Tracking Violence against Trans People in Formal and Informal Institutions

Bread, Roses & Hormones, a trans liberationist group affiliated with Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, began our “Trans Power is Built in the Streets” survey in November 2020, seeking to explore trans resistance from the perspective of low-income trans and non-binary people. Since then, we have been conducting the survey in Nanaimo and throughout the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

This article is the first in a series that will report our findings from the “Trans Power” survey as well as our one-on-one conversations and consciousness-raising sessions with participants. To maintain the anonymity of the respondents, we will be referring to them by first initial only. 

We have so far gathered twelve responses to our survey. One of our initial findings is that all of the trans and non-binary respondents report experiencing violence in their lives. We interviewed three trans women who reported transphobic or transmisogynist violence as a major problem while living on the streets. They also found their street experiences socially isolating and had a strong desire to establish a community with other trans women. Non-binary respondents also expressed a desire and need for community and to be safe from violence. 

This report will focus on violence against low-income trans women and non-binary people.  We argue that trans and non-binary people experience two forms of violence while living on the streets: formal institutional violence and informal institutional violence. We are saying formal institutional violence and informal institutional violence instead of institutional and interpersonal violence because the seemingly individualized and isolated violence of vigilantes, partners, and peers is enabled by and reflects the dominating power of state institutions in patriarchal society.

Vigilante and intimate gender violence aligns with and reinforces the power of cops, landlords, and bosses to serve the interests of the ruling class…

Formal institutional violence is doled out by people whose power is authorized by law and state-funded and organized. The power of the RCMP, municipal police forces, and bylaw officers are examples of formal institutional power. Informal institutional violence comes from both vigilante bigots and our own peers, and works to produce and reproduce the power of formal institutions. Vigilante and intimate gender violence aligns with and reinforces the power of cops, landlords, and bosses to serve the interests of the ruling class by taking on the work of disciplining, punishing, and disorganizing women, trans, and gender non-conforming people for free.

Because low-income trans people experience violence from formal authority figures, bigots, and our peers, we need to be organized to fight back on all fronts. That means establishing independent trans and non-binary political organizations to recognize, defend against, and fight back against both formal and informal institutions in dominant society and in low-income communities.  

Trans and Non-Binary People’s Experiences with Formal institutional Violence

The majority of formal institutional violence trans people face on the streets, unsurprisingly, comes from police, bylaw officers, and security guards. In November, S, an elderly working class trans woman living in a tent city, shared in her survey response; “I got beaten by the police the other day, I don’t feel so safe no more…” She described the cops as adopting a pro-trans posture, “They grabbed my arm, twisted me all over the place, talking and saying things about how it’s not something we have against you.” While they were assaulting her, they reassured her that it was not because they had something against her for being a trans woman and said they were not happy with anti-trans bigots.

She found the police posturing as sympathetic a pathetic attempt to convince themselves they were not acting on prejudice, and at worst, a cynical attempt to pretend their aggression had nothing to do with transmisogyny. She resisted the antagonism of the cops by telling them to their faces that she could see right through their “trans ally” facade, telling us she said two words the entire time: “fuck off!” In the end she succeeded at protecting a tent that wasn’t hers from getting raided by the pigs.

V, a Cree and Mohawk trans woman who lives on the streets, described similar experiences with police. During her interview she reported, “Bylaw and cops refuse to use my chosen name even though they know it. I’ll even correct them when they use my legal name, and they make a joke out of it, like “Oh, ha sorry, [legal name].” V also spoke to us about being assaulted by a security guard in the washroom of a shopping mall:

“Ten seconds after I got into the stall, the shitty security guard busted through the stall door, snapping at me, calling me a pervert, and said that the cops were on their way… He physically grabbed me with my pants still down and dragged me from the stall into the mall. Everyone watched and no one helped as I was crying.”

We asked her who she felt had power in that situation and she responded, “You know, it’s also me. I hadn’t used the [women’s] bathroom like that before and I was asserting myself that day. I knew [that particular security guard] was working and I knew it’d be an issue. I’m not saying it’s my fault, just that I was also having power there.” V refused to concede power to the security guard. Like S she resisted the abuse and harassment from police.

O, a young non-binary person who took the survey in early March, used the term “gatekeeping” to refer to how once you are powerless, it is very difficult to bounce back:

“If I’m panhandling, it’s like, you can’t have my money because you’re a bum, you should get a job. Oh well, you can’t have a job because you’re dirty. Well, you can’t have a shower because there’s no room at the shelter. You can’t get a social insurance number because you don’t have ID, you can’t get ID because you don’t have a social insurance number, etc.”

All of these experiences have something in common. These “gatekeepers,” from police to security guards to shelter workers, are sending the message to poor trans and non-binary people that it is not safe to use public space. Whether it is their conscious intention or not, they are making sure low-income trans and non-binary people are out of public sight and out of the way.

Trans and Non-Binary People’s Experiences of Informal institutional Violence: Bigoted and intimate Power

All survey participants who have spent time living on the streets described experiencing violence from other poor people. N, a young white trans woman who took the survey in November, said that most of the violence she experienced on the street was at the hands of other homeless people. This violence happens in everyday relationships with people and  through social relationships and conventions. We refer to these social conventions of power as informal institutions. 

For S, “One of the tragedies of being poor is that the people that you meet that are aggressive against you are even poorer than you are and have even less education.” S experiences violence from other low-income people who are going through similar struggles as her. At the time she completed the survey, S was living on the edges of a tent city, across a baseball diamond and small field from the majority of the tents because she felt safer away from the crowds.

V tried living in a tent city in Nanaimo, but said, “That didn’t work out. People there ripped me off and stole my stuff because I’m a ‘faggot’.” She told us she is often beat up by housed vigilantes as well as by other members of the street community, and was recently hospitalized after an attack at a cold-weather shelter. At a meeting, she said that she can’t tell if the violence she experiences is because she is Indigenous, poor, or trans.

In some ways, the non-binary respondent O, who shared their experiences of institutional gatekeeping, has a different experience of informal institutional violence than the trans women’s respondents we heard from, but they are still rife with misogynist abuse. O feels “ten times more vulnerable if I go down a bad area with a dress and heels,” however when they are masculine-presenting, they are “fine and no one bothers or catcalls” them. O’s experience of sexual violence on the streets is different depending on how they are perceived by others.

When they are perceived as feminine they are disciplined and punished by men who feel an entitlement over the bodies and appearances of those they perceive as women. This entitlement is acted through the informal institution of public street harassment. Informal institutions should be understood as appendages of formal institutions that protect and uphold dominating relations of power. The informal institutions of street harassment, anti-trans bullying, hate, and violence, and gender policing are a barrier to trans people’s unity with other poor people in the struggles being waged against formal institutional violence, making us more vulnerable to attacks by the government, the pigs, and the vigilantes.

The man who attacked V in the tent city contributed to the fragmentation of that low-income community on lines of gender, defining her and other trans people as outside of the community. Expressions of anti-trans violence like this send the message that low-income community spaces are the property of cis people. In turn this violence weakens the community as a whole. It sows divisions between low-income people, preventing political unity between us against the common enemies of the poor: the police or bylaw officer, the social worker, the landlord, the boss.

Trans Power is Necessary for Political Unity in Low-income Communities

Low-income trans people are pushed out of mainstream society and out of cis-dominated low-income community spaces. We are vulnerable to gender violence from both formal institutions like the police and through the informal institutions found in social conventions, intimate relationships, and frameworks of power upheld by our low-income peers. Together these formal and informal institutions punish us for being trans and discipline us back into the closet. Our struggle is against lawful and state funded power, the anti-trans violence of vigilantes, and the relations of dominating power within our own communities. 

If trans antagonistic violence is a force of political division in the community, then the power of trans and non-binary people to end this violence will be a unifying force.

Low-income trans and non-binary people need independent political organizations and spaces devoted specifically to our struggles against formal institutional violence in the world and informal institutional violence from our low-income peers. If trans antagonistic violence is a force of political division in the community, then the power of trans and non-binary people to end this violence will be a unifying force. In other words, autonomous trans and non-binary organizing is a necessary condition of political unity in low-income communities.

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