For the first time, a man has plead guilty to the murder of a transgender woman under federal hate crime legislation, the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Prevention Act. On Wednesday, Joshua Vallum, a 29-year-old Latin Kings gang member from Mississippi, acknowledged that the killing of Mercedes Williamson on May 30, 2015 was motivated by the fact she was transgender.
Williamson was one of 23 trans women known to have been violently killed in the United States last year. According to Alabama local news, Vallum reportedly told the court that he used a stun gun on teenage Williamson, stabbed her multiple times, and then beat her to death with a claw hammer after finding out that she was transgender. But, Alabama reported, witness testimony contradicted Vallum's claim. Witnesses reportedly told the court that "Vallum was in a sexual relationship with Williamson, and he knew Williamson was a transgender girl." The News and Observer reported that "prosecutors believe Vallum killed Williamson to cover up his sexual relationship with her. Williamson's friends said she had openly talked about how she and Vallum would be killed if his fellow Latin Kings street gang members found out about his homosexual activity."
At 17, like many trans murder victims, Williamson was very young. Her youth, the extremely violent nature of her murder, and the fact that she was killed by a man in the context of a relationship, are some of the most common and recurring factors in the killing of trans women in the United States, based on Broadly's own observation.
Trans community members and advocates experience, witness, and respond to cultural discrimination firsthand. So when trans women are violently killed by men, many suspect that the victim's gender likely played a role in her death. Analysis done by Mic this year found that, while murder occurs in the general population at a rate of 1 in 19,000, for black trans women (Williamson was not black, but the majority of trans murder victims are), the figures skyrocket to 1 in 2,600.
But police departments across the country rarely investigate these murders as hate crimes, and have been known to quickly reject the possibility that the killings are related to the victim's gender identity. This may be, in part, because hate crime laws are notoriously difficult to successfully charge, as the prosecution is subjected a higher burden of proof. As a result, the fact that one of these murders has finally been officially identified by the state as an act of hate motivated violence may feel validating to those who have been sounding the alarm about an epidemic of violence against trans women in the US.
If a trans woman is killed, it is a sign to other trans women that they can be killed as well.
In 2015, gender theorist Judith Butler explained to Broadly that hate crime legislation matters. "If a trans woman is killed, it is a sign to other trans women that they can be killed as well," Butler said. She added that the failure of the state to charge these killers with hate crimes has a negative effect upon society, reinforcing the dangerous cultural belief that transgender lives are expendable: "When the crime is not named as a hate crime, or when the crime is dismissed because the murderer was somehow 'prompted,' the police are sending the same message as the murderer," Butler explained.
In a press release distributed by the Department of Justice, Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained why the federal government believed it was important to charge Vallum under hate crime law. "Our nation's hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are," Lynch said. "Today's landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle, and it signals the Justice Department's determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity."
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta added that regardless of the historic nature of Vallum's guilty plea, Williamson's family will not be relieved of their grief. But, she explained, "this guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one's gender identity violates America's defining values of inclusivity and dignity."
Though this plea has been generally lauded as a progressive action for the protection of transgender people in the US, that view is not held by all who are working to protect trans Americans. As a staff attorney at the ACLU, Chase Strangio fights transphobic legislation across the country and is involved in some of the nation's most important cases involving trans people, including trans whistleblower Chelsea Manning and trans student Gavin Grimm, a student who is fighting against discriminatory bathroom policies in school. Strangio is a critic of hate crime legislation, believing that such laws are misguided in their attempt to curb violence against trans people.
Strangio confirms some truths that trans advocates generally agree upon: The rate of violence against trans women is high, and it is often motivated by hate. But he adds that the violence extends beyond "individually perpetrated violence," and into systems of government and social institutions in the US. These range from issues in housing and healthcare, to law enforcement and prisons, "carceral regimes that make trans people vulnerable to premature death," Strangio explains.
While he agrees that it is "imperative" to reinforce the value of a victim's life after violent crime, he argues that "hate crimes laws and enhanced punishment are never the answer." Strangio points out that the criminal justice system "too often is turned against the same people these laws ostensibly protect." Transgender women may be targeted by the police and experience further injustice once incarcerated.
"I do not agree with the Attorney General that a plea to a hate crime in this case 'sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one's gender identity violates America's defining values of inclusivity and dignity,'" Strangio says. "It will take for more work to send that message—work that we cannot accomplish through our criminal punishment system."