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Op-ed: Why Do Transmasculine People Tend to Stay in Abusive Relationships?

Op-ed: Why Do Transmasculine People Tend to Stay in Abusive Relationships?


Boys Do Cry: One survivor's story helps illuminate the unique pressures that often keep transmasculine people quiet about intimate partner violence.

04-boys-do-cry-633x375_0As a trans man in his late 30s -- 38 to be exact -- I found dating came with a set of challenges. I had been single for close to four years and was ready to meet someone new. While there were definitely aspects of being single that I enjoyed, I also desired love, intimacy, and partnership, and so in January 2007 I set out to find it.

Like most Internet-connected people in today's world, I soon found myself setting up an online dating profile. It read:

"Trans Man seeking mature, fun-loving and kind woman for dating and possible romance."

After posting my profile, I happily corresponded and met with several women, but no one did "it" for me. Then one day when I least expected it, I met the someone who seemed right: a 40-year-old bisexual-identified cisgender woman. She was intelligent, kind, and sexy.

We met at a local coffeehouse for our first date and it felt like love at first sight. From that point forward, we spent every day together, going to the dog park with our pups, eating out at great restaurants, attending community events, and taking weekend car trips together. Life seemed perfect for three months.

And then everything changed.

Suddenly she started trying to keep me from seeing my friends. She criticized me about simple things, like how I made the bed. She grabbed my arm, tight and demanding, at least three times when I disagreed with her. And when I attempted to confront her about these issues, she quickly turned things around by saying I was "blowing" things out of proportion and it was not as it seemed. Sadly, I believed her.

By month 5, things had gone from bad to worse. This woman, someone who claimed to "love" and respect me, had attacked me physically at least three times, had threatened to out my trans identity to my neighbors, and was calling me all kinds of horrible names daily.

At this point, I knew it was time to get out. However, I had also kept my experiences with her a secret from friends and family for six months. I was ashamed, and I wanted to protect her from ridicule by them because I did love her. Plus I feared being alone. How could anyone love a trans man like me?

Despite this, I broke off the relationship and went no contact with her -- blocking her from all email accounts, my cell phone number, etc. I also started weekly outpatient psychotherapy and attended Codependency Anonymous meetings in an effort to openly look at my own part in things. After all, it takes two to tango and when it comes to intimate partner violence -- IPV, as I learned to call it -- things are not always so cut-and-dried.

I also started talking with trans men and masculine-of-center people about their experiences with IPV. Slowly but surely the stories bubbled forth from their depths: Each had endured a pattern of behavior where their intimate partner had dominated, abused, or isolated them to maintain power and control over them and the relationship.

As I kept meeting self-identified trans male/masculine-of-center targets of IPV, I heard more and more stories of individuals being mentally, physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by someone who "claimed" or still "claims" to love them. Some shared that they were financially extorted, smeared on social media, threatened, beaten, or stalked, and had their trans identity "outed" to friends, family and coworkers. Additionally, many of them suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the relationship. PTSD, triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, resulted in hyper-vigilance to noise, nightmares, isolation from others, depression, and suicidal thoughts, among other things.

Additionally, I found, the 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.

Two years ago I began working therapeutically with transmasculine people who have faced abuse like this. I'd been trained through my doctorate in psychology to note the cycle of violence, and I started to develop a hunch that this particular process uniquely manifests itself when present in the lives of trans men and MOC people.

I wanted to learn more. So I decided to run my first IPV workshop at a transgender conference last summer with my colleague Marilyn Layne Yassen, a psychiatric physician's assistant from Florida. We wondered to each other as we planned: Would trans men even engage in a conversation about violence in their relationships? Would they be receptive to our theories about why men like me and the others I'd spoken to often find ourselves in and remain a part of abusive partnerships?

As I strode toward the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference hall that first afternoon, I honestly expected I'd walk into a room full of empty chairs. But when I took my place next to Layne at the front of the room, we watched as people began trickling in quietly, one by one or in pairs. By the time we began, 35 seats were filled. We had a deep, wide-ranging conversation about how IPV had touched all of their lives -- including what kept them in the relationship, what steps some took to get out, and the struggles and fears that still faced those in abusive situations.

When Layne and I continued this same workshop at the conference in 2015, we were met with yet another receptive crowd of trans men/MOC people, all of whom self-identified as targets of IPV.

It quickly became very clear to me in these sessions that IPV perpetrators and targets come in all shapes and sizes. They can be young or older; cis or trans; male, masculine-of-center, agender, or genderqueer-identified; gay, bi, pan, or straight; butch or femme; monogamous or polyamorous; in open relationships and/or part of BDSM communities. They can also be from any racial, cultural, class, or educational background and/or be differently abled. How someone self-identifies their gender or sexuality, where they come from, or what their personal backgrounds are have nothing to do with who abuses or is abused.

It's also worth particularly noting that IPV is an issue that trans men are not immune to, though society sends us messages that masculine people are impervious.

I've now encountered dozens of trans men/MOC who have experienced intimate partner violence. Yet this trend is still not something I've heard discussed in wider trans spaces. Of course, IPV, whether experienced by transmasculine or transfeminine people (who also report staggering rates) is often shrouded in silence. But being able to talk about it -- or even for survivors to just hear that people know it happens -- is all part of healing.

And when we initiate trans-specific conversations about IPV, we need to be clear that trans men and masculine-of-center people have specific risk factors directly related to their gender identities not shared by other men or even other people on the "trans" spectrum.

Why? Well, Layne and I have gleaned from our anecdotal group discussions that IPV plays out differently for trans men/MOC individuals than it does for cisgender men, due in large part to our unique gender socialization experiences.

While socialization -- the process of adapting to social norms that we all learn instinctively as children -- definitely differs based on one's personal background, a vast number of female-assigned people are socialized to believe they do not deserve to be treated with respect or are "lesser than" merely because they were labeled "female" at birth. Additionally, trans men/MOC people most likely experience sexual trauma and abuse growing up at the same striking rate (20-percent) as cisgender women because we too were once considered "female-bodied."

This is not, of course, to say that male-assigned people are not socialized in damaging ways as well, or that trans women are never targeted as children for femininity or lack of adhering to male gender norms. This is to say that anyone -- including trans men/MOC people -- who lives any portion of their life as a "woman" may experience female socialization patterns, which press upon us the need to accept how we are treated, not speak up, and not protect ourselves from those who hurt us. Children especially internalize these mandates and often have a hard time recognizing them until adulthood.

Then as adults, regardless if if a man "passes" as male or not, many trans men/MOC people are expected to conform to certain male or masculine socialization traits. These traits drive home the antiquated notion that if we want to be considered "real" men we need to grin and bare it, contain our emotions and not complain, thus further silencing transmasculine violence survivors. This is compounded by the fact that some transmasculine people, like many trans targets, stay in IPV situations because we fear no one else will love us due to our identities.

When it comes to trans men/MOC people, there's one more complication that needs to be mentioned: When we do speak up about IPV, we may be accused or seen as the perpetrator, when we are the ones being abused. Culturally, it still remains a reality that men are most often seen as "the abusers" within a violent dynamic, and trans men/MOC people are not free from these assumptions.

While it's clear that women are more often the targets of IPV, men can also be abused by intimate partners. So when a man says he's been abused, the best response is the listen to him. Yet Layne and I have found that when trans male or MOC survivors are able to break through the cultural barriers and seek help, it turns out that there are few, if any, support options available because most IPV services are geared toward women, designed from a cisgender context, and/or may be homophobic and transphobic in nature.

When combining the many factors mentioned above, it is easy to see why some trans men find themselves in and have trouble getting out of abusive relationships. This is a silent trend that other transmasculine people, trans and LGB communities, and all allies need to become better aware of to help survivors feel like they have more options than staying. This begins by starting to self-educate, listening nonjudgmentally when survivors tell their stories, and finding ways in-person and online to open safe space where trans men and masculine-of-ccenter people feel like they can talk openly about their experiences of violence.

For more pointers please check out the Trans Masculine Abuse Project, a site I co-created to support trans male and masculine-of-center targets of intimate partner violence.

If you are an LGBT person who is or you believe may be experiencing intimate partner violence, you can reach the GLBTQ Domestic Violence Project at (800) 832-1901. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can also be reached all day at (800) 799-7233. If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person (or partner of such), you can call (414) 559-2123 for FORGE to help direct you to local resources.

JOE IPPOLITO is a Doctor of Psychology, clinician, organizer, researcher, writer, advocate, and filmmaker. He is a founding member of both the Gender Reel film festival and the Trans Masculine Abuse Project (TAP).

Check back tomorrow to hear more stories in the Boys Do Cry series that pull back the curtain on trans men's experiences with violence.

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