Harm Reduction as an Intersectional Approach to Addressing Violence against Transgender People
Ames Simmons, Director of Transgender Policy, Equality NC
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month each April, as with any call to lift up voices of survivors, we have an opportunity to bring the equity of the margins to the center. Whenever we consider sexual violence, we should do so in consideration of all the intersecting factors that situate a survivor in their own context, and strive to meet each person where they are. It is practically impossible to speak about sexual violence without speaking about transgender survivors. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender people in NC reported sexual assault in the workplace, in schools, in police interactions, and in healthcare. When we think about what can be done to stem this violence, we also have to remember that transgender people are resilient, multidimensional people.
So what can be done about sexual violence toward trans people that also acknowledges the deep history of trans resistance, agency and activism in the trans community? How can cisgender, or non-transgender, people lift up trans people in a way that does not diminish the inherent and infinite value and power of the trans community? One place to start is by taking a trauma-informed, survivor-centered, harm reduction approach. Simply condemning violence and shedding tears does nothing to create opportunities for trans people to thrive. Success means finding ways to help people live more safely in their own context, as opposed to disapproving or judging them because their lens on life doesn’t match yours.
The advocacy projects that Equality North Carolina has undertaken to increase equity for transgender people take the form of a multi-prong public policy agenda emphasizing access to healthcare. Healthcare for trans people means syringe services that provide trans people with access to needles that are clean and reduce the risk of HIV and hepatitis C, needles that drugstores refuse to provide without extensive questioning, or that trans people’s insurance won’t cover due to exclusions for hormone therapy or silicone injections.
Healthcare for trans people means easy and abundant testing for HIV, especially on National Trans HIV Testing Day on April 18. Over half of the NC respondents to the US Transgender Survey reported that they had not been tested for HIV. One factor that may prevent people from knowing their status is laws that punish people living with HIV for not disclosing their status: if you don’t know, then you can’t be prosecuted for not disclosing. Equality NC will continue to advocate for modernizing state law until a person’s status is never grounds for criminal prosecution.
Healthcare for trans people means listening to sex workers about their needs for safe exchange of information like bad date lists. It means advocating against simplistic responses to trafficking like the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) that open up online sites to liability for hosting the free exchange of harm reduction information among sex workers. These sites facilitate indoor work, which is safer and allows sex workers more control over their work environment than pushing them outdoors.
When we think about what kind of public policy will build power for transgender people in our state, Equality NC seeks to support the community as primary agents of reducing the harms trans people may face. We know that past trauma along with social and/or geographical isolation, racism, trans misogynoir, and poverty are real and impact the community’s available resources for dealing with life, and at the same time, that we as transgender people are more than the sum of those things. We are scholars, scientists, artists, advocates and activists. Transgender people are beautiful and powerful in our resistance. Hear that. Build that. Empower that.