While marriage equality may be all but won, and Time declared a transgender tipping point, 2015 is off to a record breaking start. Not the good kind. Through the first seven weeks of 2015 at least six transgender women have been murdered. Over the past few years my home state, Ohio, has seen more than its share. More than once, I have been asked by LGBT leaders outside the state, "What the hell is going on there?"
Violence against transgender women, and particularly transgender women of color, is an epidemic. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program's (NCAVP) 2014 report shows that in 2013, 72 percent of all LGBT Americans murdered in hate crimes were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color. To put this in perspective, a transgender woman is over nine times more likely to be murdered in a hate crime than a gay man. Transgender women of color are over 52 times more likely to be murdered in a hate crime than a gay man.
However, only 13 percent of survivors of hate crime violence were transgender. This disparity is both significant, and disturbing. It indicates that transgender women are not seen as real people, and assailants are far more likely to continue their attack all the way through to murder.
Ohio has been one of the worst in the nation when it comes to hate crimes against transgender women of color. Four transgender women have been killed in Ohio since January of 2013, three of them were transgender women of color; a shocking rate given transgender people are only .3 percent of the U.S. population, transgender women perhaps only .2 percent, and transgender women of color a fraction of that.
The brutality of the crimes committed against transgender women is just as startling. When Cemia "Ce Ce" Dove was killed, she was stabbed over 40 times, her body strapped to a cinder block, and dumped in a retention pond. Betty Skinner, a wheel chair bound 52-year-old transgender woman living in an assisted care facility, was found bludgeoned to death. Nicole Kidd-Sturgis was shot to death one day later inside a parked car in Cleveland. Six months later Tiffany Edwards was shot to death in Cincinnati this past June in a possible hate crime, and her body discovered the next morning by a sanitation worker.
Jacob Nash, Ohio resident and founder of Margie's Hope, a non-profit organization that assists trans people in need, believes gender norms as the root of the problem. "Violence against transgender women, and trans women of color in particular is so pervasive because we are still living in a society where the idea of a 'man' wanting to be a woman seems to de-masculinize men. When it comes to trans women of color, I feel that often the violence happens due to family and faith issues as well as the struggles that men of color have had to endure."
However, none of these murders is being prosecuted as hate crimes, leaving Nash perplexed and frustrated. "I wish I knew why these murders are not being treated as hate crimes. We also need to insist that prosecutors properly charge individuals with a hate crime if in fact that's what the evidence shows. The lack of labeling of these murders as hate crimes makes these killings seem like just another murder, when in fact they are not and they need to be treated differently."
Equality Ohio's Director of Communications, Grant Stancliff, sees violence against transgender women of color as a matter of intersectionality. "Violence against transgender women of color is situated firmly in the intersection of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism. Those are powerful systems that are embedded into very large institutions."
Even in death, however, the memories of the victims are often dishonored by the media and their families. Local Ohio media outlets consistently misgender, use wrong names, or bring up irrelevant details that cast blame on the victim. "There's always a response, and we try to support the local healing in any way we can. We regularly coach reporters to try to prevent re-traumatizing communities after a tragedy due to insulting or ignorant reporting," says Stancliff.
When asked why anti-transgender violence hasn't had nearly the focus of other LGBT issues, Stancliff observed, "The voices of transgender people are often silenced -- and this isn't a recent phenomenon. They rarely talk about the transgender activists who were central to the uprising at Stonewall Inn. Likewise, we rarely hear about pre-Stonewall protests like the one at Compton's Cafe, which was primarily driven by transgender activists. These stories, including the central involvement of transgender leaders, are foundational to LGBT and queer history, but you'd never know it if you only heard news from mainstream sources."
"With the lack of understanding, and in some cases education about the transgender community, people don't realize how bad it is for many transwoman, especially trans women of color. People are so caught up in the fight for marriage equality and employment that they forget that there is a bigger need out there, the need to physically survive."
Cherno Biko, an Ohio resident and transgender activist who was named to the Trans 100 in 2014, agrees with Nash's observation: "Our fight is not for equality, it's for liberation and survival. Our bodies are being criminalized and policed to the point of extinction. It is crucial that we channel our energy and resources to our communities' most vulnerable."
Violence against transgender people, and particularly transgender women of color, has national attention as well. Kylar Broadus is the Executive Director Transgender Persons of Color Coalition and a transgender man. He was also the first openly transgender person to testify before the U.S. Senate. He sees this epidemic violence as a call to action for the entire community. "We must do better as a local and global community in protecting our sisters. People are people. We cannot stand by idly and let our sisters die. Human beings are not disposable. Every human has value. Because a person happens to be born a transgender woman of color should not sentence her to death at the hands of the weak-minded."
Work can be done locally, and at a state level to help reduce anti-transgender violence. Stancliff explains the role of his organization. "It takes community, facing uncomfortable truths, and lots and lots of hard work -- including listening to and supporting the trans* people and transgender people of color who are already doing that work. Transgender people are disproportionately underemployed and under-housed. Combating discrimination is one way to build community strength and resilience."
Jacob Nash sees the solution as one of education. "We need the LGB community to educate each other. When we have our allies stating that violence towards the transgender community is a concern for the whole LGBT community, it gives it more substance because the transgender community is not the only one stating what needs to happen."