The Anti Violence Project responded to 22 homicides of transgender/gender-nonconforming people in America in 2015. In 2014, the number was 12, as Zach Stafford pointed out in The Guardian in November. He wasn’t alone in highlighting that astronomical number this year, especially in accordance with the Trans Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20. The New York Times, The Melissa Harris Perry Show, The Advocate, Mother Jones, MTV.com, Fusion, and the Daily Dot are just a few of the outlets that have highlighted this epidemic.
That this spate of murders comes during a seemingly banner year for trans visibility in pop culture might read as discordant. Caitlyn Jenner’s every public move was watched and analyzed, Laverne Cox remains a source of knowledge and warmth, the Amazon series Transparent was binged on by fans and won several major Emmys, and the sex-worker comedy Tangerine was an indie sensation. When thinking about these homicides, though, I wondered whether the elevated number marked an actual uptick in murders, or in the reporting of these murders. Do these 22 known homicides of trans and gender-nonconforming people (the vast majority of them—19—people of color), in a year in which life seemed to be getting better for American trans people, put the lie to that surface reading? Or are they completely in step with the higher all-around visibility of trans people, which acknowledges not just the traditional narratives of achievement but the tragic reality of disparity?
By phone this month, I asked a number of officials and leaders—many of them trans women of color themselves—that sort of chicken-or-egg question: Whether this highly publicized number means more crime or that more crimes are being reported. Here are their responses:
That is the question for us, as well. NCAVP has been monitoring the homicides of LGBTQ people for a long time now. This year, obviously, was the highest amount of homicides of trans and gender non-conforming people that we’ve ever recorded. We’ve learned a lot this year in terms of just how big this problem is, and ways to start addressing it, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.
We don’t actually know if this is an increase in violence, but we can’t rule that out completely. What we do know is that the media has gotten better at reporting it, and we’re just hearing about these cases more often on a local and national scale. We can’t say that for sure because we know this violence has been happening for a long time, and we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. But for the first time, people are starting to pay attention to it.
These are the numbers we know about. In essence, we’re talking mainly of the people who are out and identifiable as trans, who other trans people knew about, or for that matter, were sufficiently active in the trans community for their murders to be noticed as such. I am certain—sadly, heartbreakingly—that the number is higher, probably much higher at a nationwide basis than what we actually have. I’m not sure if it’s been a spike in murders as much as it has been more and more people that we’re becoming aware of. There may be spikes and ebbs and flows, but I don’t think we know that.
It’s definitely an uptick in the reporting and in the capturing and in the community, I think, just being fed up that our lives and these incidents of violence and murder are not acknowledged. We’ve seen a groundswell of trans leadership, and trans organizing in the last several years. Just within the last year, I’m thinking about the amount of public outrage and trans people taking the streets to say, “Trans lives matter,” to say, “Stop trans murders,” and to really push for our lives being valued in larger society. Seeing that activism has then pushed media, has pushed communities, has pushed agencies that have traditionally not included trans folks and the issue of violence on the table.
Any of these homicides is too many. Unfortunately in this country, we get caught up in the numbers so much. I want people to understand that each of these numbers represents a real person who had a real life and real opportunity that was struck down when they were way too young, when they had a life before them. Their life was taken away because of hate. The combination of transphobia and racism are what we need to address and make sure that if this number is 5 [in 2016], we don’t say, “Phew, we’ve overcome.” We have a long way to go to really address those root causes and to make sure we’re dealing with them collectively in our society.
I have been involved in working in transgender/gender non-conforming communities of color specifically since 1993, and it’s not that more violence is happening. More brutal violence is being reported. And that’s primarily due to connectivity through the internet, as well as media. Even still many murders are not reported. I think we see these numbers and people are having reactionary responses, as if the violence in our community is something that’s new, and it’s not.
I will go even further to say that so much focus on the physical violence that happens in our community is almost a distraction to the structural violence we face. In 34 states, it’s legal to discriminate against trans people’s access to housing, employment, and education. That’s also violence that goes under-reported. They’re inextricably linked.
The bigger picture
Hunter makes a point echoed by everyone I talked to: These murders aren’t isolated incidents, but part of a bigger system of structural discrimination. We see repeated instances of police refusing to classify these crimes as hate crimes. Broadly’s Diana Tourjee reported multiple instances of police refusing to classify homicides of trans women as hate crimes, despite ample contrary evidence she uncovered. We see widespread misgendering, a major thread in the bigger narrative of trans murders, as in the case of Papi Edwards, whose misgendering led to the police’s refusal to classify her murder as a hate crime. (Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Tamara Dominquez, Elisha Walker, were among other murdered trans women who were misgendered by the police and/or press, at least initially, as well.) We see this structural disparity even in cases of intimate-partner violence, since, as Waters contends, such disputes are often more complicated than a lovers’ spat that goes too far. “We know working with trans survivors that oftentimes their trans identities are used against them by their abusers, to obviously belittle them and their experiences,” she says. Even when there aren’t immediately apparent signs of hatred in the crimes—no name-calling, no reported reference to gender identity by the attackers—the system can contribute to these crimes in ways that aren’t necessarily visible by the general, cisgender public.
“We have to acknowledge the situations that lead trans women, especially trans women of color, to end up being murdered,” said Rodriguez-Roldan. “We’re not just talking about them being trans, we’re talking about when, due to their being trans, they end up being discriminated against, and unable to find employment, and thus being forced to end up in risky situations, such as sex work, such as being homeless. One in five trans people has experienced homelessness at one point or another in their lives. In fact, in a recent New York State study, that went as high as 30 percent of trans New Yorkers. These are all very risky situations where the odds of your being hurt, of being killed, are much higher.”
“Sex work is complicated,” explained Noyola. “It’s not just about saying that they’re being victimized. There’s a lot of folks who are making deliberate choices around sex work and their bodies. And I also know the context of trans folks and employment. Just working here at the Transgender Law Center, we’re seeing high rates of discrimination, even for folks that have been at companies for years and they transition and now they’ve been fired or told they have to delay their transition because of XYZ reason—violations of people’s human rights, essentially. I know for my community, the issue of employment is a huge concern, because of the discrimination and stigma that is perpetuated.”
Tillery cautions against relying only on these reports of murders as a means of understanding the violence perpetuated against trans women. “We’re not talking about the numbers of trans people who are survivors of violence, who have made it through but are really experiencing all kinds of violence daily—violence and discrimination.”
Waters says that survivors, who have often found themselves in a system that puts them at danger, are faced with even more systemic discrimination when they attempt to get help.
“They end up hitting a lot of barriers,” said Waters. “They have to identify with the sex they were assigned at birth to access services, or they go to a shelter and shelters are sex-segregated, and they aren’t able to stay at shelters. It’s all tied into discrimination and transphobia, historically.”
Noyola said that after attending many rallies for the trans women murdered during the early part of 2015, she often saw the conversations end when the demonstration disbanded. “There was no policy ask from Social Services to think about how we prevent the violence, or how we support trans women so that they’re not placed in vulnerable situations,” she explained. “How are we including them in our case-management programs? How are we including them through our domestic violence work? Because we also know that a lot of these incidents of violence come from intimate partners or people the trans women have known. There’s a lot of work that still needs to happen. The [domestic violence] funding world doesn’t have a set strategy to include trans women.”
A banner year
“Greater trans visibility is a major thing because it’s providing for the first time a certain view of, ‘Hey we are people, we are human, we are here, we aren’t freaks or something you only hear about in jokes and stereotypes,’” said Rodriguez-Roldan, regarding the pop cultural resonance of trans women in 2015. “However it needs to be done in the context of ensuring that everybody doesn’t perceive that everything is OK just because some trans people have been able to become a major actress or a celebrity figure.”
“My reality is that trans people are still very much in survival mode,” said Noyola. “I think there’s a dangerous narrative being formed around ‘trans people have made it now’ because we’re now on the covers of media and because Barbara Walters chose Caitlyn Jenner as the most fascinating person of the year. Our communities are still very much under attack and not being supported or resourced in a way that’s meeting the level of need.”
Hunter seemed less impressed with the visibility overall.
“Heteronormative narratives are gaining visibility, so that really does not help when we’re talking about communities that are disproportionately impacted by structural oppression,” she said. “You have Caitlyn Jenner going to the U.N., saying she’s comfortable with the way issues are handled in the United States. I bet she’s not aware that the average age of a trans woman of color is 35 years old, the average income of a trans person of color is less than $10,000. How can she be comfortable with that? No one hears those stories because mainstream attention is drawn to particular narratives that are hegemonic, that are from dominant culture, or that mirror heteronormative existences, or the binaries.”
Mercedes Williamson, 17, was murdered May 30, and her body was found two days later in Rocky Creek, Alabama. On June 1, Josh Brandon Vallum, who Wiliamson knew, confessed to killing Williamson and burying her body. He was charged with murder.
I also wondered about a backlash effect that may be taking place. Rodriguez-Roldan told me that, indeed, backlash is a reality for the U.S.’s trans citizens.
“We can see it in state legislatures all over the country,” she said. “We have seen it in the form of legislators proposing all sorts of bills that would literally criminalize trans people for using the bathroom. In some cases, those bills go after children, as we have seen Wisconsin, Kentucky—trans children try to use the right restrooms in their schools, basically. We have see in it in Houston where an ordinance that would have protected many other classes of people, in areas such as disability and race, was defeated just out of a fear campaign induced around the theory that trans people are going to be sex offenders who go into bathrooms and rape people. In reality, we have not heard of trans people arrested for using restrooms. More members of Congress in the last few years have been arrested in the bathroom basically, as Larry Craig in the Minneapolis Airport a few years ago demonstrated. These are all fear tactics to try to criminalize the trans community, in many ways, for existing.”
I wondered, too, what her thoughts were about the murders having something to do with a backlash, understanding that it’s practically impossible to say for certain, given the open question of whether these homicides are more numerous than before, or more reported.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez-Roldan didn’t rule out the backlash being manifested in physical violence toward trans women, and again, it’s impossible to extract these murders from the system that fosters them.
“When you hear your legislator talking of trans people in the most dehumanizing and horrible way, as basically freaks and sex offenders, that has consequences on society,” explained Rodriguez-Roldan. “And at the same time, this very process that seeks to marginalize and discriminate against trans people is only heightened by this legal and political backlash we’re seeing to further criminalize trans people and banish them into the margins of society and make them more vulnerable to violence and to being profiled to by the police.”
The complexity of it all
During the discussions that I had for this piece, I was repeatedly struck by the complexity of the issues we discussed: the sophistication of carrying a trans identity through a cis-centric world, the way disenfranchisement wraps itself around itself repeatedly, the gains and losses in trans rights this year, and the simultaneous tragedies and sign of progress signified by this list of 22 dead trans/gender non-conforming people.
“That visibility is bringing more attention to how trans people interact in the world, and the biases they experience,” said Waters. “We’re talking about a really sad thing, that these people are being killed, but at the same time, it brings more visibility and attention to the issue, which leads to things like more resources, and better services for trans people, and hopefully a decrease in transphobia in general.”
“I think that part of the heightened media attention puts it at the top of people’s minds: This is something that I have to pay more attention to now because it’s something that’s important that’s happening in our country,” added Tillery.
But the tragic image of the dead trans woman, as crucial as it is to acknowledge, joins the system and helps color the overall notion of trans experience.
“It’s always this shock value, this victim narrative. The media plays a big part in that,” explained Hunter. “They choose to exploit and sensationalize our existences, so no one expects to see trans women of color in leadership roles.”
The remains of Elisha Walker, 20, were found August 11, in a “crude grave” behind a house in Smithfield, North Carolina. Walker was reported missing by her mother on November 11, 2014. After the discovery, Angel Dejesus Arias, reportedly a member of the Latin Kings gang, was charged with murder.
What is being done
Hunter, though, is a leader, and at both Trans Women of Color Collective and Casa Ruby, she advises several trans people, particularly trans people of color, who face enormous employment discrimination elsewhere.
“We wake up everyday understanding that we live in a world that’s designed to erase us off the face of the earth,” said Hunter. “It is designed to tell us that we don’t belong, our existences are in our heads. We are working to shift that narrative. We’re shifting from victimhood to personhood. We’re shifting from surviving to thriving by creating environments where trans and gender-nonconforming youths can heal from trauma and ascend to leadership”
Hunter, who received a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers in 2014, often works with homeless trans youth, and in doing so, provides them a model for a life path, just like the one that inspired her.
“It wasn’t until I saw another trans woman of color with a degree running a program that I even began to think that that could be something that I could actually do,” she said. “Society tells me that if I’m not thin or beautiful or passing then my existence doesn’t matter. If I’m not here to exist for the commodification of men and to be fetishized, then my life doesn’t matter. And even still, it doesn’t matter. We have to shift that narrative.”
Last month, Noyola spoke at the first-ever Congressional Forum on Violence Against the Transgender Community. There, she had only a few minutes to pack years of work and strife into a few easily digested minutes. She speaks around the country, and says in her view, the support and resources for trans leadership are “abysmal.”
“My community is doing this work out of their living rooms or out of their cars, or in a church once a week,” she explained. “They’re meeting, they’re organizing trans women to have a space for them to organize themselves, to kind of check in with how they’re doing. [I’m] helping them to identify resources and then bringing them together to help build their leadership.”
Many people that I talked to agreed that social media has had a huge impact on the movement, particularly in the reporting of these murders, which is often informed by friends and family of the victims speaking up (such as in the case of police and/or media misgendering). Rodriguez-Roldan pointed to the Task Force’s #StopTransMurders hashtag and initiative in being instrumental in helping ensure these stories get told and shared.
“A big part of that publicity is, in many ways, part of the effort the Task Force has been doing to publicize this, to make sure that those names are remembered, that they’re in the media, that there is a greater public awareness of the crisis that so many people in the trans community are experiencing,” she said.
What is to be done
“For non-trans people, I would like for them to actively engage in the elevation of their consciousness,” said Hunter. “I want them to think beyond allyship. When you think about being an ally, you’re othering oppression. We are all impacted by oppression. We’re impacted differently, but the system of oppression manifests in all our lives. I need for non-trans people to really engage themselves and other people like them, so that they can understand that we have more in common than we don’t.”
“People want to feel off the hook,” says Noyola. “I think there’s a certain amount of listening that non-trans people and policy folks and agencies and executive directors and funding streams and foundations [need to do]. That is the name of the game right now.”
“Certainly what we know is that the more people in our society personally know someone who’s trans, the more accepting and understanding they are, and the more willing to support their rights,” said Tillery. “I think that there are also a lot of ways that organizations that will be looking to specifically help groups do that kind of learning. I think we’ll see many more educational campaigns coming forward in the next couple of years that are really about that. There will be even more resources and tools for people, so there will be very little excuse for people to say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ It’s just like anything else: If you really want to learn something, you’ll figure out how to get that information.”
In terms of policy, Noyola doesn’t envision upheaval, but inclusion—which makes sense, since trans people are people, and are long overdue for being seen as such by the greater culture.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “There’s already existing services that need to include us. That need to think about how they are either providing transgender people specific kind of care, or housing, or mental health support, or health support—being able to work with those community leaders that are already doing this work. There’s a lot of policy conversations already moving, and it’s important to me that they be framed in a way where it’s translating into resources for our community and not necessarily empty policies that are going to need organizations to really hold agencies or departments or the police or institutions accountable.”
A moment of truth
“I think we have to decide as a society what we’re gonna do in this moment,” said Tillery. “Are we going to take this moment to really learn about the trans members in our community and figure out ways to support them and honor them, or are we going to continue business as usual? I think there’s a lot of movement and work moving in the positive direction. I’m very heartened by that.”
“I know that there will still be murders. That’s just going to happen. We’re not going to end murders—anywhere,” said Hunter. “We live in a culture that enjoys violence, that celebrates violence. And so for us to think that we’re going to end the violence that is happening to trans women of color in this country today or tomorrow, or next year, is just not going to happen. Even if we do, I’m still black. Are we going to end murders of black people, too? I’m still a woman. It just doesn’t end there. We can’t just focus on ending murders.
“We have to focus on: How do we create environments that give opportunities to our young people to navigate the systems of oppression that they have to exist within? And at the same time how do we also dismantle those systems so no one has to live in a world where there’s a perceived threat of violence or otherwise, not just for trans people, but for all oppressed people?”
Rodriguez-Roldan says she and the Task Force have already received pushback regarding their endeavors, including their recent call to decriminalize sex work. But she, like everyone else I spoke to, remains hopeful.
“We’ve been asked if any of this is realistic,” she said. “I think of a story collected by the Brothers Grimm, which says that a young boy was asked by a king, ‘How many seconds are in an eternity?’ The boy replied, ‘There is this mountain made of the hardest diamond. A little bird comes and sharpens his beak on that mountain every 100 years. Once that mountain has been ground away to nothing, then the first second of eternity will have passed.’ As advocates, we have a duty to be like that bird. Sometimes it takes a long time, other times we won’t get to see the end result, but we have to have the patience and determination to keep grinding away at it, even if it takes a whole second of eternity.”
[Note that the collage at the top of this post was assembled using the NCAVP’s list of trans/gender non-conforming homicides in 2015. That list may deviate slightly from other reports. Image source list is as follows: Papi Edwards photo via Buzzfeed; Lamia Beard photo via the Washington Blade; Ty Underwood photo via dallasvoice.com; Yazmin Vash Payne photo via KTLA; Taja Gabrielle DeJesus photo via SFGate; Penny Proud photo via The Advocate; Kristina Gomez Reinwald photo via CBS Miami; London Chanel photo via Philadelphia Magazine; Mercedes Williamson photo via Buzzfeed; India Clarke photo via Tampa Bay Times; Amber Monroe photo via LGBTQ Action Michigan; Shade Schuler photo via The Guardian; Ashton O’Hara photo via Facebook; Kandis Capri photo via Facebook; Elisha Walker photo via Towleroad; Tamara Dominguez photo via New York Daily News; Keyshia Blige photo via Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents; Jessie Hernandez photo via KDVR; Kiesha Jenkins photo via Philly.com; Zella Ziona photo via Huffington Post; photos of K.C. Haggard and Jasmine Collins were not available on the internet.]
Note: The original version of this article quoted Lourdes Hunter as saying that the average income of a trans person of color is less than $2,000, when she said $10,000. This error occurred during transcription and has been corrected above.