How Transphobia Impacts Survivors

How Transphobia Impacts Survivors

Often, the survivors portrayed in the media all look and act the same. Based on what we see on our screens, you might assume that only certain types of people can be survivors of sexual or intimate partner violence- people that are heterosexual, cisgender, white, and have no visible disabilities. But of course, we know that this is not the case. Anyone can experience sexual and intimate partner violence, and survivors often look differently from what is usually presented to us. This lack of representation makes many believe that their experiences are not valid and that the resources and services which exist to support survivors are not meant for them. Members of the LGBTQ community experience some of the highest rates of violence but are rarely the focus of prevention or intervention efforts.

LGBTQ individuals also face barriers to accessing services that heterosexual and cisgender people do not. One study found that only 4% of LGBTQ people seek support from domestic violence agencies, much less than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts (Turrel, 2014; Valquez, 2019). When LGBTQ individuals do reach out for help, they often experience discrimination and retraumatization. 31% of LGBTQ+ people who called the police for help reported that they were arrested instead of the perpetrator, and transgender individuals, in particular, are more likely to report that police responded inadequately to their complaints(Valquez, 2019). 

 One of the ways transgender victims have been historically discriminated against within the legal system is through a legal defense strategy referred to as the “trans panic” defense  The “trans panic” defense is a strategy that is used to defend or justify violence committed against a gay or trans individual, especially in an intimate relationship.  This defense argues that it’s reasonable to respond with violence when one learns that an intimate or potential intimate partner is transgender, based partially upon the harmful myth that being transgender is a form of deception in and of itself. According to the American Bar Association, these defenses seek to “partially or completely excuse crimes such as murder and assault because the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction.” These legal defenses are a perverse synergy of transphobia and rape culture, where victim blaming is coupled with myths surrounding transgender individuals to justify violence. 

The most notable case of the “trans panic” defense being used was in 2004, in California. Gwen Araujo was only 17 years old when four men beat and strangled her. During the trial, two of Araujo’s attackers used the “trans panic defense”, arguing that she had deceived them about her ‘real sex’, and that this deception was a challenge to their masculinity, as they had previously had intimate relations with her.  Despite Araujo being attacked because of her gender identity, the jury did not apply the hate crime-based sentencing available in California and only found the defendants guilty of second-degree murder. The jury ruled that there was no premeditation or deliberation, implicitly supporting the defense’s argument that this was an understandable emotional response to learning the victim was transgender (Buist, 2014). Cases like Gwen Araujo show how transphobic myths act as justifications for the violence committed against transgender individuals and the importance of dispelling these myths, especially as they relate to intimate partner violence and sexual assault. 

Fortunately, this type of defense is now illegal in fifteen states, including California. However, the cultural myths which underpin this way of thinking continue to permeate our culture. The myth that transgender individuals are actively misleading others by identifying with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth is untrue and directly upholds violence against the trans community. This pride month, while we celebrate our LGBTQ+ community, we must continue to fight against harmful ideologies that aim to further marginalize them.  At Lumina, we want to affirm that our services are for ALL survivors, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we encourage you to consider supporting local nonprofits that support the LGBTQ+ community, like the GALA Pride and Diversify Center (GALA) and Tranz Central Coast.



Buist, C.L., Stone, C. Transgender Victims and Offenders: Failures of the United States Criminal Justice System and the Necessity of Queer Criminology. Crit Crim 22, 35–47 (2014).

Turell, Susan & Cornell-Swanson, La. (2005). Not All Alike. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services. 18. 71-88. 10.1300/J041v18n01_06. 

Vasquez, A. L. (2019). Victimization and help-seeking experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.