Who Are the Trans Teens Lost to Murder and Suicide Whose Stories 'Haunt' Caitlyn Jenner?
While Caitlyn Jenner had plenty of poignant moments during her Wednesday acceptance speech of the ESPY's Arthur Ashe Award for courage, one question she raised has particularly struck a chord with viewers: Would a greater cultural focus on ending anti-trans discrimination have possibly prevented the recent murder of trans girl Mercedes Williamson and the suicide of trans boy Sam Taub?
"Just last month, the body of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender young woman of color [sic] was found in a field in Mississippi [sic] stabbed to death. I also want to tell you about Sam Taub, a 15-year-old transgender young man from Bloomfield, Michigan. In early April, Sam took his own life," Jenner said.
"Now, Sam’s story haunts me in particular because his death came just a few days before ABC aired my interview with Diane Sawyer. Every time something like this happens, people wonder, 'Could it have been different, if spotlighting this issue with more attention could have changed the way things happen?' We’ll never know."
Taub (pictured right), whose roller derby number was #57, was commemorated at derby games nationwide in the week after his death by skaters writing "DoItFor#57" on their arms and wearing the color teal to raise awareness of suicide prevention. Williamson was most emotionally remembered by her roommate Jeanie Miller, who shared her heartbreak with Mississippi's Sun Herald:
"I miss how she flipped her hair. I miss the crooked teeth with that beautiful smile. ... I can smell her. I just keep wanting her to walk through that door. ... I'll never have nobody like her again. That is barely something that crosses people's lives anyway. She is the most beautiful person."
Trans advocates have long decried both suicide and anti-trans murder — especially the killing of trans women, which occurs every two days worldwide, on average — as "epidemics." According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the LGBTQ Task Force, 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetime, a rate that stands at nearly ten times the average of their cisgender (nontrans) peers.
Trans women, and especially women of color, are also the group most targeted for murder among all LGBT groups, representing 72 percent of LGBT homicide victims, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence. 67 percent of those victims were specifically trans women of color.
In her speech, Jenner highlighted one more striking fact about these trends: their victims are most often young adults. Significantly, BlackLivesMatter.com has asserted that "the average life expectancy of a black trans woman is 35 years."
Many, like Jenner, have wondered what concrete steps need to be taken to alleviate the suicide and murder epidemics. New Orleans LGBT youth of color advocacy group BreakOUT! recently suggested some first steps in a billboard they erected to raise awareness about the murders of trans women like their town's Penny Proud: "Invest in jobs, housing, and education to keep us safe," the board read.
Lack of employment, safe housing, and education have all been correlated with the trans community's poorer socio-economic and health outcomes as compared to cisgender peers. Trans people, on average, face a four times greater likelihood of living in poverty, the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project recently found; trans people of color face up to a six times greater likelihood.
Jenner, in her Wednesday speech, recognized that she's' barely at the beginning of learning more about these complex, yet preventable, issues. To her audience she recommended one powerful first step: educate yourself.
"I know I'm clear with my responsibility going forward: to tell my story the right way, for me; to keep learning; to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape for how trans issues are viewed, how trans people are treated; and then, more broadly, to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are [and] accepting people's differences," she declared.
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.
Watch Jenner's full remarks below.