Last Thursday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi grieved the loss of at least 21 transgender women murdered in the U.S. this year as a result of anti-trans bias.
Her remarks come on the heels of Sen. Al Franken’s letter the previous day to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, urging an end to law enforcement’s frequent misgendering of trans murder victims, and an increase in the reporting and tracking of hate crimes against gender-variant people.
The White House also weighed in at an afternoon press conference Thursday. Deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz offered “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families, adding that the White House has no new “legislative or official reviews” on the matter. But, “obviously the president’s record on this is well known,” concluded Schultz.
So now that top officials of the federal government are addressing what advocates are calling an epidemic of transgender murders, beyond prayers and existing legislative measures, what can they do?
Drawing from the valiant efforts of advocates, outreach specialists, policymakers, and government officials, here are two steps that Congress and the White House can take to fight deadly violence against transgender people in the United States.
1. Increase and improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes based on gender identity.
In his letter, Sen. Franken noted that the current federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act does not specifically require state or local law enforcement to report such incidents. Consequently, underreporting of hate crimes is a widespread problem.
Franken was not the only federal official to acknowledge the woeful state of the tracking and reporting of hate crimes. The FBI director himself, James B. Comey, also highlighted the problem in a statement to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.
In his statement, Comey stressed the importance of reporting bias-motivated attacks:
"We need to do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crime and ‘color of law’ violations to fully understand what is happening in our communities and how to stop it. ... There are jurisdictions that fail to report hate crime statistics. Others claim there were no hate crimes in their community — a fact that would be welcome if true. We must continue to impress upon our state and local counterparts in every jurisdiction the need to track and report hate crime and to do so accurately. It is not something we can ignore or sweep under the rug."
But in response to a question about tracking police shootings, Comey told The Huffington Post earlier this month, “I don't have the power to require people to supply us with data.” He can only tell local law enforcement that it is “in everyone's interest” to collect data, he explained.
Likewise, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch also said that requiring local jurisdictions to collect data may not be something that the federal government believes is feasible.
“One of the things we are focusing on at the Department of Justice is not trying to reach down from Washington and dictate to every local department how they should handle the minutia of record-keeping, but we are stressing to them that these records must be kept,” Lynch said during the Washington Ideas Forum, hosted by AtlanticLIVE and the Aspen Institute October 1, according to News One.
Rather than speaking about trans murders specifically, Lynch was discussing the reporting of police shootings. She cited budgetary constraints and limited resources within local law enforcement departments as the reason why data collection is hampered. Lynch’s remarks reveal a criminal justice culture where systemic issues of resources and funding contribute to widespread problems of poor tracking and underreporting.
Of course, police shootings and trans murders are different in most cases. But underlying both is a criminal justice culture that underreports or fails to collect and track data. And in both police shootings and trans murders, the victims are overwhelmingly people of color.
While police are investigating the possibility that the homicides of Zella Ziona and Kiesha Jenkins were hate crimes, no official determination has been made. Further, it's unclear to what extent local law enforcement has used federal hate-crime legislation to charge and convict suspects in the cases of the other 19 trans women killed in the U.S. this year.
Imagine if local jurisdictions were required by federal agencies to not only report and track anti-trans violence — not just murders, but the assaults and harassment — but also to proactively use hate-crime legislation in prosecutions where clear evidence from suspects or witnesses points to transphobia as a motive for the crime.
There is little doubt that gender identity played a role in the most recent trans murders. Ziona's alleged killer, Rico Leblond, is under investigation for killing the woman he allegedly knew, after telling police that she “embarrassed” him by speaking to him after his friends learned that Ziona was a trans woman.
2. Expand support for research, outreach, education, and advocacy.
One day after Pelosi discussed the trans murders at her weekly briefing, the Philadelphia Daily News released an in-depth investigation into the world that Kiesha Jenkins lived as an alleged sex worker in Philadelphia. The report — and years of outreach efforts by advocates who support sex workers — provides a reality check about the enormous need for economic justice in the lives of low-to-no-income trans people of color who turn to sex work to survive.
Certainly, not all murdered trans individuals engaged in sex work. But many did, to survive arduous living conditions exacerbated by the compounding oppressions of race, socio-economic class, and gender. Moreover, while they may not have engaged in sex work, many of the reported trans murder victims this year were low-income individuals who struggled to make ends meet.
Although it won't stop trans murders immediately, the federal Equality Act is needed because shockingly high numbers of trans individuals face hostile working conditions and pervasive unemployment when they are their true selves. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that 26 percent of trans people had lost a job due to bigotry.
That lack of economic stability leads many individuals who are most at-risk to turn to sex work, where they face persistent danger and hateful acts of continual harm — and not just murder: maiming, rape, and theft. Without a job free from hostilities, many of the most at-risk trans individuals turn to sex work for money. Others abuse drugs to ameliorate suffering, developing debilitating addictions.
"Because these trans women are engaging in sex work, when they're robbed, assaulted or raped, they don't report it to police; they don't want to be criminalized," Naiymah Sanchez told the Philadelphia Daily News. Sanchez is the coordinator of the TransHealth Information Project at GALAEI, a gay Latino social justice organization in North Philly that performs outreach to those most at-risk. "The things that get reported are murders, because they have to be reported,” observed Sanchez.
Researching at-risk trans lives, beyond the statistics and beyond the specifics of the crimes against them, will help reveal the obstacles that place so many in danger. Even as the public learns more about anti-trans violence, many Americans may not truly encounter the narratives of those individuals most affected. Even when the average American does encounter these narratives, it is crucial to understand them through the lens of economic justice, which strives to look at the intersecting factors contributing to one's situation, rather than blaming the victims or ignoring the realities of low-income trans people who fight everyday to survive, let alone thrive.
Getting these narratives out into the public sphere so that they inform public policy takes a greater degree of attention on the part of government officials. At the same time, expanding this understanding of trans lives must also strike a balance between recognizing the harsh reality of many trans people's living conditions, but never reducing trans lives solely to illicit practices.
Increasing this support will require a new level of innovative fiscal aid that builds on existing governmental efforts. Of course, given the ongoing anti-trans positions of some members of Congress, increasing such support will be challenging.
As such, meaningful support of trans lives also requires active, ongoing guidance for organizations and advocacy groups. Local trans groups serving hard-hit communities, like GALAEI, must not be forgotten — by contrast, they should be lifted up and supported.
Likewise, The Trans Justice Funding Project is a community-led funding initiative founded in 2012 that provides mentorship and annual funds to people fighting the issues that affect trans lives like racism, economic injustice, transmisogyny, ableism, immigration, and incarceration. Another effort is the Trans-Latina Worker Cooperative, which is combating trans underemployment by helping trans Latinas pool resources to start collectively run beauty salons.
Still another effort is Someone Cares in Atlanta, the largest trans outreach organization in the Southeastern United States.
Expanding federal funding and mentorship for advocates who study and help at-risk trans individuals will go a long way to combating the systemic problems that play a major role in anti-trans violence.
Start With Baby Steps
These steps are meant to be taken in tandem with existing federal anti-discrimination efforts, like the Obama Administration’s game-changing new trans health care policies, and the hopeful passage of the federal Equality Act, which Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, praises as a first-rate legislative measure to combat anti-LGBT discrimination in its myriad forms.
Needless to say, these two steps are by no means comprehensive. Rather, they expose enormous work ahead and point to the future. Moreover, a few local jurisdictions, like Washington, D.C., have enacted strong local measures as an effort to intervene in anti-trans violence. But, as The Advocate previously reported, while the nation's capital is hailed as having some of the best antidiscrimination policies in place for trans people, it also has one of the highest rates of anti-transgender crime.
These recommendations are controversial. It is estimated that 0.3 percent of Americans are trans — just around 700,000 people — and despite increased visibility and legal protections, confusion and hostility still reign about the identities and welfare of one of the nation’s smallest minorities.
Furthermore, like most of this year’s murder victims, Ziona and Jenkins — both killed in October — were trans women of color. Considering the recommendations here demands intersectional thinking: recognizing the connections between anti-trans violence, economic struggle, and racially motivated bias in a multifaceted fight to lift up low-to-no-income trans people of color, who are often hit hardest by anti-trans violence as it intersects with their class and race.
November 20 marks the annual international Transgender Day of Remembrance, where trans groups across the country will hold candlelight vigils and read out the names of the deceased. But this year, advocates in multiple American cities are taking to the streets too. The National Trans March of Resilience network seeks to coordinate multi-city protests and draw increased attention to all forms of anti-trans hostilities.
Along with the vigils and the marches, now is the time for high-level action — the kind that the federal government is uniquely poised to do.
CLEIS ABENI is a writer for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @CleisAbeni.