Each November LGBT centers, local groups, and churches host events for Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a single evening, a few hours, dedicated to memorializing those who were violently murdered for being transgender. Nearly all of the victims are women, of color, poor, and many likely engaged in sex work. In the United States, most are young black or Latina women. It’s a somber and depressingly impotent occasion as the needs of these women were never prioritized in life, and the crisis is largely ignored by everyone other than trans women of color the rest of the year.
Last November, Angelica Ross, a black trans woman who lifted herself up from risky conditions by learning website design and now runs a company dedicated to providing similar opportunities other trans people, spoke at Chicago’s TDOR event at the Center on Halsted. She said, “It took one Matthew Shepard for the gay community to stand up and say ‘Not one more.’ We’re losing 200-300 every year."
For many that attend such events, it’s the only day of the year that they must confront this ugly reality. For people like myself and Angelica, who is my roommate and one of my closest friends, it’s a daily issue.
Once while leaving a fashion show together, a guy started flirting with Angelica, leading to he and his friend driving us to a nearby bar. At some point the friend realized I was trans, assumed Angelica was too, then quietly informed his friend. His boasting chatter suddenly turned silent, his face turned red, and the way he gripped his beer bottle had me fearing that he was about to become violent. Instead they made an excuse and left. It was the first time I encountered such a situation, but it wasn’t the last.
While I was shaken, Angelica, who has been navigating these situations for far longer than I, was hardly fazed. In time, I too became used to the close calls, tuning in to signs of violence, hearing stories of friends who had survived or escaped violence, the exhaustion of having to live in fear of another person’s struggle with who you are, and the steady, numbing stream of tragedy.
Recently news broke that Christina Grand Infiniti, a well-known trans woman in Miami, had been murdered by her boyfriend. Also, BreakOut, a group which fights the criminalization of LGBTQ youth in New Orleans shared the news that Penny Proud was killed. Infiniti and Proud join Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Michelle Vash Payne, and Taja Gabrielle de Jesus as the fifth and sixth U.S. trans women killed already in 2015. Four of the six were black trans women, by and far the most overrepresented demographic in this epidemic. Whether or not a seventh person, M. Edwards, self-identified as trans remains unconfirmed, but either way would be one of nearly a dozen LGBT people of color whose lives ended violently and prematurely. The ages of the victims is horrifying support for the claim that the average life span of a trans woman of color is 35.
Gay and lesbian stories often cite anti-LGBT statistics to promote various agendas, but fail to make explicit the grotesquely disproportionate impact on black and Latina trans women particularly. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ most recent report, 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.
These rates have been consistent for years and are echoed around the globe. Hundreds of trans women are violently murdered every year, often in gruesome ways that reveal the hatred motivating the acts. The media heaps additional indignity by routinely misgendering and blaming the victims. In the absence of testimony or investigation, it is often assumed that the murderers reacted upon learning that the women were transgender. In all states except California, the “trans panic” argument is still a legitimate defense for murder. Beyond the absurdity of justifying such violence, the tales of friends and survivors indicate that it’s common for violence to occur after a relationship has been established. It’s the internalization of stigma and fear of judgment that leads many men to destroy the very women they sought out.
Despite this ongoing crisis, white and cis LGBT leaders and media continue to ignore the epidemic of trans violence, or fail to address it, a fact that led to trans and queer people of color to storm the stage at the Opening Plenary of the Creating Change conference in Denver. Led by Bamby Salcedo, long-time activist and founder of the Trans-Latin@ Coalition, the group had the audience chanting “trans lives matter.” Salcedo read a list of demands focusing on the queer community devoting more resources to queer and trans people of color: "We're here for intentional, meaningful investment in our community," Salcedo said, "and our efforts to end this motherfucking epidemic!"
Funders for LGBTQ Issues published a new report just days after the direct action, providing data proving the lack of resources directed at trans advocacy. Trans communities received 0.015 percent of total foundation giving in 2013, which is only 6 percent of total giving to LGBT work specifically. A significant portion of the $8.3 million total was a single grant, $1.35 million from the Tiwani Foundation, and specifically for research on opening military service to trans people, leaving very little to fund the work that can save the lives of those most in need of help.
This lack of funding, the ongoing violence, and the media’s lack of interest is all the more egregious given the frenzied speculation around Bruce Jenner and the countless stories on the increase of positive trans visibility due to the show Transparent, both of which center the experiences of wealthy people who have spent most of their lives as straight white men. While the public applauds the courage of high profile trans people and stories, parents fight to have their gender nonconforming children stay safe in schools, and money pours into allowing trans people to openly serve in the military, all of which contribute to the overall advancement of trans acceptance, those most at risk remain marginalized, ignored, and forgotten.
This is a crisis and lives are at stake. How long will we stand by while young and poor trans women are daily kicked out of their families, banished from churches, evicted from their homes, denied employment opportunities, dismissed from their jobs, punished by sex work criminalization, ignored by PrEP studies and campaigns, ridiculed by social services, mocked by comedians, misgendered by the media, and prevented from accessing life-saving medical care?
There are dozens of small, grassroots, and local organizations and individual activists around the country who are working with and for at-risk trans people. If millions can be poured into obtaining the right to marry, surely there can be a equitable influx of resources to address this crisis. The Human Rights Campaign’s recently released a brief, which summarizes the scope and context of the issue and includes a call to action, the report by Funders for LGBTQ Issues which includes suggestions for funders and organizations on how to increase trans inclusion, the demands read at Creating Change, and the many voices of Black and Latina trans women on social media, collectively provide the first sketch of a road map for the way forward.
The moral strength of any people is revealed in how they treat their most marginalized. The progress of the trans movement, the dignity of LGBT rights, the very heart of a progressive culture that prides itself on individual liberty and self-determination, should be measured by how it responds to this crisis. All of our claims to want a world free of violence, racism, misogyny, and homo- and other phobias, find their true test in the singular challenge offered by violence against transgender women of color.
The question is simple, direct, loud, and urgent: what are you doing to address this crisis? It’s time for us to answer.
JEN RICHARDS is a writer, consultant, and trans advocate who created the website WeHappyTrans.com and the Trans 100. Her forthcoming Web series, Her Story, explores the dating lives of two trans women. Follow her on Twitter @SmartAssJen or at SmartAssJen.com