Trans Women of Color Face an Epidemic of Violence and Murder
The incoherent response by cops is just making the problem worse.
Between October 2013 and the end of this September, according to international reports gathered by the European group Transrespect versus Transphobia (TvT), 226 transgender people were murdered around the world. Most were trans women of color. Those numbers were gathered by painstakingly raking through news articles and by reports submitted through partner organizations in places like Honduras and Thailand.
The website for Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoF) has its own list of names of the dead, featuring some 700 trans people—mostly women of color, again—brutally murdered in recent years. TDoF's list goes back all the way to 1970, but the bulk of the homicides took place between 2000 and 2012.
Both lists offer a horrifying record of hate. No murder is pleasant, but the killings of trans women tend to be particularly sick. Victims are dragged behind a car, burned alive, stoned to death, skinned, or—far too often—beaten to death in the middle of a crowded street or party.
It's clear from the descriptions of these homicides that transgender women, especially low-income trans women of color, face an epidemic of violence and murder.
When two black trans women were murdered just six weeks apart in Baltimore this summer, trans women in the community told reporters they were terrified to go outside for fear of both the usual police harassment, and what appeared to them to be a targeted attack on their identities.
"It's scary trusting anyone," Baltimore's LaSia Wade told the Guardian in August. "That bus driver, he could be the killer; that taxi man, he could be looking at me and thinking: 'That's a transgender woman, I'm going to knock her off.'"
So why do police keep arresting trans women of color who defend themselves during violent attacks? And why do so many murders of trans women not only go unsolved and remain under-investigated, but not even tagged by law enforcement as hate crimes?
"Usually what we see is homicides of low income trans women of color are the ones where police don't respond as fast as they should with the forcefulness that they should. It's not just a trans issue, then, but an issue of income and color," Osman Ahmed, research and education coordinator for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), said in an interview with VICE today.
NCAVP tracks violence data through 54 member organizations in 24 US states and Canada. Because the Department of Justice doesn't currently track data on gender and sexual orientation, it can be frustrating to try and gather homicide statistics through law enforcement agencies.
In addition, the FBI's annual Hate Crimes report is inherently flawed due to low participation. Critics cried foul in 2011 when the state of Mississippi reported only one hate crime, while cities like New York that have entire divisions devoted to tracking and investigating hate crimes consistently report more.
"In terms of the hate crimes stats the FBI publishes every year, it's not a complete national picture," said Ahmed, whose organization works directly with law enforcement agencies to increase both sensitivity and accountability when dealing with LGBTQ victims. "Whatever they are reporting is lower than what's really going on. Especially with low-income trans women of color: they go missing and there's no follow up, there's no investigation."
Ahmed told VICE that law enforcement doesn't arbitrarily decide not to care about the homicides of transgender women. Instead, this is a deeply layered problem that has just as much to do with a history of police violence and community mistrust.
"Trans women of color are very much more likely to experience police violence after reporting hate violence," said Ahmed. "Friends and family members of victims are less likely to approach police because of this kind of victim blaming as well as mis-gendering and transphobia."
In fact, when transgender women of color go to police to report a violent attack, they are often themselves charged with a crime and jailed.
Take the case of CeCe McDonald, a young, black trans fashion design student who went to jail for manslaughter. Her crime? While in the midst of being attacked by a homophobic Neo-Nazi amped up on meth in Minneapolis, McDonald took a pair of fabric scissors out of her purse and held them in front of her. Her attacker ran toward her anyway, and later died from the stab wound.
McDonald was finally freed after 19 months of a 41-month sentence in a men's prison, a place she never should have gone in the first place regardless of her conviction. Her release was on terms of good behavior, but the international protests and support of Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox certainly didn't hurt.
If only Eisha Love could be so lucky.
Love and friend Tiffany Gooden stopped to get gas at a station in Chicago when men began yelling slurs at the two black transgender women. One of the men punched Love in the face, and after realizing they were under attack, the two women got in the car and attempted to drive away, only to be pinned from behind by one of the men's cars while the other tried to open the driver's side door. Terrified, Love maneuvered the car around and hit one of the attackers, severely injuring his leg.
The two women escaped with their lives. But when Love went to file a police report detailing the attack, she was arrested.
Love is still in jail, charged with first-degree attempted murder. Her passenger Tiffany Gooden had no such luck—two months after the attack, she was murdered in the very neighborhood where the attack occurred.
Gooden's mother has since told reporters that threats were made against her daughter. "They were saying they was going to kill her. They were saying they were going to get 'his' ass because 'he' was riding in the car."
Chicago police are severely fucking this up. If law enforcement had investigated the attack on Love and Gooden instead of bizarrely throwing Love in jail, Gooden might be alive today.
Likewise, Orange County police fucked up Zoraida Reyes' murder probe this June, at first claiming there were no signs of foul play even though her body was found in a dumpster behind a dairy queen. After regular community protests, OC cops later 'fessed up that Reyes had been choked to death, and her killer was found in October. But even then, police refused to acknowledge the death was most likely a hate crime.
"For many, the lives of transgender people don't matter and they're viewed as disposable," Reyes' friend Jorge Gutierrez told the Los Angeles Times. "We know that her identity as a trans woman was a huge factor, whether the police want to acknowledge it or not."
After four trans women were murdered over a 20-month period in Ohio, community members became frustrated with what they said was a refusal on the part of police to view the murders as even potential hate crimes.
"We hear from police departments that there is no reason to believe a crime is hate-motivated," Aaron Eckhardt of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) told Buzzfeed. "For us in the community, that sounds like an affront. Prior to any real investigation happening, it is used to deflect conversation. We would like to hear that they are investigating all possibilities."
When law enforcement agencies refuse to take murders of transgender women seriously enough to recognize them as hate crimes, it perpetuates a community mistrust that comes full circle when and if police do seek answers in murder investigations.
"Very often, from the beginning of investigations into the deaths of trans women, there is a lot of transphobia coming in to play, and that translates into the alienation of community members who would otherwise be able to help," Ahmed told VICE.
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