before the night they killed her, and that the whole repulsive “it was trans panic, I couldn’t help myself, any reasonable man would have done the same” excuse was made up after the fact.

  11. Donna L.
    April 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    And I hope there are no comments here like the ones on that awful feministing thread some time ago, arguing that any trans woman who has sex with a cis person without disclosing her history is committing sexual assault.

  12. Katie
    April 12, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    THanks for this post.

  13. April 12, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    @Cara: No need to wake the uh, dead. Transphobia, especially about sexual issues, long ago ceased to be a novelty for me.

    @Gina: I referenced that case? Though my version had the gender of the victim correct, if that’s what you were getting after. (And thanks for fighting the good fight at Trans Group Blog.)

    @Everyone: Thank you so much for your kindness!

  14. April 12, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It’s good and necessary.

  15. Maud
    April 12, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Terrific post, C.L., in both senses of the word, sadly.

  16. April 13, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Thank you, C.L. Terrific post.

  17. April 13, 2010 at 11:16 am

    This is a great, very intense, very necessary post. Thank you for it.

  18. April 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    CL, I didn’t see your link to the story about the San Antonio case… there were lots o’ links.

    Here’s a link to this thread at Questioning Transphobia with a few additional good comments from Lisa Harney.

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