Murders of Trans People Have Spiked Alarmingly During the Pandemic

“We do this work every day, and even we’re taken aback. This is just so, so severe," said an executive at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
August 18, 2020, 3:01pm
The transgender community gathers to mourn the death of Ashanti Carmon, a 27-year-old transgender woman. Members of the community hold a candlelight vigil to celebrate her life in Fairmount Heights, Md., on April 2, 2019.

Last week, New York police arrested and charged a man for the murder of a transgender woman identified by the names Dior H. Ova and Tiffany Harris, who was found fatally stabbed in late July. But she was one of several trans people murdered in the United States last month — and advocates say these deaths are part of an alarming uptick in lethal violence against trans people this year.

At least 28 trans people were murdered in the first seven months of 2020, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. That’s more than in all of 2019, when the center recorded 26 such murders.

“We’re months away from the end of the year and already 28 people have been lost. It is of such great magnitude that for us, working at NCTE, it’s been shocking,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director for policy and action at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We do this work every day, and even we’re taken aback. This is just so, so severe.”

This spike is seemingly part of a rise in homicide rates this year, as cities across the country struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic and the nation grapples with historic economic devastation. In July, the Wall Street Journal found that of the United States’ 50 largest cities, 36 saw a double-digit increase in their murder rates compared to the previous year.

Some police departments have also reported a rise in reports of domestic violence. Advocates have spent months warning that the measures needed to fight the pandemic, such as social distancing and isolation, could leave people trapped at home with their abusers and lead to escalating intimate partner violence. And many of the trans women killed this year, Heng-Lehtinen said, had some kind of relationship with their alleged killer.

“This is often not stranger violence, just, ‘Oh, I realized you were trans and I’m going to murder you,’” he said. “There are multiple, multiple women who were killed by boyfriends or men who they were seeing, who knew that she was transgender — but then they freaked out about their friends, or other people around them, finding out that she was transgender and so they murdered her. That happened to more than one transgender women. And these are people who claim to love them.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which also tracks violence against trans people, says at least 26 trans or gender non-conforming people have been violently killed in 2020, compared to 27 in 2019. But for Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Campaign’s transgender justice initiative, there’s still no question that number of deaths is still on the rise compared to last year, given that the number is already so high just eight months into 2020.

Cooper also highlighted the fact that many trans people know their alleged killers. The “ideology of toxic masculinity,” as she dubbed it, endangers these people’s lives.

“You mix toxic masculinity with this feeling that you can do anything to us and get away with it, because for many, many years folks have done that,” she said. “It kind of creates this sense of fear in them that they must erase every piece of evidence that they can that these relationships exist, and the only way to really do that is to erase the person with whom you’re in a relationship.”

Both the Center for Transgender Equality and the Human Rights Campaign have compiled information about each of the people who’ve been killed, often including details from their lives. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells’ best friend was her mom, the Center said. Johanna Metzger loved music, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Tony McDade was a lightweight boxer and an “all-around athlete,” the Center reported.

Most of the trans people who were killed in 2020 were women, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, which also found that Black and Latina trans women are at particular risk of violence. In a 2015 survey of nearly 28,000 trans adults living in the United States, 47% of Black respondents told the Center they’d been “denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender.” Thirty percent of Latino respondents said the same.

Nine percent of Black and Latinx respondents said they’d been physically attacked in the last year because they were trans.

That survey also found that, out of all respondents, 30% said they’d experienced homelessness; 12% said they’d been homeless in the past year because they were trans. Some of the people killed so far in 2020 were homeless, according to Heng-Lehtinen.

“One thing that a lot of people — not everyone — but a lot of people had in common was having been pushed to the margins, having been neglected, and not having enough people to protect them,” he said.

There are scores of discriminatory policies that contribute to this epidemic of violence, from lack of housing protections to inadequate hate crime legislation, Cooper and Heng-Lehtinen said. Activists’ ability to even track the deaths of trans people is frequently hampered by a lack of reporting or outright misreporting by the police and the media. When asked why the Center and the Human Rights Campaign have recorded different levels of violence against trans people this year, Heng-Lehtinen chalked it up to this lack of public information.

The Trump administration, in particular, has spent years trying to roll back protections for trans people. Just last month, a few weeks after a historic Supreme Court ruling in favor of the rights of trans employees, the Trump administration moved forward with a proposal to let single-sex homeless shelters bar trans people from staying in shelters that match their gender identity. (On Monday, that Supreme Court decision led a federal judge to halt a Trump administration policy that would have let healthcare providers discriminate against trans people.)

“When our government sets the tone that transgender people don’t matter, when our government sets the tone that transgender people are disposable, then we’re that much more exposed,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “Other people around us get the message that it’s OKto do harm [to] us, that they’ll get away with it, and in fact that the government will even cover them for it.”

“All of this multitude of things that hold people back have to change in order to stop the violence,” he added. “That takes political will from non-transgender people, too.”

To some, Cooper said, 26 or 28 deaths might not seem like a true epidemic. But when a community is so relatively small — trans people make up about .6% of the adult U.S. population, according to a 2016 analysis from the University of California Los Angeles — these kinds of deaths add up over the years, she said. And the violence doesn’t end once someone dies.

“The cumulative effect of that is really wiping out an entire generation of trans folks. And so many are dying before their 35th and 40th birthdays,” Cooper said. “The effect that that has on those of us who are still here, on our psyches, on the types of relationships that we have with other folks — that’s all part of an epidemic as well.”

Cover: The transgender community gathers to mourn the death of Ashanti Carmon, a 27-year-old transgender woman. Members of the community hold a candlelight vigil to celebrate her life in Fairmount Heights, Md., on April 2, 2019. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)