Human Rights Office: Transgender/Transsexual: Contents: Barriers
Trans Accessibility Project:
Barriers To Providing Services
This chapter describes some of the challenges and obstacles to expanding services to include transgendered women. Possible solutions to these challenges will be discussed in Chapter 6. Most of the material in this chapter was drawn directly from the shelter survey, although we expanded on some themes for clarity. Not all of the material in this chapter will be relevant to all shelters. Some shelters already provide services to transgendered women and others are quite willing to do so, given some training and education.
The barriers that prevent or undermine the provision of services to transgendered women are a mix of both practical and conceptual considerations.
At this time, most shelters do not provide services for transgendered women because transgendered women are not considered to be real women. Transgender issues are not seen as women's issues and are, therefore, considered both a distraction and a drain on already limited resources. Even when the needs of transgendered women are seen to be relevant, concerns and hesitations arise about whether women's shelters are the most appropriate places
for transgendered women to stay.
Transgender Issues are not Shelter Issues
Transgendered Women are Really Men
There are some major conceptual problems for some people in understanding transgendered women as women. There is much discussion about whether transgendered women are women, men, or
something else; but generally they are relegated to the category of male. Thus, transgendered women are perceived as bringing "male energy" into women's space (male energy being aggressiveness, taking up space, non-nurturing, etc.). The belief is that the inclusion of transgendered women will make shelters less safe and less comfortable
for other women who have been abused.
The Shelter has not Addressed the Issue
Generally speaking, there appears to be a significant lack of information, education and awareness of transgender issues within women's organizations. Women who work in shelters, use shelter services, or support the work of shelters may have little to no first-hand experience with transgendered people. On occasion, a shelter may deal with an individual transgendered woman looking for
services, but that situation is typically dealt with on a case-by-case basis and not as a larger issue for the organization.
The Responses of Others Prohibit Inclusion
Whether based on the anticipated feelings of residents, or for the protection of transgendered women, this argument for exclusion is based on the discomfort or disapproval of others. Shelters anticipate resistance, and perhaps outrage, from their communities, an experience that most have previously had with the inclusion of lesbians. Few would now argue that lesbians be sent elsewhere for services because heterosexual residents may feel uncomfortable.
The Lack of Privacy Makes Inclusion Impossible
Most shelters are not able to provide private rooms to residents and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Is it possible for a preoperative transgendered woman to share a room with a non-transgendered woman? Who would be the most uncomfortable and why? The lack of privacy will require that issues of shared bedrooms and bathrooms and nudity be considered.
Barriers for Specific Groups
Not all of the survey respondents completed the section inquiring about barriers to services. This makes some sense given that the topic had not been discussed in many organizations, so they had not yet considered what the obstacles might be to including transgendered women in their mandates. For those who did complete this section, barriers were identified for each of the four groups: residents, staff, administration, and the community. It is important to note that some assumptions were made in completing the questionnaires. Most notably was the equation of a "resident" with a "nontransgendered" person by all of those who responded to the survey.
These barriers can be summarized as resident discomfort with, and discriminatory attitudes toward, transgendered women. In discussions with shelters, and in the survey, one of the greatest stumbling blocks identified was how other residents will experience transgendered women. The argument presented by shelters was that transgendered women can be excluded because their presence will inhibit, or impair, service-provision to nontransgendered women. Because transgendered women have been socialized as males, there was a fear that this energy and behaviour would be threatening to other women who are at the shelter to escape abuse from men. Some expressed concern about the safety of non-transgendered women and children residents, or at least their perception of safety. It was suggested that there may be emotional triggers for residents if a transgendered woman has qualities, behaviours or a physique similar to her abuser. It was also feared that a male abuser could dress in women's clothing in order to gain access to the shelter looking for his partner.
Since the majority of shelters do not have private rooms, the lack of privacy was raised as an problem for nontransgendered residents; however, it will also be an issue for some transgendered residents.
Feedback from shelters did not specifically refer to the barriers or challenges transgendered women face in trying to access services. As Courvant and Cook-Daniels (1998) observed, even our expanded understanding of domestic violence,
consistently neglects the growing class of survivors who transcend stereotypes of gender expression or physical sex. If these survivors have any interaction at all with supportive agencies, they nearly always confront staff or volunteers who lack even the necessary vocabulary to begin to understand the everyday experience of these survivors. (p.1)
The general issues that were discussed at the beginning of this chapter create a climate or environment that would be neither welcoming nor supportive to transgendered survivors of domestic violence. In addition, given that shelters have limited experience with and understanding of transgender issues, they may be unable to adequately meet the needs of transgendered women.
It may be very difficult for a transgendered survivor of violence to even approach a shelter (refer to Chapter 7, Counselling Issues, for more information). Given her past and present experiences of transphobia, she may feel wary about going to an unknown organization and asking for help. She may not know what services she is allowed to access and what conditions will be placed on her admittance. For example, will she be required to provide medical
documentation to "prove" that she is transitioning? Will she be required to submit to a physical exam? If so, by whom? Will she be required to change her appearance in any way in order to get in the front door? Will she have to "out" herself or be outed by others in order to receive services? This uncertainty about whether she will receive services co-exists with a common fear of many survivors: that her experience of abuse will not be believed. The very act of going to a shelter for help is an act of courage on the part of all abused women, with transgendered women being no exception.
The barriers that were identified in the survey can be summarized as staff's personal discomfort with, discriminatory attitudes towards, and lack of experience with transgendered women. By far, the greatest barrier identified by staff was their lack of education about, and awareness of, transgendered women and their experiences. This barrier was deemed responsible for the difficulty they may have accepting transgendered women as women, the maintenance of their discriminatory attitudes, and their discomfort and fear. It was recognized that transgender is unexplored territory for most shelters. Most respondents were very clear that the issue had not been addressed in their organizations and that education was needed to remove the barriers that exclude transgendered women. Finally, the shelter's administration was identified as a barrier for some staff. Front line staff may have some first-hand experience, or interest, in making the organization accessible, but the Board or powers that be were seen as unwilling to create relevant policy or fund education initiatives.
The barriers for the administration of shelters can be summarized as: discomfort with and discriminatory attitudes towards transgendered women, lack of experience and training in the area, and the absence of private rooms. Concerns were expressed about the need to develop "special" services for this population which would require additional
funding, the development of new counselling skills, and an increased workload for all concerned.
Communities vary from region to region in Ontario in terms of culture, diversity, and access to resources. For some shelters in rural areas or small towns, the conservatism of the surrounding community may pose a significant barrier to the inclusion of transgendered women. Some shelters referred to the racism and homophobia evident in their communities and fear a backlash from founders and local supporters if they take on transgender issues.
From our experience conducting workshops on transphobia and making services accessible, we have found that groups often feel that the problems are too numerous and too monumental to surmount. However, we have also found that, although long lists of barriers can be generated, most of the problems can be broken down into two broad categories: attitudinal concerns and policy considerations. The next chapter will offer some strategies that can used to challenge the barriers to the provision of inclusive services.
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