How Churches Can Support Transgender Survivors of Abuse

The 2022 Violence Against Women Act, which Congress re-authorized in March, includes the first federal grant program specifically designed to serve LGBTQ survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence.

The new funding could lead to expanded trans-friendly services to which pastors and laypeople can refer survivors. All survivors escaping abuse face adversity, but transgender individuals encounter additional hurdles due to widespread discrimination, advocates say.

Clergy and laity seeking to support trans folk fleeing violent relationships should start by creating a trans-affirming congregation, undergo training in LGBTQ cultural competence, listen to survivors, and allow them to determine which services they wish to access.

“Know that our fears of police, doctors, and other establishments come from a history of violence and trauma we have experienced. Therefore, it’s important to listen to what survivors need and not try to get people to pursue the path toward healing that we think is correct,” said Robin Gow (they, he, ze), cultural and community programs manager at Bradbury Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa., in an e-mail.

Gow is a transgender survivor of an abusive relationship who has worked in programs to assist people who have escaped violent partners. “A lot of people tried to get me to report my abuse to the police,” Gow said, explaining that many transgender individuals expect to experience police harassment when they file complaints.

Anti-trans discrimination has historically characterized Christian congregations, leading transgender people to view churches as hostile places from which they would not receive help, said Corinne Goodwin (she/her), president of the Eastern PA Trans Equity Project.

The road to welcoming

To become credible confidants and allies for transgender abuse survivors, church leaders and congregants must educate themselves, Goodwin said in a telephone interview.

The Eastern PA Trans Equity Project offers the training “Trans 101,” which pastors and lay people can take to become familiar with terminology and how to establish a welcoming environment. Gow recommends the book Transgender Intimate Partner Violence: A Comprehensive Introduction by Adam M. Messinger and Xavier L. Guadalupe-Diaz.

Goodwin also advises communicating trans acceptance by adopting a written non-discrimination policy, raising a rainbow flag outside the church, having an open and affirming sign on the building, and posting trans-welcoming content on the congregational web site.

Churches, including those that minister to predominantly LGBTQ congregants, should be sure they are publicly advocating for abuse-survivor organizations to specifically address the needs of trans folk, Goodwin said.

Churches should observe the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, said Brielle Roundtree, domestic and intimate partner violence hotline coordinator at Trans Lifeline, a crisis phone line for transgender individuals.

Clergy should also state from the pulpit that they believe and support abuse survivors, Gow said. Such actions can enable transgender survivors to trust clergy and laity enough to disclose being transgender and to discuss abuse they might be experiencing.

Practical obstacles to seeking help

In addition to fostering a trans-accepting environment, clergy and laity can address the practical obstacles — such as lack of money, housing, transportation, and medical care — that keep survivors from ending abusive relationships.

Clergy should be aware of affirming non-profits in their communities that are doing the work.

Survivors fear that leaving abusive situations means homelessness and food insecurity, said Goodwin, whose organization provides clients with security deposits and money to cover their first month’s rent.

Transgender people facing homelessness have concerns that may differ from those of cisgender individuals.  Dormitory-style shelters segregated by binary gender increase transgender individuals’ vulnerability to sexual assault and harassment, said Goodwin, who spoke of a transgender person who chose to live in a tent with their dog rather than stay in a communal shelter due to fear of assault and harassment.

To help survivors set up new homes, churches can offer kits of household items and other necessities, said Nika Nicely (she/her), who left her spouse after a 25-year relationship in which she said she experienced abuse. Nicely volunteers at Inside Out Youth Services, an LGBTQ center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

If survivors want medical or psychological care, church members or pastors can offer transportation, Gow said. Of course, this again requires pastors to have a referral list that is up to date and safe.

Listening is the first step

In addition to assisting with practical issues, church members should offer emotional support by “listening” to survivors’ experiences, Roundtree said. “Listening makes a victim feel heard and supported. It also promotes a brave space for victims to seek help from other entities,” she said.

Listening is the first step to establishing trusting relationships with survivors. To maintain trust, clergy should inform survivors about what support services the congregation can realistically offer and avoid making promises they cannot keep, Roundtree said. For needs the church cannot address, members should provide several options of other agencies to contact, she said.

At all times, those wishing to help should respect survivors’ autonomy, Roundtree said. “They know what’s best for them, and we ask that you take a harm reduction approach in all your advisements.”

Trans individuals dealing with abuse can find support by calling the Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.