By Choya Adkison-Stevens, OCADSV Equity & Inclusion Coordinator
Do you sometimes feel confused or overwhelmed by trying to keep up with evolving language and experiences regarding gender and sexuality? This article aims to provide some easy to understand information that will help ground our conversations about (and work to improve) gender-inclusive services.
Note: there is a helpful terms list here; use it when you run into a word you don’t understand!
In this article I will discuss three concepts — gender essentialism, the gender binary, heteronormativity — and the ways they limit our ability to provide gender-inclusive services. I will briefly reference relevant law and policy that affirm we must provide services to survivors of all genders. And I will present some practical suggestions for improving accessibility for people of all genders, particularly those who are not cisgender women. Keep an eye out for a webinar expanding on some of this material.
The foundation of our advocacy work is promoting self-determination and safety for survivors. We generally understand the need for our services stems from the use of patriarchal and misogynistic violence, and other forms of oppression (ableism, racism, homophobia, etc) exacerbate the harm caused. We are committed to upholding the dignity of each and every survivor, regardless of gender, race, language, income, disability, etc; these are the anti-oppressive values from which we strive to do our work.
However, sometimes our advocacy work is impeded by the lingering, often unstated, even unconscious, belief in what is called gender essentialism: the view that women and men are fundamentally and permanently different on a biological level. One of the places this shows up is the mistaken belief that transgender women are actually men, and should not be allowed in spaces historically or currently intended for women. This is incredibly harmful to inclusion, healing and uplifting for trans women, many of whom experience incredibly high rates of violence. As United States Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta reminded us last summer in a powerful address, “transgender women are women; they live, work and study as women.”
OCADSV suggests that a movement historically focused on violence against women could grow stronger by centering the experiences of transgender women (whom we seldom see within our work either as staff or participants, due to widespread transmisogyny) and other people who are historically and currently deeply marginalized both by society at large and by mainstream service delivery.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) “includes specific language specifying that any program be open to domestic violence victims regardless of “sex, gender identity, [or] sexual orientation.”” (National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence) This means that most programs receiving funding under VAWA must provide the same services to all survivors regardless of gender. VAWA does allow some exceptions for sex-segregated services. In these cases, according to the Trans Advocate, “best practices dictate that the recipient should ask a transgender beneficiary which group or service the beneficiary wishes to join. The recipient may not, however, ask questions about the beneficiary’s anatomy or medical history or make burdensome demands for identity documents.”
Gender Identity & DV/SA Services
The gender binary is “a concept or belief that there are only two genders and that one’s biological or birth gender will align with traditional social constructs of masculine and feminine identity, expression, and sexuality.” (Dictionary.com) This is an outdated and limited model of understanding gender. There are many people whose gender identity exists outside these assumptions; therefore we can gather that the gender binary does not represent an accurate depiction of gender, and we can work to unlearn it. In its place, we can understand gender as a spectrum, or something even more complex. Some people identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth (these folks might self-identify, or be understood as, transgender). Some people identify with a gender other than “woman” or “man”, or with no gender at all (sometimes using words like agender, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming).
How might this antiquated understanding of gender harm survivors? Most DV/SA services are designed for cisgender women. Despite best intentions, most advocates are still trained to believe that most or all of the people they will serve will be cisgender women. When a survivor who is not a cisgender woman (say a trans woman, or a cisgender man, or an agender person) attempts to access services in support of safety and self-determination, staff at programs — again, despite positive intent — are often puzzled and do not know the best way to provide support. They may even be confused about agency policy regarding whether they are allowed to serve the person (policy is often unstated and/or unclear on this issue, though federal law is clear that discrimination based on gender identity is not permitted).
If and when someone who is not a cisgender woman manages to access services (whether crisis line, shelter or nonresidential), those services may not take into consideration the person’s gender identity and experiences they’ve had around gender-related discrimination or harm. They might feel they’re being squeezed into a box that doesn’t really fit, and they may get disheartened or exhausted and leave services, possibly going on to avoid services in the future.
For all these reasons and more, it is important that we continuously unlearn assumptions of a binary model of gender, and that we work to ensure our services are accessible for and culturally responsive to people of all genders. One simple way to move toward accessible services is to use language like I am using here — say “people of all genders” rather than “women” or “men/women/children.”
Sexuality & DV/SA Services
We must critically examine not just our assumptions around gender, but also our way of thought around sexuality. Gender and sexuality are different pathways in a person’s life, however, dominant culture sometimes conflates these distinct categories. Heteronormativity references a worldview that “promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.” (Oxforddictionaries.com) Similar to the gender binary, this is an inaccurate and exclusionary view of human sexuality; not only does it exclude many people (such as yours truly) but the assumed norm of heterosexuality actually places burden on and harms people who are not straight (queer, lesbian, bisexual, gay, etc). As Kristen Cochrane writes in Teen Vogue, “If you’re not heteronormative, you’re forced to explain yourself, while cisgender and heterosexual people don’t have to.”
In our work, there is often an automatic default to heteronormative language. Think about how descriptions of services (whether in a brochure, online, or in a training) are frequently set up to assume the survivor is a woman and the person who did harm is a man (typically with the further unstated assumption that they are both cisgender). This is an example of heteronormativity at work. Imagine being a queer or gay survivor trying to find services online and encountering that language — how disheartening that could be! What does this say about how welcoming the program might prove to be?
How does heteronormativity harm survivors? For the many people who experience sexual or intimate partner violence, who are not heterosexual, their experiences are often invisibilized in services. Services are typically designed for straight cisgender women. People in same-gender relationships, whether abused by a partner or someone else, may feel alienated by programs that fail to account for their experiences of sexuality and partnership. They may have to work extra hard to explain or correct their experiences to advocates — on top of trying to deal with impacts of trauma and other challenges.
It behooves us to ensure that our services do not assume anyone’s sexual orientation, that we welcome and affirm each person’s experience, and that we develop an understanding of the impacts of transphobia and homophobia on abuse, help-seeking, interactions with law enforcement, etc.
While most research still shows that domestic and sexual violence disproportionately target women — keeping in mind that transgender women have even higher rates of experiencing violence than cisgender women do, and so our work must acknowledge this and be inclusive — people of all genders experience violence and are capable of doing harm. It’s important for us to find ways to represent both of these realities in our work — and we are still figuring out how to do that. A helpful tool is our anti-oppression work, where we are practiced at understanding dynamics at both a structural and an interpersonal level. Sometimes those levels align (a man – who has social power/privilege, abusing a woman) and sometimes they do not (a woman – who doesn’t have social power/privilege, nonetheless abusing a male partner). Abuse hurts, no matter the gender of the person experiencing harm or the gender of the person doing harm. As such, services must reach people of all genders. At the same time, our work is taking place in the framework of understanding that this violence is rooted in patriarchy, dominance, exploitation, coercion, etc.
It is not enough to suggest that women and men both need support services, and that these services can either coexist or should be provided separately. This approach leaves out a lot of people who do not identify as either men or women. It is important we ensure services are available for all people who experience sexual or domestic violence, and that our services attend to their experiences of gender and sexuality in appropriate and nuanced ways.
Include your pronouns (in email signature, business cards, etc)
Use language like “survivors of all genders” (rather than “women” or “men,” or “female/male survivors”)
On forms and in conversation, as much as possible
Use gender neutral language (“they” rather than “she,” for example)
Do not assume heterosexuality in intimate relationships (avoid language such as “boyfriend/husband,” use “partner” instead)
Ask participants’ pronouns rather than assuming
Provide single stall bathrooms that are all-gender so anyone can use them safely and comfortably
Create organizational partnerships/MOUs with orgs that provide support related to changing gender markers/documentation with court systems, passports, OHP, etc
Create MOUs for appropriate referrals for gender-affirming healthcare
Connect and familiarize with organizations such as the Oregon Anti-Violence Project, TransActive, and others that do LGBTQ specific work
All people need and deserve services that work for them; this is just a beginning. Please be in touch if you would like help in better aligning your services for people of all genders.
Look for an upcoming webinar on this issue. Check out the resources and recommended reading below. And if you want to talk about any of this, please contact me. I am overjoyed to have the opportunity to support all our member programs, as well as community partners when capacity permits, in ensuring our services address the full range of survivor experience and are as accessible as possible to survivors from marginalized communities.
A list of barriers for LGBTIQ survivors, from the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.
How to be a genderqueer feminist by Laurie Penny — discusses “woman” as both a personal identity and a political category — lots of people who were assigned female at birth may not identify personally as women, but may be politically aligned with women/feminism, given how they are perceived/treated by the world.