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Transcending Violence — How Social Workers Can Help Transgender Women of Color Heal From Intimate Partner Violence

By Antar Bush, MSW, MPH

Social worker Brené Brown, PhD, says, “Stories are just data with a soul” (Brown, 2012). Policy people like me can get caught up in the data and forget that the numbers we analyze represent real people. When you are a social worker trying to do major multitasking, it is possible to fall into the trap of seeing people as simply charts and percentages on a PowerPoint presentation.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, has acknowledged the significantly higher rate of violence trans women experience, especially trans women of color. However, the #MeToo movement overall may sometimes marginalize trans women because of a longstanding societal bias that somehow trans women do not represent “real” women. When trans women share their stories, they are frequently not believed. Their experiences of intimate partner violence (IPV) are often not legitimatized as a result of transphobia among some in law enforcement. Many trans women simply fear reporting to police due to a prior history of mistreatment.

In my professional experience, trans clients have shared with me some horrific stories of having reported IPV to law enforcement. They have shared the judgmental stares received in hospitals, e.g., being asked by police, “Why have you been deceitful with this man (suspected abuser)?”

I will never forget a client, Shy, a 21-year-old young trans woman who told me, “Mr. Antar, I didn’t even feel like a person,” laughing to mask the trauma and pain.

Trans women are significantly more likely to experience violence at the hands of intimate partners compared with people in other groups (Hendricks & Testa, 2012). Violence includes not only physical aggression but also outing trans women to strangers or at work, not allowing them to engage with other trans people, using trans women’s fear of the police to abuse without repercussions, forced or unprotected sex, sexual manipulation, and blackmail.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 50% to 66% of trans women experience IPV (White Hughto, Murchison, Clark, Pachankis, & Reisner, 2016). What is more disturbing about this statistic is that 43% of those trans women who were surveyed believed their gender identity contributed to the IPV (Budge, Adelson, & Howard, 2013).

When attempting to access help, 44% of trans people who sought assistance from a shelter or government program were denied. When asked why, 71% told the interviewers they were turned away because of their gender identity (Calton, Cattaneo, & Gebhard, 2016). Social workers, this is not a niche issue, but how do we solve it?

What Social Workers Can Do
Navigating the intersections of race, gender identity, and IPV in trans women of color is challenging even for the most experienced social worker. Educating ourselves involves a number of important online resources, such as the power and control wheel for LGBTQ relationships, a tool social workers use to understand the signs of an abusive partner. In addition, www.loveisrespect.org provides an online quiz that can help social workers determine whether their clients are in abusive relationships.

Social workers can also utilize “Domestic Violence: A Resource for Trans People,” a valuable tool to learn about the barriers trans people face in abusive relationships.

Social workers must make meaningful and tailored referrals; the trans community is not a monolith. When offering referrals to trans women, I have learned to ask clients what would make them feel the most comfortable. Trans women know there are many systems in place that do not relate to them culturally, and there is a cultural misperception that for trans women, experiencing violence is normal (Budge, Adelson, & Howard, 2013). Trans women of color often feel shame, stigma, and fear that no one will believe them.

Discrimination in the social service sector results in inadequate access to shelters for trans IPV survivors, while stigma and transphobia in law enforcement and in health care systems can deter trans women from reporting violence, seeking medical care for their injuries, or accessing shelters (Stotzer, Silverschanz, & Wilson, 2013).

As a cisgender black gay man, I should not have the last word here, as I do not walk in this oppression. My colleague Eran Emani, MSW, LSW, social worker and trans advocate on issues of violence against trans women, says, “Trans women of color who experience IPV are being failed by the systems in place to protect them. Social workers must advocate for basic human rights of all, including trans individuals.”

— Antar Bush, MSW, MPH, is a PhD candidate, public health advocate, educator, and author specializing in HIV prevention and social justice. Bush trains and collaborates with nonprofit organizations, medical schools, homeless shelters, and university counseling centers to help them create safe, justice-oriented policies and practices.


Brown, B. (2012). The power of vulnerability [CD]. Sounds True.

Budge, S. L., Adelson, J. L., & Howard, K. A. (2013). Anxiety and depression in transgender individuals: The roles of transition status, loss, social support, and coping. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(3), 545-557.

Calton, J. M., Cattaneo, L. B., & Gebhard, K. T. (2016). Barriers to help seeking for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer survivors of intimate partner violence. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 17(5), 585-600.

Hendricks, M. L., & Testa, R. J. (2012). A conceptual framework for clinical work with transgender and gender nonconforming clients: An adaptation of the Minority Stress Model. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 460-467.

Stotzer, R. L., Silverschanz, P., & Wilson, A. (2013). Gender identity and social services: Barriers to care. Journal of Social Service Research, 39(1), 63-77.

White Hughto, J. M., Murchison, G. R., Clark, K., Pachankis, J. E., & Reisner, S. L. (2016). Geographic and individual differences in healthcare access for U.S. transgender adults: A multilevel analysis. LGBT Health, 3(6), 424-433.