CW: Intimate partner violence, sexual assault
You know how you do that thing where you start a blog, prep a few posts to be released in a timely fashion, then start a new job and completely run out of steam? Yeah, sorry rest-of-the-month-of-August-and-beginning-of-September.
I’m back to write about something that feels very important, something weighing heavily on my mind as this new season begins.
This time last year I was debating whether or not I should leave an abusive relationship. We tried couples therapy, we attempted to rebuild intimacy and trust, but ultimately we couldn’t make it work. My ex gave up all interest in trying to work things out, and I knew there was nowhere to go from there. Still, I was reluctant to leave the relationship. We’d been married for just shy of two years, and had moved into an apartment with friends last summer. I was in my final year of college and working on my thesis. It seemed impossible to end this relationship and pick up the slack by myself financially speaking. It all seemed too hard. Around the time I was contemplating all these hard choices, the #WhyIStayed hashtag was making the rounds, and it brought to light that situations like mine take place all over the world all of the time. Survivors of IPV feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and finances are often a leading cause.
Completely distraught, I met with two of my mentors (to whom I will forever owe my gratitude and undying respect) and asked their advice. One gave me the kick in the ass I needed to move forward, and the other assured me my future was bright enough to stand on my own. I began the difficult process of extricating myself from this miserable relationship. As I recently wrote on the subject:
I had to face the fact that not only had my body been violated time and time again, but my belief in another person I once adored and with whom I’d planned to build a life and family had been completely eroded. I decided to get out in order to survive. Sleeping next to someone whose touch made me feel nauseated became too much to bear. I felt fraudulent, pretending to be content when instead I felt absolutely numb. It’s only more recently that I’ve been able to deal with the pain the actions of others caused me, and with complications stemming from the decisions I had to make as a result. Some of those decisions, particularly the ones where I opted to take care of and stand up for myself, resulted in estrangement from other relationships that either had to be temporarily suspended or walked away from completely. It’s been incredibly hard. The domino effect from these choices reverberates through me in countless other ways to this day. Things keep getting better, but slowly and often painstakingly.
It’s never easy to leave. This is particularly true if, like me, you are female assigned at birth and perceived as masculine of center. Though I identify as femme, my identity is fluid and over the years I’ve ID’d as butch, transmasculine, and mostly trans and genderqueer. I’m perceived as male about half the time now, and that comes with innumerable privileges, but also detriments. There are many reasons why FAAB trans, genderqueer, and masculine-of-center (MOC) folks might not report their abuse or seek out help. Some cite their abuse as emasculating — this is similar to why cisgender men don’t report abuse, but when you’re trans, other aspects of your identity can come into play. As survivor Joe Ippolito writes in his article on trans men/MOC folks and IPV:
[T]he trans men/MOC people I talked to seemed, like myself and many other trans people, particularly vulnerable to such abuse because the perpetrators would often use our trans identities against us to further assert power and control over our lives. Other trans-specific abusive tactics include, according to trans advocacy group FORGE: threatening to ‘out’ someone to their employer, friends, or family members; voicing anti-trans epithets and negative stereotypes; and utilizing knowledge of police abuse geared towards trans people to further discourage targets from seeking help.
Someone newly establishing their identity as masculine can be particularly vulnerable because our society teaches us that to be victimized is to be weak, and that only women are raped or abused. Masculinity leaves no room for victimization. Even if we know better it can be tough to overcome that stigma. Some of us might even ask for help but be denied, humiliated, or otherwise invalidated in our identities in the process. We might not be believed, because no one might think a MOC person can be raped or abused. But as this fact sheet on IPV in LGBT communities states, “Abuse is NOT about size, strength, or who is ‘butch’ or more masculine. Abuse is about using control to gain power and control regardless of a person’s gender or sexual identity.” In some cases, we might even fear being further traumatized — or worse. Ky Peterson, a black trans man who defeneded himself against his rapist, has spent the last three years in jail for involuntary manslaughter.*
When you are being abused by another trans or genderqueer person, especially someone male assigned at birth, there is the added pressure to not demonize or imprison a trans woman (or someone who is perceived as such). Similarly to abuse in cisgender lesbian communities discussed in the landmark piece Suffering In a Silent Vacuum, we might feel guilt for bringing more bad press to an already maligned community. But I firmly believe that we will only heal through truth-telling and acknowledging that there is nothing shameful in being abused, and that those of us who have been through it and those of us who perpetrate violence against others have the ability to recover.
Let me be clear: I believe in accountability and rehabilitation for those who cause harm to others. I believe a community can hold folks accountable through love and good faith effort. I know people who have been earnest in their desire to get better and have committed themselves to accountability — one such person put themselves through the process of their own accord and “outs” themselves on first dates as someone who has caused harm. However, when one refuses accountability, or continues to perpetrate harm, (as I learned my ex has,) I also firmly believe in the rights of survivor/victims to warn others and keep their communities safe. The missing stair analogy works well here, and I believe keeping one another from tripping is vital. If the “stair” can’t be fixed and the person who causes harm isn’t willing to get better, we as survivor/victims have every right to call bullshit. I also believe in the rights of survivor/victims to take care of themselves at all costs. For me this meant securing a protection from abuse, filing for divorce, and limiting my exposure to toxic relationships in order to give myself the chance to heal.
I also firmly believe we own our stories. Our stories are powerful. Every time I tell mine, other people share theirs. Sometimes the most powerful thing someone can say is, “yeah, me too.”
In that spirit, I will conclude this post (which turned out to be much, much longer than I thought it would be) with something I shared elsewhere:
If you’re struggling in an abusive relationship, do what you can to save and protect yourself. You deserve to prioritize yourself. If you have to avoid certain people and situations, that’s okay. Learn to trust your gut again. In all likelihood, you’ve been avoiding listening to that tiny voice inside of you for a really long time. You aren’t alone. The more and more I talk about this stuff, the more others open up to me that they’ve been through it, too. You’re not alone. You. are. not. alone. Whenever you feel like you’re completely isolated and wading through the day to day all by yourself feels too hard, take a little piece of me, maybe the words you’re reading now, and keep it with you. You’re strong enough to do what you need. I promise.
For more information on how to get help as a trans person experiencing IPV, check out this link: http://forge-forward.org/
*To learn more about Ky’s struggle, please visit https://freeingky.wordpress.com/
Photo credit: the author