An epidemic of deadly anti-trans violence

March 18, 2015

Rachel Cohen reports on the efforts to draw attention to the victims of anti-trans hate--and argues for the importance of solidarity and struggle to confront it.

GODDESS EDWARDS, murdered January 9. Lamia Beard, murdered January 17. Candra Keels, murdered Jan 18. Ashley Belle, murdered Jan 26. Jessie Hernandez, murdered Jan 26. Ty Underwood, murdered January 26. Yazmin Vash Payne, murdered January 31. Taja Gabrielle de Jesus, murdered February 1. Penny Proud, murdered February 10. Kristina Gomez Reinwald (aka Kristina Grant Infiniti), murdered February 15.

We only know the names of these trans women of color murdered since the start of 2015 because activists have dug down beneath layers of racism and transmisogyny to recognize their loss.

News reports of the deaths of trans women often refer to victims by a gender and name assigned to them at birth, rather than their chosen names and real gender identities. This deliberate misidentification denies the dignity of trans women and also obscures the horrifying reality of a spate of specifically racist, anti-trans violence. Their losses are simply tossed in among the disinterested coverage of Black and Brown men's deaths.

Oakland activists hold a vigil for trans women of color murdered already in 2015
Oakland activists hold a vigil for trans women of color murdered already in 2015

Louisville, Kentucky, police insisted that they can unilaterally define Goddess Edwards' gender identity for her. Directly contradicting witness testimony and video evidence, Dwight Mitchell spoke on behalf of the department to assert: "As far as I am concerned, that was a man that was shot. It was always a man." And on that basis, according to Mitchell, her identity was "never a factor" in her murder.

Henry Gleaves has been charged with Edwards' killing. Edwards' friend, speaking out under the name Tiffany, says the two met hours earlier, and that Gleaves became irate when Edwards' told him her identity. "That is exactly why she was killed--because of gender identity," Tiffany says.

Kristina Gomez Reinwald's death in Miami was labeled a suicide for days before police acknowledged it as a homicide. Adding to the anti-trans climate is the fact that Florida politicians are currently pursuing legislation to ban transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

The bill's sponsors claim the measure will defend the safety of cisgender women, casting trans women as predators. The reality is the exact opposite--attacking the rights of trans women to simply exist in public and potentially compelling them to enter bathrooms in which they may encounter transphobic responses is far more likely to endanger trans women.

WHEN POLICE and news reports do acknowledge the transgender identity of murder victims, they tend to also pointedly label them as sex workers, whether accurate or not, and whether their murder had any connection to sex work.

Local reporter Prescotte Stokes III, for example, filled his video coverage of the death of Penny Proud in New Orleans with complaints by neighbors of "drug addicts and transsexual prostitutes" near where Proud was killed. The people interviewed casually blamed Proud for her own murder, despite the lack of any evidence linking her to sex work. One said: "You see the things that happen, and you know this will be the eventuality of some of the things that are taking place."

In his coverage of Lamia Beard's murder, a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot included prostitution-related charges against Beard that dated back to 2005 and 2007--though they would be just as irrelevant had they occurred this year.

This tactic recalls the Jim Crow practice of excusing rapes committed by white men against Black women by claiming the victims were prostitutes. To take one example, six white men who abducted and raped Recy Taylor in Alabama in 1944 evaded charges in part by claiming they had paid her. But a coalition of civil rights, labor and left-wing activists built an international campaign to tell Taylor's story and shame the state of Alabama.

Danielle McGuire's book At the Dark End of the Street recounts the work of Rosa Parks and dozens of other women who gained confidence and skills as activists demanding justice for Black women victimized by white men, and who later ran the day-to-day car pooling, fundraising and behind-the-scenes coordination of the landmark Montgomery bus boycott.

The civil rights movement that followed inspired many oppressed people to take action, including a larger women's right movement that forced a nationwide recognition of rape as violence, not a crime of passion. A mass struggle for gay and lesbian liberation was ignited when Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan trans woman, threw the first bottle of the Stonewall riot in New York City in 1969. These struggles overflowed into one another, leading new voices into collective action, transforming popular consciousness and winning important new rights.

TODAY, LGBT and antiracist advocates are working hard to expose the news of each trans woman of color's death. Friends and community supporters have gathered in vigils to honor their lives across the country. Recognizing and remembering these women is urgent, as the violence in 2015 appears to have already outpaced last year's 13 confirmed homicides of trans women.

Building a movement to confront and reverse this trend requires understanding the roots of racist, transphobic violence. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs' most recent report showed nearly 90 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2013 were people of color. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of homicide victims were transgender women, and more than two-thirds (67 percent) were transgender women of color.

Transphobic ideas are constantly reinforced by a sexist and homophobic society that recognizes only narrowly confined identities. Whipping Girl author Julia Serano argues that hostility to gender non-conformity is sharpened by sexist objectification and norms when directed at trans women. She coined the term "transmisogyny" to describe how trans women are subjected to intersecting discrimination as both gender non-conforming people and as women. Trans women of color face racist dehumanization on top of that.

But no systematic oppression can be fully explained in terms of ideas, existing outside the conditions of our lives and spread by individual bigots.

In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce summarized a nationwide survey of transgender people in a report titled "Injustice at Every Turn." They found substantial structural obstacles disproportionately defining the lives of trans people of color.

The 6,450 respondents were four times more likely to live on $10,000 a year or less than the general population. They were twice as likely to be unemployed. Discrimination against their gender identity cost 47 percent a major setback in work, whether being fired, denied hiring or denied a promotion. Workplace discrimination is only legally banned in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Sixteen percent said they had been forced to work in underground economies--which means the constant threat of police brutality, abuse and arrest.

Nearly every aspect of public life--from education to housing to access to personal identification--is marred by systematic, legal and open prejudice. These conditions both reflect ideological transphobia and racism, but they also bolster the oppression of other women, people of color, trans people, workers and poor people.

UNFORTUNATELY, SOME of the voices sounding the alarm about violence against trans women of color are suggesting that our capacity for solidarity is necessarily subdivided by every aspect of oppression standing between us.

One of the earliest writers documenting the murders this year, KaeLyn Rich, included a searing condemnation of some of her presumed readers in a January article about the murder of Black trans women:

The deaths of Beard and Underwood and Edwards come shortly after the tragic and awful death of Leelah Alcorn, but have received much less attention and public displays of grief than Alcorn's. Alcorn absolutely deserved love and support and the outpouring of emotion that followed her death. It's hard not to see it, though--that Alcorn's life, the life of a white girl--seems to matter so much more to so many more people.

Whether intentional or not, every person who posted about Alcorn and went to vigils for her and pledged to do better but who didn't do the same for Beard or Underwood, is part of the problem. Is silently complicit of the invisibility and vulnerability of [trans women of color].

Rich blames the inadequacies of corporate media on general public, although the crime of the media's negligence of these stories is precisely that too few people hear the news at all. And she singles out the complicity of people's concern, but not the structural violence of poverty, criminalization and sexist commodification that lie behind both the murders and the media denials.

Trans writer Samantha Allen posed an alternative vision of the kind of struggle we need on Transgender Day of Remembrance last November. She wrote:

Practicing radical politics requires us to work from the bottom up, to start from the intersection of multiple oppressions. In 1977, a group of black lesbian socialist feminists known as the Combahee River Collective wrote: "If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression." According to this same principle, transgender women of color need to be at the center of our politics and not consigned to its margins.

None of us can be free until we're all free. No one can free us but ourselves. That means every "us" has to carry solidarity with trans women of color into all of our struggles, and that we have to build strong and united movements for jobs, housing, schools, health care, and an end to prisons and the police.

These fights, along with organizing active solidarity with trans women of color, can unite millions of working people in ways that will not only save lives, but also open up access to lives worth living for everyone.

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