Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Caitlyn Jenner Matters to Crime Victims

Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover has garned a lot of media attention this week. Some lauded her look. Others had more negative responses, choosing to call her "Bruce" or to use masculine pronouns when referring to her. Some individuals grumbled about America’s celebrity-worshipping culture and bemoaned the fact that there are more pressing issues than Caitlyn’s gender identity, like war and famine. To transgender individuals, however, the issue of self-intentity and self-expression can be just as much a matter of life, death, and health as those issues are.

By introducing herself to the world as a transgender woman, Caitlyn has taken a brave step that shines a light on a population that is still fighting for recognition and respect in the United States. Because of their marginalized status, transgender individuals are at increased risk for violent victimization. According to the Office for Victims of Crime:
  • one in two transgender individuals will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime
  • half of transgender women report being physically assaulted by an intimate partner after revealing their status as transgender
  • in 2009, half of the LGBT victims of fatal hate crimes were transgender women. 
However, in 34 states, transgender individuals are not legally protected by hate crime laws.

These high incidence of victimization among transgender individuals may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Statistics and data collection from this highly marginalized population may not be telling the whole story. Furthermore, transgender victims of crime may not be seeking help through the normal channels that are available to cisgender individuals. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that only 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ victims of sexual or domestic violence get services through traditional providers like shelters, legal programs, and victim advocacy groups.

So, what can be done?
1. Learn your terms. For example- Gender is a social construct like girls wearing pink and boys playing with trucks. Sex consists of the genetic markers and genitalia that someone has. Transgender individuals identify with a gender that is not the one associated with their biological sex. Cisgender individuals are those whose biological sex and preferred gender identity coincide. Some individuals do not identify with a binary gender and may identify with both genders or neither. Learn what the letters mean in LGBTQ(IA+). Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words DO matter and they CAN hurt people.

2. Respect Caitlyn Jenner, but don't idealize her. Ms. Jenner is one of the first celebrities to have been in the spotlight as a male and also while transitioning to female. Caitlyn is absolutely gorgeous in her Annie Liebovitz photos, but she also has advantages that not all transgender individuals enjoy- besides photoshop and a professional photographer! 

Gender reassignment surgery, breast augmentation/reduction, facial resculpting/impants, and shaving of the adams apple are all costly medical procedures that many insurance plans don't cover. Ms. Jenner has ostensibly been lucky enough to have at least some of these procedures along with hormone therapy that can also be prohibitively expensive for some trans people. Her privilege also potentially insulates her from societal consequences to transitioning like job loss. Thirty-two states allow individuals to be fired simply for being transgender. Ms. Jenner was lucky enough to get a reality show, but that is of course not a typical outcome for trans individuals.

We must remind ourselves that "passing" for the other gender or how closely a trans person matches our societal norm of "masculine" or "feminine" is not the burden of proof for their acceptance. Individuals who identify as trans but cannot afford surgery, hormone therapy, or other medical procedures are no less worthy of the love and respect owed to all humans. Ms. Jenner is beautiful, but anyone who is able to express their true self even in the face of strong societal gender norms should be appreciated for their strength, bravery, and beauty, as well.

3. Demand better treatment. The criminal justice system and service providers should be called to task for their treatment of trans victims. Police Departments must be trained on issues as simple as how to address a trans person For example, when all else fails, ASK how that person how they prefer to be addressed or use gender-neutral pronouns. Also (not specific to law enforcement), lose the term "tranny" from your vocabulary. It makes anyone who uses it sound outdated and transphobic. Training like this is available and can be obtained through CVAC and its partners.

Whether they exclude them from their service population or just ignore the incidence, victim service providers are at least partially responsible for the small number of trans victims who seek services. CVAC's domestic violence programs are inclusive, but the name Legal Advocates for Abused Women Program predated that inclusivity and may deter trans individuals from seeking help. That is an issue that CVAC must address going forward. Not every service provider has to serve people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but as a community, victim service agencies must make the effort to identify service providers, reach out to the LGBTQ+ population, and to streamline service provision across agencies.

Caitlyn Jenner is just one trans woman, but she has in her story the potential to expose the life or death struggles than many transgender individuals experience on a daily basis. High criminal victimization rates against transgender individuals are an important part of this picture. The information here is only the start of the conversation, but it is an important one that CVAC plans to continue with our partners.

Comments by Director of Advocacy Services