This past summer, transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox declared a “state of emergency” due to the increasing number of murders of transgender women. By August of 2015, the total number of women killed (21 known cases at press time) had surpassed the total for all of 2014. While women such as Cox, Janet Mock, and Caitlyn Jenner have made unsurpassed recent headway in bringing trans issues into mainstream America, this visibility has been accompanied by devastating levels of violence. “Right now we’re experiencing a Dickensian time, where it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times at once,” says transgender rights advocate Masen Davis, who formerly ran the Transgender Law Center.
In the spirit of #SayHerName it is important to know these women’s names and learn about their lives and stories. Kristina Gomez Reinwald, 46, was fatally stabbed in Miami in February. No one was been arrested for her murder but her friends claim her ex-boyfriend was the perpetrator. Reinwald was a well-known performer in her community and a vigil was held in her memory, attended by many people whose lives she had touched. India Clarke, 25, was fatally beaten and shot in Miami in July by a man she knew. She was studying to be a cosmetologist and local media repeatedly misgendered her in their coverage. Keisha Jenkins, 22, was robbed and killed by a group of men in Philadelphia in October; she enjoyed drawing and designing tattoos and hoped to work in an artistic field someday. These are but three of the twenty-one known trans women murdered in the U.S. in 2015 alone.
A recent report on this crisis by HRC and the Transgender People of Color Coalition notes that these women’s deaths have been grisly – involving gunshots, burning, strangulation and beating – and the majority of their cases have gone unsolved, with only a few suspects arrested. Intimate partner violence has been responsible for at least six of the women’s deaths, and the majority of the victims have been under 25 years old. In most of these cases, the local media outlets have misgendered the victims and used their birth names in their reporting. In some cases, local media sources have further disrespected these women by highlighting their arrest records and using mug shots instead of personal photos. In this way, women whose lives were taken much too soon by violent men are said to have brought such actions upon themselves. Worse, the legal system often upholds this through laws such as the gay and trans “panic” defense, which is only illegal in California. Gay and trans “panic” defense tactics rely on the assumption that juries will be sympathetic to men who murder trans women because they are less than “women” and the threat they pose to men’s heterosexuality and masculinity are reasonable excuses to end their lives. As long as such claims are taken legitimately, trans women will continue to be murdered by men who get away with it.
This defense also upholds other dangerous stereotypes, such as the notion that trans women purposefully “deceive” men about their identities. The strength of this harmful concept was on full display this past Election Day in Houston, when Republicans scored a victory by not passing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have banned discrimination against transgender people, along with many other categories of marginalized citizens. Advertisements against this ordinance played on this fear by arguing that “men in dresses” would take over women’s bathroom and assault women and girls. This discourse inverted the reality that trans women who are forced to use a men’s bathroom are much more likely to be the victims of violence. However, those who don’t view trans women as women cannot see them as potential victims but only as predators. As one flyer against the ordinance stated, “a man who says that he is a ‘transgender female’ is still a man, no matter what he thinks he is…a man dressed as a woman is a man who is engaging in deviant behavior.”
This type of ignorant thinking has dangerous consequences and lends credence to the idea that trans women deserve the violence they inordinately receive. And even worse, in light of the recent passing of same-sex marriage at the national level and the increasing visibility of LGBT communities, it appears likely that push back to these victories through campaigns like the one in Houston will continue across the country. However, Nellie Fitzpatrick, the Mayor’s Liaison to the Philadelphia LGBT community, recently stated that this national crisis of transgender murders “isn’t solved by solving each homicide after it happens. The solution is in our society — making sure that any level of stigma or lack of access is completely eliminated for everyone.” The complex intersectional identities of transgender women of color, who are dealing with the overlapping issues of transmisogyny, racism, and classism, leave them vulnerable to multiple forms of institutionalized oppression.
While much more systemic work is needed to improve the quality of life for transgender women of color, transgender activists and organizations are leading the movement to rectify these injustices. This past August 25th was a “Black Trans Lives Matter Day of Action” across the country, as people gathered in the streets in at least 14 cities to protest the crisis of violence against trans women of color. This day of action was created in collaboration between transgender activists and the Black Lives Matter movement, which is led by Black women and works to center the needs of LGBTQ people.
November 20th brings Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a tradition that began in 1998 with a vigil for Rita Hester, an African American transgender woman who was murdered in Massachusetts, whose killer was never found. Hester was a vivacious, outgoing woman who loved to travel and had many friends in her local community. The media coverage of her murder was so insensitive and derogatory, even from the local gay newspaper, that the local trans community became motivated to take action. Since then, TDOR serves to memorialize those whose lives were taken too soon due to the hate, fear, and ignorance that run rampant in our white supremacist, patriarchal culture. TDOR events are held all over the country and the world and serve to bring attention to the violence and injustice that disproportionately affects transgender women of color. However, critiques have been raised that TDOR events have been primarily initiated by white middle-class activists without the inclusion of those most at risk of murder: trans people of color. Others note that the primacy of TDOR events and media coverage leads to an emphasis on transgender women in death when they must be supported more in life.
With both of these critiques in mind, trans activists of color have created the “National Trans March of Resilience” in conjunction with Black Lives Matter which will also occur on November 20th in cities across the country. Their Facebook page says the marches will “give voice to the many lives silenced by transphobic violence and suicide” yet will also be “a celebration of our resilience as people who dare to live in our truth unapologetically.” A new generation of trans activists of color are taking an intersectional approach to social justice and working in coalition with the Black Lives Matter movement to end violence and mass incarceration, issues that disproportionately affect the trans community. Just as it’s important to mourn for the dead, one must also “fight like hell” for the living and a national celebration of trans resilience in the face of so much hatred and violence is long overdue.
Cookie Woolner is a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Kalamazoo College where she teaches Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Queer Black History. She is currently working on a book project entitled The Famous Lady Lovers: African American Women and Same-Sex Desire before Stonewall.