Karine Jean-Pierre
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'Deadnaming' Trans Women Isn't Just Insulting, It Subverts Justice

Photography by Gioncarlo Valentine, ProPublica

Photography by Gioncarlo Valentine, ProPublica

Aea Celestice, a black transgender woman living in Jacksonville, Fla., has the most basic of plans for the next chapter of her life: She hopes to get out of town before someone kills her.

Celestice, 32, has good reason to worry. Over the past six months, four black trans women in the city have been shot, three of them fatally.

Celine Walker, 36, was shot to death in her room at an Extended Stay America hotel near the University of North Florida on the night of the Super Bowl, February 4. On June 1, Antonia “Antash’a” English, 38, was killed outside an abandoned home north of downtown. And on June 24, Cathalina James, 24, was gunned down in a room at a Quality Inn on the city’s south side.

The cases have left Celestice and others in Jacksonville’s transgender community rattled but it’s been the handling of the investigations by authorities that’s stirred outrage. In public statements and official documents, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly identified the victims as men, refusing to call them by the names they chose to use in their lives.

While an arrest has been made in the shooting of a 23-year-old trans woman, all three murders remain unsolved, and the insistence on referring to transgender women as men has left Celestice wondering just how much effort is being made to find the killer or killers. She wonders whether anyone outside of her community cares.

“There doesn’t seem to be a concern for anybody,” Celestice said. “I guess other people have other things going on in their lives than being concerned about a trans woman getting murdered.”

Studies show that transgender women are disproportionately likely to be victims of violent crime, not just in Jacksonville, but nationwide. Yet most local law enforcement agencies persist in handling these cases much like the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

The transgender community has a word for calling a trans person by the name they no longer use, one that conveys a double meaning when it involves murder. It’s known as “deadnaming.”

Across the nation, ProPublica found, some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since January 1, 2015. And in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives. Our survey found that arrests have been made in 55 percent of the killings of transgender people nationwide in the last three and a half years. The overall clearance rate for murders in the U.S. is only slightly higher, at 59 percent.

Advocates say that not using the name and pronoun a person was known by can slow down an investigation during its most critical hours. People who knew the victim or who saw them in the hours before they were murdered might only have known them by their preferred name and gender.

“If Susie is murdered, don’t use ‘Sam,’” said Monica Roberts, an activist and journalist who tracks murders of transgender people. Roberts worries that deadnaming both prevents the community from identifying victims and fosters mistrust of police.

Police at the handful of agencies that routinely use victims’ preferred names and pronouns say not doing so can damage the agency’s relationship with the transgender community, or alienate friends and family.

“That might lose the cooperation of the friends and family — the people we need to solve the case,” said Detective Orlando Martinez of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In investigating the murders of Walker, English, and James, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office says it has just followed its policy, which is to identify people based on a medical examiner’s report and whatever name and sex are listed on their state identification.

After Walker’s death, the sheriff’s office referred to her in reports and public statements as a man and released a male name to the media, one she hadn’t used in years. Friends and activists called the agency, asking officers to respect Walker and use her chosen name, but say they were told that wasn’t how the agency handled such cases.


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