As a women’s organization, Positive Women’s Network has included trans women from the beginning.
Like many diverse populations, trans women do not all face the same level of oppression. But overall, they face severe stigma and discrimination, resulting in high rates of experiences of violence, family estrangement, social isolation, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, feelings of shame, mental health issues including anxiety and depression, and suicide. This increases vulnerability to HIV; some researchers have estimated that more than a quarter of trans women in Canada are living with HIV.
Social exclusion has a serious impact on the lives of trans women. Stigma and discrimination against trans women exist in an array of areas, including school, worksite, community, and government settings. This makes participation in general life activities difficult and unsafe. Because of judgment and discomfort on the part of others, and concerns about dangers to their security, trans women may withdraw or “hide out.” Housing is hard to find because of landlords who refuse to rent to trans women. Legal identification also presents an issue because of a lack of support and information about correcting the gender marker on it. Trans women sometimes must use identification documents that identify them as male, which fuels further discrimination.
Trans women also face barriers to accessing full health care. Not all trans women choose to change their bodies through the use of hormone therapy or surgery, but for those who do, transition-related care may take precedence over other aspects of their health. Further, clinical settings all too often do not respect their gender identity, and health workers are not equipped or willing to provide appropriate and respectful care. Trans women have described health care providers who fail to recognize their needs, or who treat them like an object of curiosity. Wanting to avoid embarrassment and discrimination, trans women may decide to not seek out health care at all. This is why trans-specific health care are vital—yet few exist.
Typical media stories about trans women (for example, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner) do not represent the majority of the population. Some may want hormone therapy, some may want surgery, some may want both, and some may want neither. But most do not have access to hormone therapy or surgery, because it is unaffordable, the process to become eligible is complex and difficult, or they are minors and cannot get permission from their parents or guardians. People whose appearance or behaviour doesn’t conform to gendered expectations can experience violence. Most victims of this kind of violence are trans women of colour, due to rigid a gender system that work together with racism and poverty.
Trans women may have sex with or build romantic relationships with people of any gender, or they may choose not to engage in this at all. Like other women, they must deal with power and gender dynamics that can inhibit safer sex practices or result in abuse. They can also build healthy, respectful, long-term relationships when all their needs are met.
Safety is a major issue for trans women, who report a lack of spaces in which they feel accepted and welcome, hindering their access to an assortment of services. Women’s organizations can provide gender-affirming support to trans women, as well as benefit from what trans women have to share about their experiences with gender oppression. Trans women cab bring new perspectives and ways of coping based on their unique experiences, and their experiences can enhance understandings of the way that gender expectations impact all people’s lives.
Confidentiality is essential at Positive Women’s Network’s. Like HIV status, a woman’s trans status is private information. Disclosure should always be a personal choice, as it can result in a variety of social, economic, and political consequences.