Unpacking the Crisis of Transmisogyny

As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Tamara Hatamjonov, killed by a man on or around 12th January 2020, at the age of 23.

By Jessica Sutton.

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence which may distress readers.

2020 has been a hard year for almost everyone, but it has been one of the deadliest years on record for transgender people globally. Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place each year on the 20th of November, to commemorate trans lives lost to violence. This year, the death toll stands at more than 350.[1]

The youngest of the victims was just 15 years old.
The vast majority of victims were trans women.

Yet, violence against trans people is often marginalised in the media, treated with less significance by Police, and either fetishized or ignored by the wider public.

Putting the Spotlight on Violence against Trans Women

Gender-based violence rates are high globally, but trans women experience higher relative rates of this form of violence. In accordance with a long-standing pattern, 98% of trans people killed in 2020 were trans women.[2] This pattern of harm is particularly prominent in rates of domestic violence. Cisgender women are the majority victims of domestic violence, but transgender people, particularly transgender women of colour, experience shocking rates of intimate partner violence.[3]

A report issued by the Scottish Transgender Alliance and Scotland’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Domestic Abuse Project found that 80% of trans respondents had experienced intimate partner violence, including 46% reporting that someone had forced them into sex.[4] Psychological violence was also common, with 73% of respondents reporting abuse such as preventing them from transitioning or changing their appearance, ‘outing’ them in dangerous situations, and verbal degradation relating to their gender identity.[5]

Another pattern in the rates of violence is that sex workers are often targeted. In the 2008-2020 period, 62% of trans people killed have been sex workers.[6] This reflects both the increased vulnerability of sex workers, and the horrific societal attitudes towards people who engage in sex work that perpetuate and legitimise violence against them.

The majority of data on violence against trans people is sourced from the United States. This kind of violence appears to be prevalent in the Pacific region as well, although there has been little research conducted in this region thus far. From the data available it is clear that trans women experience significant discrimination and interpersonal violence throughout the Pacific region. A 2011 study indicated 40 per cent of trans women in Fiji have experienced sexual violence, and femicides of trans women are becoming more common.[7] Samoan trans activist Tuisina Ymania Brown suggests this violence and discrimination in the Pacific region emerges out of views on gender stereotypes and “the supremacy of the [gender] binary”.[8]

The true rate of violence against trans people globally is unclear, as up to 79% of crimes go unreported, and victims are often misgendered in mainstream media.[9]

Why Do Trans Women Experience More Gendered Harm?

Trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence due to the intersection between transphobia and misogyny, typified as transmisogyny. Transmisogyny may also be experienced by other gender diverse people who present in a stereotypically feminine way.  Transmisogyny is a particularly potent form of hatred as it is based on both a hatred of femininity, sourced from a patriarchal society that devalues and degrades women, and a hatred of those who transgress gender norms and defy the gender binary. In a society that vehemently polices the “acceptable” way to be a woman, trans women are vilified for their very existence. This policing of femininity is often achieved by directing violence against those defying gender norms. Cisgender men are the vast majority of perpetrators of violence against trans women.

Gender theorist Judith Butler argues that trans women experience more violence at the hands of cisgender men due to the impact of toxic masculinity.[10]  Cisgender men may target trans women to punish them for embracing femininity. The perceived “choice” that trans women make to take on a feminine identity and deny their assigned sex at birth, “poses a fundamental threat to male superiority”.[11] Further, cisgender men often employ violence against trans women they have flirted with or interacted with sexually. Making advances to or having sex with a trans women can threaten the perpetrator’s sense of masculinity, fuel male homophobia, and lead to fatal violence. These problems are exacerbated by racism in cases involving trans women of colour, who experience racial oppression on top of transmisogyny. Trans activist Julia Serano describes this violence by cisgender men as stemming from “the fear of being seen as feminine…as long as most men remain deathly afraid of it, they’ll continue to take it out on the rest of us.”[12]

The outcome of this gender policing, transmisogyny, homophobia, and racism can be seen in cases such as the murder of Keisha Jenkins, who was ferociously beaten and shot to death by at least five men,[13] and the murder of Tamara Dominguez, who was intentionally run over multiple times by a truck.[14] This brutality is known as “overkill”, where the violence used is far more than necessary to kill the victim. Overkill is particularly common in intimate partner femicides in New Zealand, occurring in 52% of femicide cases in 2009-2017.[15]  According to Judith Butler, the excessive violence employed by cisgender men against trans women is a means to secure “his absolute power…[and]…establish a world in which no one like her exists”.[16]

The societal conditions trans women often find themselves in may also leave them exposed and vulnerable to violence. Trans people frequently experience discrimination in employment, poor healthcare, and family rejection, leading them to higher rates of homelessness and engagement in survival sex work.[17] These are risk factors for violence.

Prejudice in the Legal System

Along with these horrific rates of violence, trans people, in particular trans women, struggle to get justice in the legal system. Trans victims of gender-based violence must combat not only legal systems that are manifestly ill-suited to dealing with gendered crimes, but also legislative and judicial discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. Gender dysphoria was classified as a disease by the World Health Organisation until 25 May 2019, while some countries still retain a crime of “female impersonation”.[18] Globally, few laws concerning hate crimes include violence perpetrated on the basis of gender identity.[19] Where hate crime laws do include violence on the basis of gender identity, murders of trans women are still rarely classified as hate crimes by Police.

In certain jurisdictions, the “trans panic defence” is still a legitimate legal defence to assault and murder. This includes claims that being approached by a trans woman, or discovering a woman is trans, justifies a severe negative reaction extending to inflicting fatal violence.[20] More widely, European states such as Poland and Russia have employed “pro-family” rhetoric criticising “LGBT ideology”, in order to legitimise policies limiting the rights of trans people.[21] Prominent LGBTQIA+ activists have also been killed as countries become more conservative in their approaches to LGBTQIA+ rights.[22] All of this discrimination is escalating, indicating that countries are experiencing a global shift backwards in legal rights for trans people.

What Can Be Done?

The crisis of violence against trans women needs to be afforded urgent attention by governments worldwide. Institutional and systemic issues that expose trans women to increased levels of violence must be addressed. Gender diversity education needs to be implemented to cut through the fog of toxic masculinity and transmisogyny that fuels this abhorrent violence. However, systemic reform is not everything. Individuals have a crucial role to play to end this crisis, in particular cisgender women and men.

Both cisgender women and men need to address their own prejudices about trans women, and educate themselves on the intersections between misogyny, transphobia, racism, and homophobia. The very least that cisgender feminists can do is to include trans women in feminist activism, and centralise trans women of colour in discussions about gender-based violence in particular. Any exclusion of trans women is the antithesis of feminism, as it claims that there is one acceptable way to be a woman. Attempting to define femininity based on uniform biological characteristics only strengthens the gender binary and thereby facilitates oppression of women.

As Julia Serano said, “So long as we refuse to accept that “woman” is a holistic concept, one that includes all people who experience themselves as women, our concept of womanhood will remain a mere reflection of our own personal experiences and biases rather than something based in the truly diverse world that surrounds us.”[23]

[1] https://www.them.us/story/at-least-350-transgender-people-killed-globally-in-2020

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiewareham/2020/11/11/350-transgender-people-have-been-murdered-in-2020-transgender-day-of-remembrance-list/?sh=6956eb2465a6

[3] Scottish Transgender Alliance and Scotland’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Domestic Abuse Project Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Transgender People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse (2010) at 2; Garthe and others “Prevalence and Risk Correlates of Intimate Partner Violence Among a Multisite Cohort of Young Transgender Women” (2018) 5(6) LGBT Health 333 at 339; and Human Rights Campaign “Violence against the Transgender Community in 2018” (2018) Human Rights Campaign <www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2018>.

[4] Scottish Transgender Alliance and Scotland’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Domestic Abuse Project Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Transgender People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse (2010) at 5.

[5] Scottish Transgender Alliance and Scotland’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Domestic Abuse Project Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Transgender People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse (2010) at 12.

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiewareham/2020/11/11/350-transgender-people-have-been-murdered-in-2020-transgender-day-of-remembrance-list/?sh=6956eb2465a6

[7] Health Policy Project, Asia Pacific Transgender Network, United Nations Development Programme Blueprint of Comprehensive Care for Trans People and Trans Communities in Asia and the Pacific (2015) at 16;

and Liam Fox “Murdered on International day against Transphobia: fears Fiji killing is a hate crime (23 July 2018) ABC <www.abc.net.au>.

[8] APCOM “Award Winning Activist Warns of Increasing Violence Against Transgender People in Asia Pacific” (2019) <www.apcom.org>.

[9] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/cy/node/65106

[10] https://www.vice.com/en/article/z4jd7y/why-do-men-kill-trans-women-gender-theorist-judith-butler-explains

[11] https://www.bwss.org/transmisogyny-101-what-it-is-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/

[12] Julia Serano Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007).

[13] https://abcnews.go.com/US/transgender-womans-slaying-philadelphia-believed-20th-year-us/story?id=34309856

[14] https://www.kctv5.com/news/transgender-woman-killed-after-being-run-over-multiple-times/article_8ff07de1-1bdb-50ee-93e3-17606f125ca1.html

[15] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/111091452/what-is-overkill-and-why-is-it-so-common-in-new-zealand

[16] https://www.vice.com/en/article/z4jd7y/why-do-men-kill-trans-women-gender-theorist-judith-butler-explains

[17] Human Rights Campaign Foundation A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018 (2018) at 39.

[18] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiewareham/2020/05/25/trans-rights-in-global-recessionone-year-after-transgender-removed-from-who-list-of-diseases/?sh=197767515d80

[19] Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Colour Coalition Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence (2015).

[20] https://lgbtbar.org/programs/advocacy/gay-trans-panic-defense/

[21] https://tgeu.org/support-trans-people-in-poland/

[22] https://www.npr.org/2019/07/23/744420960/russian-lgbt-activist-is-found-dead-friends-say-she-was-threatened

[23] Julia Serano Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007).

Photo by Flavia Jacquier from Pexels

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