Making Sense Out of the Murders of Trans Men
Three weeks ago, the body of trans man F. Hilário was found on an isolated road in Paraná, Brazil. The 20-year-old was discovered deceased, with apparent head injuries, by a passerby. The location, according to local newspaper Parana, is notorious among local residents as a dumping ground for murder victims; Hilário had been reported missing a day before.
The man who found Hilário’s body called the police to report that a boy was murdered. Official reports initially described Hilário as a male murder victim, leading Parana to correctly refer to Hilário as a boy. But the newspaper explains in a note that an “expert” later informed reporters Hilário was “a girl.” The paper’s article was updated to use female pronouns, and still currently misgenders the young trans man.
News of his murder reached the U.S. through Eduarda Alice Santos, a Portuguese trans woman and reporter for Planet Transgender who translated the local news report. Without her seeking out and translating Brazilian newspapers, it’s exceedingly likely that Western media would not be aware of Hilário’s misgendering — or of his murder at all.
News of Hilário’s death comes two months after the world learned of the brutal murder of Yoshi Tsuchida in Tokyo. The 38-year-old trans man was found dead, draped in a blanket, with his head in a plastic bag and his face “skinned off with a knife,” according to Agence France-Presse. His body was reportedly found by his adopted adult daughter, herself a transgender woman, in the suburban home they shared. The pair had a possible history of domestic violence, but it remains unclear whether she is a suspect in his murder. Local media misgendered Tsuchida’s daughter while lingering sensationally on the gory details of his demise.
Prior to Hilário and Tsuchida’s deaths, the last known murder of a trans man was Evon Young on New Year’s Day, 2013. Young was a 22-year-old black Milwaukee rapper who was tortured, shot repeatedly, burned, and then thrown in a trash bin during what was likely a gang initiation ritual, according to authorities. Local media claimed Young’s murder had nothing to do with his trans status, yet a friend of the victim informed TransAdvocate that he believed Young was initially beaten, then mutilated and murdered with hateful brutality when his “female” body was discovered.
In the course of reporting this article, the world learned about the officer-involved killing of 24-year-old Kayden Clarke in Mesa, Ariz. Clarke, a white autistic trans man who’d just recently come out via a YouTube video diary, was being checked on by police after expressing suicidal intentions to a friend. Police, who fatally shot Clarke when he reportedly moved toward them with a knife, are now being accused of “excessive force.” Clarke has been widely misgendered in national press.
What — if anything — can these four murders tell us about fatal violence against trans men? What can we observe from these most recent murders? And what can we speculate about the responses to these cases?
Very little is currently known about violence against trans men as a whole; murder, as a subset of this topic, is even more shrouded in mystery. How often are trans men murdered worldwide? Are any of these cases hate crimes? What are the risk factors? Are there more murders we aren’t hearing about? How can we prevent more deaths?
While it’s impossible to draw conclusions from these four cases — which are almost certainly only a fraction of the total murders committed — that should not stop anti-violence advocates from considering the issue. The safest place to start is by simply making open-ended observations about what we do know and indicating paths for further inquiry. From that space, we can hopefully initiate a conversation that others will carry forward, informed by their own experiences and expertise.
So, here’s what we know about the murders of trans men:
Three of the last five known murder victims are trans men of color.
Any mention of “fatal violence against trans men” in most circles — trans or cisgender (nontrans) alike — is likely to conjure up one single name: Brandon Teena. The white, rural 21-year-old trans man was raped and murdered in Humboldt, Neb., in 1993, and his tragic death was immortalized in the acclaimed 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry.
For better or for worse, the popular culture status of Teena’s story has lent it a singular dominance, effectively representing the “face” of American trans male murder victims ever since. Its seeming rarity has, over time, led some LGBT activists to conclude that Teena’s case was an anomaly, a fluke, rather than a single incident that could just as easily be part of a much broader — if unpublicized — incidence of sexual assault and physical violence against trans men.
It must be noted that — for a number of reasons — the equally brutal murder of black trans man Evon Young a decade later did not garner the attention that Teena’s murder did. As Black Lives Matter activists have been consistently pointing out, America’s institutional disregard for the lives of black men is well documented. It manifests in myriad ways, including a quicker slackening of media coverage of black men’s murders (if there is coverage at all) and an astronomical incarceration rate. This suffocating silence grows exponentially more potent when expanded to include LGB (and especially) trans people of color.
The fact that three recently identified trans male murder victims were all men of color is central to understanding why we don’t know more about this issue. Our communal ignorance is further compounded by how little we know about acts of potentially fatal violence toward trans men — the most recent known cases being those of Salvadoran trans man Aldo Alexander Peña, beaten unconscious by police following a Pride parade, Williams Apako and James Mulucha, two Ugandan trans men beaten outside a sports bar; and black Georgia trans man Ky Peterson, who is currently serving 20 years in prison for killing his attacker in self-defense.
Two of the last known trans men murdered were from non-Western countries.
Here in the U.S., trans activism tends to be Western-centric. While this isn’t surprising, it also tends to shape the way we understand issues like violence against trans men. While hard data on any part of the American trans community is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence (and this author’s lived experience) belies a tendency to assume a relative level of safety for trans men. Compared to the rest of the world, American trans men are more likely to have access to transition-related healthcare, and therefore “pass” more quickly as male in public, reducing their chances of becoming targets — or so the logic goes.
Like most generalizations, this one is based on a lot of truth. But it also leaves unsaid the starkly different reality for many trans men who cannot or do not wish to “pass” as traditionally male, who are poor, who are rural or isolated, who are denied transition-related medical care, or whose trans status is known or suddenly uncovered within hostile environments. Consequently, any conclusions from such a generalization are tenuous at best.
But this much we know: the low reported levels of physical violence against trans men in the U.S. tends to keep trans rights activists looking elsewhere for issues to remedy, particularly when resources are limited. And an issue we aren’t actively looking for is an issue that remains invisible; the lack of evidence then confirms an unspoken bias toward assuming it’s not an issue at all, but simply a curious anomaly.
Yet knowing that an American trans man, a Brazilian trans man, and a Japanese trans man were killed in the past three months should at least pique our communal interest. The fact that Hilário’s case came to American readers only through the intrepid eye and translation of a bilingual journalist who is herself trans, naturally prompts curiosity about what other transphobic atrocities are flying under the English-speaking community’s radar.
The two most recent known trans male murder victims — Kayden Clarke and F. Hilário — were misgendered by local press.
Much of our understanding about how police and media treat trans murder victims comes from cases of trans women. The murders of trans women worldwide, and particularly women of color, are at epidemic proportions, and we receive communal knowledge about them at a rate of roughly 200 to every 1 known murder of a trans man. That statistical reality justifies the trans-feminine focus of many broader discussions of fatal violence against trans people. But since the risk factors facing these distinct parts of the trans community are unique, there is likewise value in digging for answers from individual cases to stem the tide of fatal violence against trans-masculine, trans-feminine, and nonbinary people.
The common misgendering of trans murder victims obscures any remotely accurate numbers we could quote about the actual prevalence of this phenomenon. Police reports — from which most reporters obtain initial information about a death — routinely refer to murder victims by their “biological” sex, rather than ascertaining a victim’s true gender. Tragically, this means we can surmise that there are countless more trans murder victims who will never be known to us, particularly without friends, family, or local activists intervening, or reporters choosing to dig a little deeper. This number undoubtedly includes some trans men, and the number could rise, if we consider that more and more trans people are coming out at younger ages.
Hilário’s case is particularly instructive, since we can observe that police initially gendered the victim based on his masculine presentation and told the local newspaper he was a boy. The clothing that victims are found wearing is often one of the few early, visible indications that a person may not have identified with their “biological sex.” This plays out repeatedly in the countless media reports that inaccurately describe a murdered trans woman as a “man in a dress.” Sometimes the mismatch between body shape and expected gender presentation leads reporters or local activists to dig deeper and discover a victim’s trans identity.
But for trans men, the chances of such a search occurring are less likely, since it is more socially acceptable for “women” to wear “men’s” clothing. The reality that female-identified people often wear pants, button-down shirts, or other “masculine” attire decreases the likelihood that a reporter, seeing these attributes on a police report about the death of someone identified as “female” would search for a more in-depth (or more titillating) scoop.
Each news report about murdered trans men includes a “hook” beyond the victim’s trans identity.
The limited information we receive about trans murder victims is not objective reality — it is highly filtered through what both police and media outlets choose to report. Journalists must comb through all of the day’s potential news and discern what they consider “newsworthy” and what will garner sales and Internet clicks for their publications. Because of this, the recent increased local reportage on the murders of trans people may not actually reflect an increase in violence, but rather an increase in perceived public interest in such stories.
Observing the handful of trans men whose murders were reported by the press, each has some element that could easily be understood to catch a reporter’s eye as they sift through the day’s news pile. The shocking brutality of the murders of Evon Young and Yoshi Tsuchida is the first indication that their stories would “sell.” Prurient curiosity about gang initiation rituals or why a man’s face would be “skinned off” lent these stories greater general interest and objective “newsworthiness.” The fact that both men were, as many reports put it, “born female,” became another sensationalistic detail for reader consumption.Young’s identity as a rapper offered another point of interest that may have distinguished his story in the minds of reporters sifting through the day’s news, as did Tsuchida’s suspected history of domestic violence with his adult adopted child.
In the case of Kayden Clarke, his story has multiple “hooks” — none of which involve him being transgender (a fact almost exclusively noted in trans and LGBT-specific press, and brought to light online by trans activists). Most mainstream and local reports have focused on a viral video Clarke produced last year, in which his service dog physically intervened as Clarke, who suffered from Asperger syndrome, was hitting himself. Clarke’s death at the hands of police officers — who had been called to his home when a after a colleague requested a wellness check, fearing the 24-year-old may have been suicidal — also carries a powerful resonance with the ongoing national conversation concerning police brutality and excessive use of force.
F. Hilário, notably, did not have his case amplified into the global or U.S. national press. Coverage of his death is limited to one city newspaper (Parana) and one U.S. trans-focused news outlet (Planet Transgender), which happens to have a Portuguese-speaking reporter on staff. His case was, presumably, of interest to local reporters because most murders are when the outlet is at the smaller city-level. Growing awareness of a recent rash of anti-trans violence occurring in Brazil may also have contributed to Hilário’s story being covered, since each new murder of a trans person within a short time span becomes of heightened interest. Notable too is that Brazil reports far more murders of trans people (most of whom are women) each year, relative to its size, than any other country worldwide. Given this, it seems likely that this country’s reporters have cultivated a culture that systematically considers anti-trans violence more regularly “newsworthy” than other nations.
As an introductory consideration to the issue of fatal violence against trans men, the observations and conjectures above are hardly exhaustive. But they do illustrate one conclusive point: There’s far more about this topic that we just don’t know yet. But even without comprehensive conclusions, action steps can be devised to help guide us in where we go from here.
Check back tomorrow to find out what those steps could look like.
MITCH KELLAWAY is a white, biracial queer trans man who works as a writer and editor. He spent a year as the trans issues correspondent for Advocate.com. He is the editor of Boys Do Cry, both an Advocate.com essay series on violence toward trans men and forthcoming book from Homofactus Press (2017), and coeditor of Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves (2014, Transgress Press), an anthology of resilience-inspiring narratives by trans men. Reach him at MitchKellaway.com and @MitchKellaway.