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Islan Nettles's Killer Is in Jail, But Has Justice Been Served?

Islan Nettles's Killer Is in Jail, But Has Justice Been Served?


The guilty plea of killer James Dixon — and the current environment for trans women — is far from satisfying, writes Beverly Tillery of the Anti-Violence Project.

This week, when I learned that James Dixon accepted a guilty plea in the death of Islan Nettles, I was struck by a deep and profound feeling of sadness. Even though Islan was killed over two years ago, I was saddened that she was struck down so senselessly, simply because she was trying to live her life.

After years of marches, vigils, protests and demands for justice, our community was braced for the beginning of the trial. As we prepared for several possible scenarios, a guilty plea did not seem to be a likely outcome. Just last week, during a pre-trial hearing, Dixon pleaded not guilty to first- and second-degree charges of manslaughter and a first-degree assault charge stemming from his brutal attack on Islan on the night of August 17, 2013.

This denial of guilt, seemed to be based on the tried-and-true "trans panic defense," in which male perpetrators of violence against transgender women often claim that they acted irrationally and uncontrollably upon learning that a woman they were attracted to or involved with is transgender.

Last week in a pre-trial hearing, Dixon's attorney attempted to suppress the video of his original confession in which he spewed a number a transphobic comments, excusing his violence to the notion that transgender women deserve to be attacked and even killed simply because they dare to live as their true selves. In in this confession, he disturbingly referred to Islan as "it" as he described coming across her and her friends that night. He first approached her, even flirted with her, but when his friends informed her that she was transgender, he claimed he flew into a rage because his manhood was called into question.

It pains me that young men in our society are still being conditioned to measure their manhood based on antiquated standards steeped in homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny and their ability to violently dominate others. After Dixon was taunted by his friends for being attracted to a transgender woman for the second time in one week, he clearly felt he needed to respond violently to defend his masculinity. But what would have happened if he had been man enough to either admit his attraction to transgender women or simply say he was not interested and walk away.

I am also deeply saddened and troubled by the fact that at the end of this long road to seek justice, another young man of color will be serving a long, term in prison with little hope for reform or restitution. Our criminal justice system will not help him develop a greater understanding of transgender people so he will be less likely to commit a similar crime when he returns to our community, and his time in prison will not provide the needed resources to the transgender community. And no attention will be paid to the other young men who were there that night who mocked Dixon to change their attitudes and behavior.

I know some members of our community will celebrate this conviction as an example of justice being served. For some others, Dixon's sentence will not be harsh enough payment for the loss of a life. But for me, I'm left asking, "What justice, and for whom?"

Dixon pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, bringing one aspect of this case to a close, and at the same time, reopening deep questions and concerns about the how we stop the violence against transgender people, especially the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color, and how we achieve justice in the numerous cases of violence that affect our community.

While we have a legal resolution in this one case, for many, it does not represent the real justice we are ultimately seeking. Transgender women, especially women of color, continue to be targeted each day in our city and across the country. And many cisgender men continue to think it is OK to harm transgender women just because they have the audacity to live their authentic lives.

In honor of Islan Nettles and all the other transgender women who have been attacked and assaulted, and those who continue to live their lives, I hope we can have the hard conversations we need to about how to overcome the transphobia that runs so deep in our society -- so deep that the mere thought of being attracted to a transgender woman causes a young man to be embarrassed and angry enough to lash out and kill her. This is the same transphobia that fuels the anti-transgender and anti-LGBT bills being introduced across the country.

While we all have many reasons to be sad and angry today, I'd like to believe that we can use this moment to engage in a real dialogue about how we value transgender lives in our society.

Maybe we no longer allow violence against transgender people to be excused away as a reasonable response to perceived deception. Perhaps Dixon accepted the guilty plea because he and his attorney realized that this justification for violence and homicide against transgender people will no longer be tolerated. Perhaps, it was the presence of Islan's mother along with many members of the transgender community and other allies filling the courtroom that sent a clear message that Islan's life and the lives of other transgender women in our city are valued. Perhaps it was in response to the consistent pressure from the media and a vocal and vigilant community. And perhaps, together, we can create a new vision of justice for Islan and the transgender community.

islan-nettlesBEVERLY TILLERY is the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project. Follow her on Twitter @BeverlyTillery.

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