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Do Black Trans Lives Matter to the Justice System?

Do Black Trans Lives Matter to the Justice System?


A new documentary about the life and death of Shelly Hilliard reminds us of how often black trans women are seen as expendable.

We've read the headlines and seen the hashtags asking whether #blacklivesmatter or #translivesmatter. It's a redundancy, of course, because black and trans -- and black trans -- lives do matter as much as any other, but a new documentary that focuses on an African-American transgender woman greatly wronged by the justice system remind us of how frequently the police and prosecutors behave as if they don't.

Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story, directed by Dream Hampton, will have its world premiere today at the Los Angeles Film Festival (it screens again Tuesday) as part of the documentary competition. It focuses on Shelly "Treasure" Hilliard, a 19-year-old transgender woman who was murdered three days after police coerced her into informing on a drug dealer in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights. They had threated Hilliard with prison time after finding her with a joint and her boyfriend with a bag of marijuana. Then, according to reports, the two officers told the drug dealer who had informed on him.

It was a gruesome murder, one that's heartbreaking still to her family and friends -- and to many LGBT people around the country who mourned with them. However, while there is a brief moment that shows Hilliard's mother breaking down when talking about how hard it is to know your child was dismembered -- her body parts strewn about the city, with her hands never found -- this documentary doesn't focus on the crime but on the woman herself.

It portrays Treasure along with the trans community around her, the women who loved her, her birth and chosen families. We seem the women whose lives she affected, helping them come out or self-actualize, inspiring them and also learning from them.

There is some joy in those memories, but from her friends and community leaders we get a peek at the difficulties faced by working-class trans women of color, a large percentage of whom are forced into street economies like sex work to support themselves.

We are reminded throughout that Hilliard's death was senseless -- as the ongoing glut of trans women's homicides all are -- but that it's also on the hands of those police officers who didn't value her trans black life enough to keep her safe.

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