If your kid has ever come home from school and suddenly wanted to talk about the problematic representations of women on your favorite TV show, we probably worked with them that day. We are sexual violence prevention educators. As representatives from Solace Crisis Treatment Center, we go into schools and community organizations to talk about the things most people either don't want or don't know how to talk about. We are some of the people who teach middle school students about consent, alcohol, sex and media representations of sexuality and oppression.
We are also transgender—people whose gender is different from what they were assigned at birth. While our individual trans narratives are different, we have a shared experience of not feeling like we were born in the wrong bodies, but that we were born into bodies that were supposed to change; that we weren't born a boy or girl, but born babies who were looked at by doctors and had our entire futures mapped out with blue and pink hats. Our students don't always know we are trans, but our transness is always relevant to the topics we teach.
Research into what works in preventing sexual violence is a relatively recent endeavor. Most people who work in the anti-sexual violence field are too busy doing the work of caring for the epidemic level of those who have already been assaulted to stop and figure out exact root causes. For years, Solace Crisis Treatment Center offered prevention programming that was essentially based on a good hunch. And the brave staff had a pretty radical thought for the late '90s: Homophobia is a form of sexual violence.
The organization worked with our public schools to create a program to address such sexual violence (then called project GLYPH, or Gay and Lesbian Youth Preventing Homophobia), and it ran well until members from the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family stormed the Santa Fe school board in 2001. This led to months of editorials in local newspapers either in support of the program or in fierce opposition—even calling for the boycott of United Way of Santa Fe, which funded project GLYPH. Eventually, after too many school board meetings wherein LGBTQ youth were forced to listen to adults from their community talk about how they were evil, Solace rebranded GLYPH as a broader pro-diversity curriculum.
What those staff didn't know then was that the central concept of their program would be echoed in future frameworks by the Centers for Disease Control and become a core component to every effective sexual violence prevention program in the country. Now we know that not only are homophobia and transphobia forms of sexual violence, but they are deeply embedded in the roots of violence itself.
When a baby is born, doctors or midwives look at its genitals and excitedly exclaim, "it's a …!" That baby is given a blue or pink hat, which acts not only as a cute accessory or head-warmer, but as a blueprint for how that child is supposed to live their life.
If you were to ask a group of fourth-graders, college students or senior citizens about what men and women are expected to eat (meat/salad), feel (anger/everything except for anger) or do for work (construction or CEO/nurse), you'd probably get the same answers across the board. These are gender roles or norms, and while those answering these questions may not believe they should be the expectations, they are clear on what the expectations are and even clearer about the ways in which they might be punished for not following the rules.
Rigid gender norms fuel myths about sexual violence, like believing a woman is asking to be assaulted for wearing skimpy clothing, that a man should always make the first move or that LGBTQ people are sexual predators. Such beliefs are built into the same systems that tell girls to be small and boys to be strong and, when they go unchallenged, can contribute to the perpetration of sexual violence. We cannot prevent sexual violence without dismantling rigid gender norms.
Transgender and non-binary people's very existence is that of a beautiful and complex glitch in a system that doesn't work for anyone. We are the canary in the coalmine shouting at the top of our lungs: "Hey! Gender roles suck! They are literally killing us!"
Unfortunately, our existence outside societal norms puts us in the path of harm. Cisgender (non-transgender) women already widely experience catcalling and high rates of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Further moving outside these gender norms means trans people experience attacks in public spaces, twice the rate of sexual violence and that transgender women of color have a one in eight chance of being murdered.
We create programming that centers on people who are most impacted by an issue. In sexual violence work, trans/non-binary people exist at the center alongside Indigenous women and people with disabilities. But if we create communities that are safer for trans and non-binary people, that safety doesn't stop where our genders end. Bathrooms designated as gender-neutral (as the City of Santa Fe mandates for single-stall facilities) aren't only awesome for trans and non-binary people, they're also great for families and people with disabilities or folks who want more privacy. Policies that protect trans and non-binary students in schools are often connected to changes in dress code policy that curb the policing of girls' and students of color's bodies.
Creating space for transgender people to exist without fear also tells the kid who loves ballet that he doesn't need to "man up," gives permission to intervene when someone sees a coworker being sexually harassed, interrupts rape jokes and believes survivors.
As we work with your kids, we may not talk about being trans, but our identities are inextricably linked with the lessons we teach.