Trans women of color are missing from the conversation about transphobia

“When we die, folks barely flinch.”

The seven transgender women of color killed this year. CREDIT: Facebook/GoFundMe/Twitter/ThinkProgress
The seven transgender women of color killed this year. CREDIT: Facebook/GoFundMe/Twitter/ThinkProgress

On February 19, 18-year-old Jaquarrius Holland died of a gunshot to the head in Monroe, Louisiana, after a verbal altercation. But it took over a week for people to realize another Black trans woman had been murdered because reports about Holland repeatedly misgendered her.

By the time the news caught the attention of national media, it became clear that three Black trans woman had been murdered in Louisiana in the span of just nine days.

Holland was the first one killed. Six days later, Chyna Doll Dupree was shot multiple times in New Orleans while visiting the city for Mardi Gras. Two days after that, Ciara McElveen was stabbed and dragged from a car in New Orleans’ 7th Ward.

Altogether, seven trans women of color have been murdered so far in 2017.

“We have to come together and try to create safe spaces,” Co’Bella, a Black trans woman in New Orleans, told ThinkProgress. “It’s not just New Orleans. It’s a national problem.”

Violence against women of color is far from a new phenomenon. Twenty-seven trans women were killed in 2016 — a record high — and almost all of the victims were women of color. Of the 16 trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people killed in 2015, 13 were trans women of color. In 2014, only one of the 11 trans women killed was white. The FBI reported that violent hate crimes against people targeted because of their gender identities skyrocketed between 2013 and 2015.

But as trans women of color fight to survive, their voices are noticeably absent from the national conversation about transphobia. And their exclusion leaves room for additional violence to occur.

We personalize it because that could be us.’

Regardless of where the killings happen, the spate of murders reverberates throughout trans communities nationwide.

Kimberly of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), which provides services for Black and Latinx trans and GNC women in New York City, told ThinkProgress that trans women of color everywhere are in mourning because they see themselves when they look at the victims.

“A lot of times when we hear about these murders, we personalize it because that could be us,” she said.

Take Francois Pierre, a GNC trans femme who’s working on a graduate degree and interning for the New York City Anti-Violence Project. A native of New Orleans with deep cultural roots to the city, they said the murders devastated them at a time that should have been celebratory.

“I was so angry and overcome by grief, I couldn’t partake in the (Mardi Gras) festivities like the rest of my kin this year,” they told ThinkProgress. “These tragedies really hit home for me and disrupted my sleep most of the week.”

Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective in Washington, D.C., shares that experience of grief. “It’s been very challenging. These murders are hitting close to home,” she said. “We are seeing more and more young trans people affirm their identity and take agency over that, but we also see that it comes with a very high price.”

Some women are fearful; others are angry.

“The streets feel so unsafe. Just going home can be dangerous,” Kimberly said.

Despite the toll it’s taking on the community, Kimberly, Lourdes, and Sasha, SRLP’s director of membership, say there are too few medical resources to help trans women of color deal with what’s happening to them.

“There should be mental health support. You would think that people would be sending counselors into certain communities after they’ve encountered violence that’s occurred,” Sasha said. “Trans women have just been left behind in terms of some of these services.”

Sasha pointed out that when trans people do seek professional support, they often have to deal with “harassment and the discrimination” and “the fact that the person is not culturally competent in serving you.”

In the absence of institutional support, trans women of color are forced to rely on their own communities to get by.

“It’s overwhelming to be a trans woman of color and deal with all the things we have to navigate on our own — health care, housing, mental health conditions — along with dealing with the rest of the world that is already very transphobic towards us,” Kimberly said. “Outside of community there’s no safe space.”

A rally supporting transgender youth at the Stonewall National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
A rally supporting transgender youth at the Stonewall National Monument. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

‘No safe space’

Recently, the issue of safe spaces has taken center stage in the context of one venue in particular: the bathroom.

North Carolina sparked national controversy last March when it implemented HB2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” which strictly prohibits trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender and forces them to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate. The law also prevents state municipalities from enacting non-discrimination ordinances that give trans people more freedoms.

National outcry against HB2 was loud and swift. But similar legislation is currently pending in 12 more states.

The issue is also worsening on the federal level. In February, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — reportedly facing pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions — rolled back federal Title IX protections for trans students that were put in place by the Obama administration. The decision opens the door to commit hate crimes against trans kids in schools and deny their use of bathrooms that match their gender identity.

From a historical perspective, this fight is a continuation of a centuries-long battle about who has the right to use one of the most basic and fundamental accommodations: the bathroom. Race and sexual identity previously took center stage in the fight for equal rights and equal access, and the trans population is now roped into this long and fraught history.

It’s an important issue. But this lack of access to bathrooms shouldn’t overshadow the other problems currently facing the trans community, according to trans women of color.

“When you look at the news reports that are coming out on CNN or MSNBC and they gotta talk about bathroom bills and they don’t want to talk about the murders of trans women of color or the lack of policies in certain states, that is a distraction from the larger issues,” Sasha said.

Statistics paint a bleak picture of the transphobia in different spaces. Last year, the National Center for Transgender Equality reported the extent to which victims experience violence and discrimination in schools, workplaces, and living spaces. The organization concluded that trans women of color experience discrimination and violence at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents to the organization’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey (USTS) said they were “verbally harassed, physically attacked, or expelled” in K-12 schools. Fifteen percent of respondents who had a job in 2015 reported they experienced sexual assault, other forms of physical violence, and verbal harassment in the workplace. These percentages were even higher among American Indians, multiracial, and Middle Eastern respondents. And 59 percent, 51 percent, and 49 percent of American Indian, Black, and Middle Eastern trans women, respectively, experienced homelessness because of their gender identity. People of color reported higher rates of being kicked out of their homes than white respondents.

“Bathrooms are important, but how important are they if you’re dead?”

Although intimate partner violence is a problem for all trans people, those who identify as Black, Middle Eastern, and multiracial experienced slightly higher rates of violence than Latinx and white respondents — American Indians even more so.

Trans people are even victimized by the very people whose job it is to protect them: cops. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, they are six times more likely to experience physical police violence than white cisgender people. Mistreatment comes in the form of sexual assault, physical assault, verbal harassment, and sexual exploitation.

“Because of whiteness, people think about bathrooms and education in really particular ways and a lot of people being policed or pushed out of those spaces are folks of color,” Sasha said. “If the only thing people focus on is one institution or one piece of the institution, that’s not a full picture of where the oppression is coming from.”

Violence can happen anywhere, in public or private.

“We’re not fighting for protections for trans people if we’re not creating opportunities [for] trans people of color…to have access to resources,” Lourdes said. “Bathrooms are important, but how important are they if you’re dead?”

Shifting the narrative

Violence against trans people — especially women of color — is compounded by the fact that it’s mostly ignored.

Because society is dominated by patriarchy, as well as by heterosexual and cisgender norms, Francois said, trans people don’t have a place in it. Time and time again, the public response to the murders of trans women confirms this reality.

“Trans lives have no value, which is a continuous lesson I learn. It was evident when many folks — my kin and friends — were unfazed by these trans murders. Many carried on with business as usual,” Francois said. “When we die, folks barely flinch. And that’s if a trans person is lucky enough to make the news and not be misgendered by the media.”

“If there were five or six murders of lesbians or gay men in two months, there would be a national march. There would be a national outcry.”

“The media doesn’t include women of color when we are talking about trans people,” Kimberly added.

The people who spoke to ThinkProgress agree there isn’t enough support from major LGBTQ rights organizations for addressing the murders of trans women of color. While many organizations published statements condemning the recent violence, Sasha said they haven’t established “actionable steps” with groups like SRLP that work closely with trans people of color and know firsthand what the community needs.

Those affected by the violence appreciate written shows of solidarity, but don’t want support to be “superficial,” Sasha said.

“The community generally feels very hurt and has been outraged at the lack of support,” Sasha said. “If there were five or six murders of lesbians or gay men in two months, there would be a national march. There would be a national outcry.”

Advocates are also grappling with how to make themselves heard in the national conversation about trans rights and transphobia. When these murders are acknowledged in the media, the voices of trans women of color often aren’t included.

“There are certain voices of folks who are impacted by this violence who are being left out,” Sasha said. “There’s a need and desire from our communities for those folks who are taking our issues and mainstreaming them to stop. We want them to talk about our issues, but not without us. They’re thriving while our folks are still dying.”

‘This needs to come to an end’

In light of hostility from the Trump administration, hate crimes against trans people will likely continue. With the latest victims in mind, trans advocates are committed to creating therapeutic safe spaces — and opportunities — for the people in their communities. They say listening and responding to the needs of people most impacted by violence and discrimination is critical.

In New Orleans, activists are trying to help people grieve while looking at some of the big picture issues contributing to the profiling and killing of trans women. Co’Bella, for instance, is heavily involved in local organizing as a member of BreakOUT New Orleans, a local organization dedicated to “ending the criminalization of LGBTQ youth” in the city.

“What I’ve been hearing is we need jobs and housing and education and resources,” Co’Bella said of her community. “What I’m focused on is getting people schools and jobs. That’s what everybody should be focused on: getting liberated and getting everyone else liberated around them.”

The advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress all wish the killings of trans women of color would generate more rage. But it’s hard to stay optimistic about that becoming a reality anytime soon, according to Francois.

“How can trans folks expect to be respected and valued when they’re dead, when we are not even humanized and granted such courtesies when we are alive?” they said.

Lourdes is frustrated that the trans community is still begging for more recognition of this issue. She said it shouldn’t be up to trans women of color to plead with white people and cis people for help.

“We shouldn’t have to reach out to white people to help us. They created transphobia. They created white supremacy. Black trans women didn’t create any of this, so the onus is not on us to reach out to them,” she said.