Transgender visibility and awareness is increasing at a rapid pace thanks to people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner and television shows like Transparent and Sense8. But that momentum is not curbing the rampant violence against the transgender community, which has prompted Cox to declare a “state of emergency.”
In 2015, there have been at least 16 transgender women murdered across the country — that are known of. The body of a trans woman who went missing in late 2014 was also recently found bringing the total to 17. Three of those murders have been in just the last month. Fifteen of them were people of color.
If the number seems low, it’s not. It’s already surpassed the number of transgender murders documented in 2014–12 — as reported by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Neither year’s total accounts for deaths that were never reported or investigated, nor individuals who were misgendered in death and never identified as transgender.
The murders have been particularly brutal. Tamara Dominguez of Kansas City, Missouri was struck by a car then run over multiple times. K.C. Haggard of Fresno, California was stabbed in the neck through a vehicle window and left to collapse in the street. Kandis Capri of Phoenix, Arizona was shot to death.
“We in the transgender community right now, are reeling,” Cox told Good Morning America this week. “Your life should not be in danger simply for being who you are. I think the reasons why trans women experience so much violence has to do with employment, housing, health care, etc., so we need to make sure that trans lives matter.”
Elle Hearns, an organizer with GetEQUAL and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, echoed that sentiment this week. “Two more confirmed murders of black trans women should be a numbing sensation to the core of America’s consciousness,” she told AlterNet. “It should be a wakeup call that we as people are missing the mark. Black trans women should never have to live in fear that today will be their last day. It is a national emergency that we must pay attention to by taking action to support and sustain the lives of trans women who are under attack.”
Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project, added on DemocracyNow, “We are living in a moment where we should be incredibly concerned about all of the mechanisms of violence against our community. And state violence includes the violence of police officers, but it also includes all of the ways in which transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, have their lives cut short through systems of discrimination and through the interpersonal violence that leads them to be killed, as these women have been.”
In most cases, the killers have not been caught. This is due at least in some part to the misgendering of the victims by police and the media. Police often rely on legal documents, which is impossible in some states or requires expensive surgeries in others. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) just vetoed a bill that would have removed the surgical requirement for updating birth certificates in his state, laughing off the idea of respecting transgender people who haven’t undergone surgery as “beyond the pale.” Likewise, medical examiners often draw conclusions about the victim’s gender based on their anatomy, and these gender designations are maintained even in the face of conflicting information about how the victim was dressed or what friends and family say about how they identified.
This misgendering snowballs into numerous complications in the subsequent investigations. Witnesses can be confused if the person they saw murdered doesn’t match the gender and pronoun used by the police during an investigation. Media often mimic what police reports say, which in some cases can make it difficult for people who actually know the victim to realize that the reports are actually talking about the person they know. The AP and GLAAD have issued guidelines urging journalists to use all available information to correctly gender victims, but the Kansas City Start demonstrated this past week how those guidelines are not always followed.
The Star, reporting on Dominguez’s brutal murder, originally identified her as a “man.” Though the newspaper changed the wording after being criticized, Editor Derek Donovan posted a follow-up response defending this misgendering, claiming that without her firsthand account, they could not properly identify her. MediaMatters called out Donovan’s response, noting that other outlets had successfully been in contact with other people in Dominguez’s life who could confirm her chosen name, gender identity, and preferred pronouns.
Fran Watson, a Houston-based LGBT activist, has launched a White House “We the People” petition calling for the formal investigation of “the Transphobic Violence Leading to the Rising Death Toll of Transgender Women of Color in the U.S.” She asks that the administration “raise awareness and take action to keep this community safe, by conducting a formal investigation of these deaths occurring across the county to the targeted community of Transgender women, particularly women of color.”
A new survey is underway to try to better capture the experience of transgender people in this country, including their experiences with discrimination, harassment, and violence. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that in grades K-12 35 percent had experienced physical assault, in the workplace 7 percent had experienced physical assault, in homeless shelters 25 percent had experienced physical assault, in public accommodations 8 percent had experienced physical assault, and among the 41 percent who had attempted suicide, 61 percent had experienced physical assault.