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What Can Be Done to Stop Violence Against Trans Women?

Michelle Vash Payne, a trans woman in Los Angeles, was murdered by her boyfriend over the weekend. We asked an expert to contextualize her death within the trend of violence and misogyny toward trans women.

A pair of trans activists. Photo via Flickr user David Shankbone

Michelle Vash Payne, a trans woman who was sometimes called Yazmin, and her boyfriend Ezekiel Dear had recently moved into an apartment in Van Nuys, California, together. Early Saturday morning, neighbors heard the couple arguing. Shortly afterward, police said, a fire started in a rear bedroom and around 5 AM, Payne was found dead in the kitchen, having suffered multiple stab wounds. On Sunday afternoon, Dear walked into a Los Angeles police station, accompanied by a pastor, and confessed to murdering Payne.

We don't know yet why Dear killed Payne, but we do know that there is an alarming trend of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people. Some sources estimate that a transgender person is ten times more likely to be murdered than the general population. About 98 percent of that violence is against those on the male-to-female spectrum (as opposed to female-to-male). What does the extraordinary rate of violence against trans women say about our society? I asked Julia Serano, a trans activist, author of Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, and a trans woman herself.

VICE: What does a murder like Payne's indicate about the difficulties that trans women face?
Julia Serano: For one thing, transphobic violence disproportionately targets trans women, and especially trans women of color. A number of factors contribute to this singling out of trans women. First, trans women tend to be more "visibly trans" than trans men, in part due to the public being more aware of our existence. A second factor is "trans panic": when a person experiences unreasonable levels of anxiety or outrage over finding out that a person is trans. While this can theoretically happen to any trans person, trans women are more susceptible because straight men sometimes lash out in a violent "homophobic" rage upon finding out that they were attracted to someone who "used to be a man."

Statistically, 98 percent of violence against transgender people is against those on the male-to-female spectrum. Why do you think that is?
We live in a society where maleness and masculinity are celebrated, and seen as the norm. We have a long history of it. Sigmund Freud, for example, claimed that all women and girls have penis envy, and everyone just kind of went along with that. There's this idea in our culture that being male, being masculine, is a good thing. I think that for trans people on the trans male or trans masculine spectrum, while they definitely face a lot of discrimination because of the fact that they transgress gender norms, the fact that they want to become men, or want to become masculine, is not really questioned. It's like, of course you would want to be male, of course you would want to be masculine.

However, for those of us on the trans female or trans-feminine spectrum, people are disturbed not only by the fact that we're transgressing gender norms, but the fact that we want to be women, that we want to be feminine. Because of that, I think it's a lot easier for people to sensationalize us, to demonize us, to ridicule us, which is why jokes about trans people are almost always about "men who wear dresses" or "men who want their penises cut off." It's almost a crisis of people throwing away maleness and masculinity.

It seems like people get so angry at trans women.
Yes. There have been studies done by psychologists and sociologists that find that people are not all that bothered by female children who are tomboyish or masculine, whereas everybody—whether it's teachers, parents, other children—are often really disturbed by young boys or young male-bodied children who are feminine in gender expression. We live in a world where it's kind of OK to be a tomboy.

I think another factor that feeds into this is that for half a century now, the feminist movement has worked really hard to break barriers so that girls and women have access to what used to be specifically boys' and men's realms: for example, playing sports or having careers. However, neither feminists nor other segments of our culture have worked to make it OK for boys and men to explore jobs or interest that are typically coded as being feminine. I think the combination of all that creates a scenario where to this day, being a feminine boy is still seen as very disturbing and pretty much nonsensical to the majority of people.

What's your response to those people who think being trans is nonsensical, who say "I don't get it"?
I'd point out that most of us don't have any idea why anybody does anything. I have no idea why anyone would want to be an accountant. I have no idea why anyone would want to collect stamps. I have no idea! But I acknowledge the fact that OK, some people do. So it's not only that these people don't understand it, but amongst the many things that people in our society do that none of us understand, we're being singled out. And I think there's a history for people all throughout the queer/LGBT spectrum of being delegitimized them by being run through a bajillion questions, like "How do you know you're really gay?" People force us to answer for who we are, in a way that straight or cis people never have to.

It's also useful to point out that people who are gender non-conforming, or who want to live as members of another gender, have existed all throughout history and can be found in lots of different cultures. A lot of experts would say that there's variation in gender much like there's variation in sexuality. Nobody knows why people are trans. I spent most of my life trying to figure out why I was trans, and I have not come up with an answer yet. The only thing I can say is: "Some people are trans." I got the lucky card dealt to me.

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