Olivia Pope in Scandal. Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder. Hollywood often romanticises the courtroom as the place where justice comes quickly and happy endings are a given. In reality, it’s a conveyor belt of disappointment – a fact that many transgender victims of sexual assault know all too well.
My own experience with the British justice system is first hand. In June, I reported my rape to police – it wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but that I knew I would suffer heavy consequences for my own mental wellbeing if I didn’t.
Three months later, my case was dropped. I was told via email, and again in a formal letter sent to my home, that there was “insufficient evidence” to support my case going to court. “The criminal justice system has a different definition to consent than the social definition,” I was told in a closing meeting with the detective on my case.
“It needs to have hard evidence that beyond all reasonable doubt, the attacker knew that you were saying no, but continued anyway.” What was I supposed to do – whip out my phone mid-attack and start a voice note?
Sadly, this is a common occurrence for trans people seeking justice for sexual assault and rape. Rufai Ajala, a nonbinary cinematographer, intimacy co-ordinator and sex worker from London, told me that it was incredibly hard to get anyone to take their attack seriously.
“I am a black, masculine presenting AMAB [assigned male at birth] person, and I think this played a big part in the struggle I faced for the authorities to take my case seriously,” they explained. “When it came to making a report to the police, I had all these internal biases working against me.”
Rufai ended up hiring a criminal lawyer to push the police to take their complaint more seriously. But then “the police wrongly categorised my assault as domestic violence… which led to the authorities sweeping my case under the rug as a spousal dispute or conflict, even though the assaulter wasn’t my spouse or romantic partner,” they said.
Black trans folks are already the most vulnerable segment of our society, with the Human Rights Campaign reporting that Indigenous, multiracial, Middle Eastern and black trans folks are most likely to be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. When the criminal justice system fails to support these communities when they report sexual offences, the narrative constructed is one that says their pain isn’t worth of time, reconciliation or justice.
The authorities that Rufai dealt with “joked and said inappropriate things” about their “assault, their masculinity and manhood”, they said. Their job as a sex worker made the process even harder. “I found even less support services that were understanding of sex work, especially when it came to legal representation… appearing respectable was something that I really had to battle with, in order to be seen and perceived as a ‘legitimate’ victim.”
Today, Rufai blames “institutional anti-black racism, and an ingrained unconscious bias by individuals preventing them from being truly neutral” for their experience of the justice system. The police ended up dropping the case. Rufai is now pursuing justice through a civil claim, in which they have to cover all the financial costs of the case.
Like Rufai, I was often made to feel as if reporting my assault was a hindrance – as if my experience was somehow harder to understand or believe because of my identity. Another trans survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the increased media coverage of transgender issues only made processing their experience harder, and stopped them from being able to access services that could have helped them after their assault.
“The transphobic public discourse in the UK really exacerbated my fear of using survivor services,” they told me. “As a non-binary person, I feel uncomfortable sharing survivor space with cis men and cis women. The former because, well, patriarchy and male pattern violence being a ‘thing’, and the later because I have seen the fear of trans bodies incited by cisgender women to be used as a weapon to pathologise and potentially incite harm against trans survivors.”
Trans people are well aware of how the British media has falsely reported on our identities and turned them into a tabloid scandal – just look at Newsnight profiling Graham Linehan and Suzanne Moore in the space of a year. But like all so-called culture wars, it was ramifications for how trans people navigate the world.
The anonymous survivor I spoke to said that this transphobia has seeped has poisoned the very support networks we look to for help, creating a toxic environment of fear and isolation. “My transness intersected with my vulnerability to being abused through the complete loss of my sense of self-worth when I started transitioning,” they added. “I felt like an abject monster, so having any kind of attraction or attention – especially if it’s coming from the socially approved script of a cisgender man – was catnip. It was like something giving me my humanity back.”
I’ve always found it difficult to access intimacy and relationships because of my identity, too. Dating has never been an easy ride for me, thanks to constant fetishisation from cis men and even other other LGBTQ+ folks deeming me too “bizarre looking” or “confusing” to understand. Trans folks – especially trans women – aren’t able to seek intimacy as freely and openly as our cis peers due to fear of violence or not feeling comfortable enough to be visibly out, or because the constant media coverage gives others a false impression of what trans people actually are like. It means that we often hold onto intimacy if shown even the slightest glimmer of it. Closeness, for us, is a rationed quantity.
These are all the intricacies that the criminal justice system skips over. It ignores them in favour of the hard evidence; favouring the evidential, over the personal.
As trans survivors, we can’t forget that we are worthy of love, support and help, even if often the world around us makes us feel otherwise. I understand now that a courtroom is not always a place of closure. Services such as Galop and Survivors UK, whom I sought help from personally, offer livesaving resources for victims of rape and sexual assault. You can speak to advisors and get support reporting the crime to the police. The ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advocate) service – one I used via Survivors UK – appoints each survivor with a trained aide who helps you seek assistance, navigate the legal system, or just provide a listening ear if it all feels too much.
In 2019, it was revealed that prosecution and conviction rates of rape and assault in the UK are at a 10-year low. Our justice system that is failing victims, and with one US survey finding that 47 percent of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, it is failing trans victims among them. The failure to create adequate services to help us grieve, process our attack and seek justice isn’t just neglectful – it’s a attempt to eradicate our lived experience, too.