Murders of trans women highlight the intersection of racial and gender-based violence
Jaquarrius Holland was only 18 when she was shot and left for dead in the streets of Monroe, Louisiana in February of this year. She was the seventh of eight transgender women to be brutally murdered in a three-month span—all of whom, like Holland, were women of color.
According to a report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bias-motivated incidents based on gender identity ballooned from 31 incidents in 2013 to 114 in 2015. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for violence against trans individuals, with four murders recorded during in a single week. Of 16 recorded homicides of transgender/gender-nonconforming people in that year, 13 of the victims were transgender women of color. The incidents appear to be unrelated, but the trend makes it clear that transgender women are not the predators much of society imagines them to be. On the contrary, they are the prey.
To many Americans, however, women like Jaquarrius Holland are seen not as innocent victims but as predators. One commenter on the popular New Now Next blog wrote, “... it sounds like these trannies were prostitutes who deceived straight male clients into thinking they were women...”
Comedian Dave Chappelle drew similar conclusions in his recent Netflix special when he described transgender women scheming to “trick” straight men into having sex with them. Chappelle’s comments drew criticism from LGBT activists—but not before drawing raucous laughter from the audience.
Ezra Young is an attorney with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for trans individuals. Young says such language perpetuates harmful stereotypes that can affect how trans people are viewed by the justice system.
“The stereotype that trans people are deceivers, we don't just see it in the context of hate crimes. We see it in employment,” Young told me. “Case in point: We see it in school cases. That’s what a lot of the Gavin Grimm case is about—[the idea] that someone was trying to deceive others about who they actually are.”
Grimm, a trans teenager, was prohibited from using the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester, VA. The resulting legal battle became a national referendum on the right of trans individuals to exist in public space, with one fourth-circuit judge comparing Grimm to civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr.
If the recent, unrelenting stream of videos depicting police violence against black teens is any indicator, Grimm’s battle might have been treated very differently had his skin been a different color. A recent study published by the Brookings Institution found that African-American students are four times more likely to be suspended than white students. The Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network also reported in 2009 that 33 percent of African-American students surveyed experienced physical violence at school due to their gender expression. That number rose to 45 percent for Latino students and more than 50 percent for Native Americans. Not only are trans women of color disproportionately affected by violence, but they experience this at nearly every stage of life.
“When we look at the statistics, it’s oftentimes poor trans women of color who are targeted, and to simply say that they’re vulnerable because they’re trans really misses structural problems of institutional racism,” Young said.
“If we talk about black trans women, for example, we notice informally that they are vulnerable to the same disparities that other black women are vulnerable to: they’re over-policed, they are seen as hypersexual by police, so they are seen to be prostitutes even when they're not. Many, because it’s difficult to get employment, it’s difficult to get social support, are pushed into the underground economy, and that leads to endless vulnerabilities that cause criminalization,” he said.
A 2006 report prepared for the United Nations documented how perceptions of transgender women as sex workers makes them subject to abuse and plays a signiﬁcant role in ofﬁcers' decisions to stop and arrest them.
Trans activist Monica Jones made headlines in 2014 when she was arrested for what police called “manifesting prostitution” after a speaking at a protest in Phoenix, Arizona. While Jones, who is African-American, openly embraces her past history with sex work, she maintains she was not soliciting when she was arrested. Jones, along with the ACLU, fought the charges, but she was sentenced to 30 days in jail, she says, for simply being who she is. She says that type of stigma can have a devastating effect.
“Whore-shaming isolates individuals,” she told me. “You isolate them to being in a place where the likelihood of violence goes up. It’s society’s view of trans women that makes them vulnerable to death. I fear for my life.”
To Jones, gender-based violence and racial violence are two sides of the same coin. “If we talk about violence—violence to women—men get away with it all the time. It’s not just because someone's a sex worker. Violence happens to women due to power dynamic—people who have some power and have more power pick on the ones without power,” she said.
Women and minorities have not been the ones to wield power, yet the shame and fear of being associated with the marginal is still as strong as ever.
Harper Jean is the director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, a DC-based advocacy group that has survived three American presidents. Jean says it’s not enough simply to condemn violence against trans people. It must also be understood that trans lives matter. She says violence against trans people often stems from the fear of simply being associated with them. “[Stigma] for intimate partners and family members is a part of it,” she said. “But then you have violence that’s committed by strangers who are in some way reacting to the messages and the stereotypes and the stigma related to trans people and the perception that it's somehow more acceptable to abuse transgender people because they are less than other people in society.”
Jean also voiced concerns that the rhetoric and policy actions of the Trump administration are contributing to an environment of hostility toward trans people. “In many ways we have a voice from the federal government that is arguably doing a lot to make people less safe,” Jean said.
Jones says she refuses to be ashamed or intimidated: “I’m gonna own my sexuality,” she asserted. “Growing up in a house full of women, it was like, look, this is what you have and, no matter what, you have the right to it.”
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