Home as a dystopia: Transphobia, ableism and domestic abuse
By: Maddison Stoff
Content warning: This article discusses abuse, family violence, intimate partner violence, self-harm, psychosis, transmisogyny and ableism.
I don’t have a lot of stable memories from childhood, but I do remember I was often very sick.
I had seizures from an early age and asthma serious enough to have to use a nebuliser on a regular basis. I was diagnosed with autism in primary school. My muscles were so weak that I was physically helpless.
I was, in short, a tricky kid to care for, and I as I grew older, my problems only became more complex. My clearest memories begin in early adolescence, where I started showing signs of depression (diagnosed in hospital as bipolar 1) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). This was also the time when my parents, my mother in particular, began expressing frustration that I wasn’t getting any easier to manage.
When I started getting angrier, and insubordinate, too, my mother threatened to kick me out of what she called her home repeatedly.
I moved out, to another city, at 17. I never found stability or safety, even after almost 10 years of living there. I lived there, but it wasn’t home either. At every point, my gender, disabilities and material circumstances put me into situations where I was at constant risk of violence and abuse. Safety was impossible for me.
Image by: planimetrica
Home has always felt like something other people get and grant to others that they claim to love with absolute conditionality.
The idea of home as a place that’s always there for you – where you come from and where you feel like you belong – has never been relatable to me.
Home has always been a thing I’ve had to carve out of a toxic, alien environment, or earn as a reward for being more useful or desirable than anybody else who could potentially inhabit it.
But, once I knew that I was able to find friends and partners with experiences similar to my own, it did get easier to find places of temporary safety. As a woman with C-PTSD, bipolar 1, and BPD, this means that I have often sought to make my homes with other women or non-binary people who have similar psychologies.
When these relationships are healthy, our shared experience with temporary delusive or psychotic states allows us to create a bond of trust which helps us mitigate the damage of the self-destructive or toxic behaviour our delusions sometimes cause. This is crucial because, when we’re experiencing a psychotic episode, the actions we perform during psychosis often lack a meaningful relationship to anything we’d normally consider ourselves to be capable of. That doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of causing damage there.
When that damage takes the form of self-harm or emotional violence, it can be weaponised against us by abusers to create a co-dependent or exploitive relationship, where the shame we feel at hurting them or scaring them, mixed with the shame we feel at our psychosis itself, can be used to build a sense of obligation in us towards our abusers.
While it’s obviously important that we’re held accountable for the pain that these reactions cause, it can be difficult for us to separate healthy accountability from toxic blame and shame when it’s coming from somebody that we love.
I’ve learned to deal with it by looking for patterns. When my partner hurts me during a psychotic episode, I don’t automatically hold it against them. Instead, I try to ask them why they are attacking me. Usually, the reason for it is as simple as I have reminded them of something else that they’ve experienced, or unrelated stress they’re taking out on me. I ask them if they understand this, and I ask them if they understand that it’s a problem. Then we make a plan to stop it happening again.
The difference between an abusive and a healthier version of this practice plays out over multiple encounters. When it’s healthy, it may lead to us trusting one another more and reacting to our trauma less. The severity of our psychosis may decrease and the harm we cause to one another (and ourselves) during episodes may decline, as we work together towards unlearning the toxic habits that we’ve cultivated to protect us from the people who have previously abused us.
While I’m more aware of myself now, it used to be much easier for somebody who’d learned my triggers to convince me that our home was threatened because I hadn’t been “good enough” for us to keep it.
In my past relationships, this has sometimes meant I end up doing more work (emotional, domestic, or otherwise,) for my partner than they do for me, while they stop me recognizing it by making me believe I’m really doing less, building an emotional dependence on them while attacking me for being triggered by their actions, using any social power they have over me to manufacture an unstable home.
This process is intentional, a pattern of emotional violence Jess Hill describes in her book on domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do (2019), as “coercive control”. Hill explains this as a strategy to “strip a victim of their liberty, and take away their sense of self,” using fear to breed dependency and emotional reliance, alternating between unpredictable “rewards” and “punishments” to establish deeply rooted psychological dominance.
These types of relationships are tricky to detect and even trickier to leave, especially if your idea of safety relies on a partner understanding your complex trauma and its impacts on your reactions and behaviours.
But there’s usually material dependence at play too. My experience with childhood emotional abuse is common in the LGBTIQA+ community, who cannot safely and reliably rely on family support.
Disabled trans women especially are often unemployed and living far below the poverty line on jobseeker payments. These payments have onerous and cruel requirements. They’re paid at rates which are intentionally insufficient to completely cover food, medication, and the rent, while trans women deal with additional psychological pressures and material costs that cishet able-bodied people do not have to face.
These problems make it difficult for us to rent, difficult for us to save, and difficult for us to find or buy the necessary provisions for our homes if we are forced to leave them unexpectedly. The cost of legally recovering our assets will be disproportionately high, with less guarantee domestic violence services will be prepared to help us. This issue especially applies if our relationships are seen as too atypical to be completely covered under family violence law, as unfortunately, many of them often are.
We don’t regularly have luxury of leaving an abusive partner or abusive sharehouse even in comparison with other groups of marginalised women, in a country where less than 1.2% of rental properties as of 2021 are actually affordable on welfare payments, and the cost of living is continually going up.
As a non-binary, polyamorous, neurodivergent trans lesbian who relies on welfare payments to survive, I don’t just have a lot of people acting like I’m sub-human or worthless, I also suffer from a lifelong lack of social models showing me how I could possibly be anything else.
I grew up in a world where my relationship to my body was inexplicable. Where my disabilities required me to accept mistreatment and could be used as an excuse to dismiss the possibility of mistreatment whenever I identified it. Where supporting me was only possible if it was “reasonable”, and didn’t involve inconveniencing non-disabled people, who expected me, by birthright, to accept comparatively limited horizons.
It’s not just the social model of a ‘home’ that doesn’t suit me – it’s our heteronormative, ableist, and cissexist idea of ‘serious relationships’ and what makes ‘healthy’ love.
But although these social models didn’t suit me, without guidance from them, I was totally alone.
We don’t teach modern social justice theories in high school, and when we do, it’s always controversial, slammed as merely “politics”. Even how we talk about abuse is alienating. It’s always a cis man abusing a cis woman, with lip-service paid to the experiences of gay or lesbian cis people, but no mention of transgender people at all.
Family violence legislation relies on heterosexist (and classist) assumptions such as jointly owned property, monogamy and children to determine the validity of individual relationships. Seeking justice also means that victims must engage with both police and legal services, which many neurodivergent trans women are understandably reluctant to approach, not just for our own personal safety but for political and communal reasons too, as many trans lesbians are anarcho-communists and do not trust the state.
Contacting the police is therefore seen as a betrayal of not just our own ethics, but the entire trans lesbian community. Even if we do go through that process, the reality of institutional cissexism and transphobia means that victims have to advocate for not just recognition of their genders but the genders of their abusive partners too.
It also requires us, like all victims, to be calm and rational in the face of repeated dehumanisation and re-traumatisation. But on top of that? We have to explain to police and lawyers about our trans identities, the nature of our often complex and atypical relationships, and how the evidence we have collected shows our partners were abusive towards us.
We also often have to show them how and where our evidence shows coercive control and emotional violence had actually taken place, with no guarantees the legal services will even try to understand us. It’s easier for them to dismiss us entirely because of these complexities, or their own (usually unspoken) biases against some part of our lives or identities.
Allegations are often weaponised unfairly against neurodivergent trans lesbians in particular because of a phenomenon called transmisogyny: a hybrid of misogyny, androphobia, and transphobia specifically affecting trans women whose bodies are perceived to be uniquely threatening due to the false (but popular) perception that they share the functionality or strength of cishet men.
This can make their presence automatically suspicious to a large percentage of the trans lesbian community, even if they’re coming from another person with the same identity, as these prejudices (which can also be internalised) mean the trans lesbian community regards any accusations of abuse as a potential transmisogynistic threat.
In every case, a lack of social models for the things that we experience will lead us into toxic situations, and the paucity of material support for the disabled poor will conspire to keep us there.
We can’t do anything to stop domestic violence while we continue to treat housing as a reward for good or economically productive actions, rather than a basic human right. We also can’t do anything to stop it if we pretend that only men abuse women, or that our genders are the most important facts about a person we can use to identify the victim from the perpetrator in abusive relationships.
There are a myriad of other possible and vastly more important social inequalities that can fester into violence and toxicity, like the lack of truly free, safe, and accessible healthcare, or our repeated choice to not offer a comfortable, reliable income for the disabled and unwaged poor, before we even start to talk about our genders.
The way we talk about gender itself is complicated from a trans perspective, as our gender tends to be projected onto us by cis people, owing to the relative absence of trans feminine people in power, and the privilege that this gives them to define us. While race, class, and assigned gender feed back into this perception, justice is impossible under a bio-essentialist model. We need to move beyond it if we want the world to change.
While I might not have direct power to affect the way this country works, I’m capable of sharing my experiences. I’m hoping that shedding light on my abuse can start a conversation on domestic violence in the wider LGBTIQA+ community. I want to help us to create more social models we can take advantage of to let us advocate for safer homes and healthier communities.
We deserve more than to be an afterthought in models made by reference to cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class and heterosexual relationships. We need our own models too.
Mx Maddison Stoff (she/her) is a neurodivergent non-binary essayist, independent musician and author from Melbourne, Australia. She writes unapologetically leftist, feminist, & queer fiction set in a continuous universe which blurs the line between experimental literature & pulp sci-fi. Follow her on Twitter and Patreon @thedescenters.
If this story has brought up any issues that you want to talk about, please reach out for support:
- QLife is the national LGBTIQ peer-support telephone service for people wanting to talk about issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
- Say It Out Loud has a list of the LGBTIQ community-controlled services for each Australian state/territory. The organisation encourages LGBTIQ+ communities to have healthy relationships, get help for unhealthy relationships, and support their friends.
- There is also a growing list of mainstream domestic and family violence services like 1800 Respect that are committed to LGBTIQ inclusion.
- For Victorian residents, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre provides specialist services for anyone who is experiencing or afraid of family violence.
- If you or someone you know is in crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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