Death Sentence? The Public Perception of Transgender Women of Color
Persistence in murder rate indicates gross lack of public empathy for LGBT’s minority
If George W. Bush didn’t “care about black people,” then people generally don’t care about the lives of transgender women of color.
That’s not exactly the way writer and activist Janet Mock put it. She and others believe a rash of murders, as well as uneven media coverage, suggest a gross lack of empathy for gender non-conforming individuals.
Mock, a 29-year-old Hawaii native, was her parents’ firstborn son. She transitioned when she was a teenager and is aware of her privilege of not having her gender identity questioned by society.
It’s a privilege that isn’t a reality for many women like her, Mock acknowledges.
That premature death for transgender women may lurk around the corner, at the bus stop or in the presence of an intimate partner is an existence that hasn’t quite caught fire in the mainstream.
“Being trans should not equate to a death sentence,” Mock said in an interview with Loop 21.
But it’s hardly that simple. Mock knows that better than most, as an outspoken trans advocate. She says fighting for the rights and safety of transgender women of color requires a level of inclusiveness that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates don’t yet have down to a science.
“It’s hard because trans women of color live in the intersection between two so-called oppressed groups,” Mock said. "We do fall in between the cracks of the resources that are available."
[ALSO READ: Report Shows Disparity in Minority LGBT Violence]
As a result, the high murder rate amongst transgender women of color seemingly flies under the radar.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an overwhelming majority of the transgender woman murdered last year were racial minorities. The overall murder rate of LGBT people rose 11 percent.
The coalition tracked the murders by monitoring reports from news outlets, which often err in properly identifying the desired gender marker of victims. The prevalence of such crimes can go unnoticed, if media professionals aren’t sympathetic to the idea that, in death, a transgender woman doesn’t switch back to male.
It's worth noting that the issues faced by the transgender community are far too complex to definitively state that transgender women of color are murdered because of their race and gender expression. Until recently, the federal government did not track the sexuality or gender identity of hate crime victims. Unless her murder is classified a hate crime, it's entirely possible that law enforcement agencies and media outlets will fail to acknowledge the gender expression of a transgender woman, whether she be the criminal or the victim.
Still, advocates believe the murders are preventable. Reducing the murder rate for these women is three pronged, says Mark Snyder of the California-based Transgender Law Center.
“When a transgender person has a safe place to sleep at night, and a good job, and adequate healthcare, then a person’s risk of being a victim of violence decreases,” Snyder said.
He also pointed to recent and promising advances – the inclusion of transgender people in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protections and in the Prison Rape Elimination Act – for men and women, who struggle with an estimated unemployment rate double the national average and with transphobia in the criminal justice system.
Those things don’t necessarily address a seeming disregard for the lives and humanity of transgender women of color.
Mock said she was disgusted by the experience of a transgender friend, who was randomly kicked by a man on the street.
“He felt that she wasn’t even human,” Mock said. “That’s what’s so scary. It creates the mindset that you could be (a victim) because you are trans.”
The worst crimes committed against transgender people – sexual assault, mutilation and murder – are indicative of an air of dispensability, seemingly perceived by their attackers and, in some cases, the general public.
That was evident in the 2003 New Jersey murder of 15-year-old Sakia Gunn, who didn’t fall squarely into the transgender category. While waiting for a bus late at night, Gunn and a friend were attacked by two men because Gunn was an aggressive lesbian. She was stabbed to death.
Kim Pearson, the chair of the African American Studies Department at the College of New Jersey, researched the coverage of the Gunn’s murder, comparing it to the attention given Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998.
Pearson found only 21 stories had been written about Gunn’s murder in the seven-month period following her death. Over the same span, 659 stories had been written about Shepard.
“Part of what you see in that whole discourse is not only a lack of understanding of the reality and the dangers that LGBT people of color face, but also this complete erasure of transgender identity,” Pearson said of Gunn’s coverage.
“At the trial, (Gunn’s killer Richard McCollough) kept referring to her as ‘the little dude,’ “ Pearson said.
It was the reaction to her research that spoke volumes about the perception of transgender people, Pearson said. In 2005, she asked the national LGBT and black journalist associations if they could explain the disparity of news coverage. Neither organization seemed particularly moved to take up the issue, she recalled.
“It’s not clear to me that there is a lot of awareness,” Pearson said. “Transgender folks tend to drop out of the conversation.”
[ALSO READ: Transgender Woman Sentenced To Jail With Males]
Working with the Law
Transgender women of color, who are victims of violent crimes and murder, often end up that way due to circumstances of street life. With rampant mistrust of law enforcement, some crimes committed against these women go unreported. Put simply, some can't go to the police.
While policies toward interaction with the LGBT community vary widely among law enforcement agencies, advocates have pointed to recent work by the Los Angeles Police Department to build a bridge between officers and transgender individuals.
In April, Chief Charlie Beck announced new procedures that “prevent discrimination and conflict, and ensure the appropriate treatment of transgender individuals,” according to a statement announcing the policy.
The procedures discourage officers from using homophobic and transphobic language. It also provides guidelines for respecting the names and gender expression of the individuals the officers interact with.
“The policy is mostly helping to build trust,” said Alessandra Moura, the LAPD’s liaison officer to the LGBT community.
The guidelines do not address hate crime classifications or whether homicide investigators would make note of the gender expression of victims.
But Moura says the new procedures are helping to open community doors that were once tightly shut.
“I go to meetings and I get hugs, I get kisses from transgender individuals,” Moura said. “They know I do my work because I care. And it’s not just a broken promise. I get invited to events as a Los Angeles police officer, when before they didn’t want an officer anywhere near. Their doors were closed to the LAPD.”
The Minority Within the Minority
Similar groundwork is needed within the LGBT community, advocates say.
“When people are fighting for women’s rights, they’re not so much fighting for trans women’s rights,” Mock said. “And when people are fighting for civil rights for black people, they’re not fighting for the rights of trans women of color.”
Pearson agrees and noted the larger LGBT movement’s focus on non-emergency issues for transgender people.
“These folks were poor, therefore they were on the margins,” Pearson said of the murder victims. “The problem is that the LGBT movement has been aligned with middle class aspirations.”
Neither Pearson nor Mock seeks to diminish the good work being done by many LGBT organizations. Mock only wishes for a day when young transgender girls aren’t subjected to constant reminders of violence.
[ALSO READ: Janet Jackson Producing Transgender Documentary]
“We internalize a lot of the bad things that are happening to us,” Mock said. “We must heighten the visibility of the amazing transgender women of color.”
Mock points to Isis King, the transgender ‘America’s Next Top Model” contestant and current American Apparel model; Laverne Cox, a working transgender actress; Reina Gossett, a transgender activist with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project; and Monica Roberts, an award-winning writer and transgender activist.
“But these people can only do so much,” Mock said.
Certainly, more can be done to ensure women of color aren’t disproportionately represented on the list of deceased:
Brandy Martell, 37, of Oakland, was shot to death in May; Paige Clay, 23, of Chicago, was shot to death in April; Coko Williams, 35, of Detroit, had her throat slit in April; Dee Dee Pearson, 31, of Kansas City, was shot to death on Christmas Eve; Chassity Vickers, 32, of Hollywood, Calif., was shot to death in November of 2011; and Shelley Hilliard, 19, of Detroit, was decapitated and burned in October of 2011.
For a more names, visit the International Transgender Day of Remembrance website.