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It Really Isn't Getting Better for Some Trans Women

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There has been increased discussion on LGBT listserves recently about the dreadful murders of African-American trans women. Metro Weekly published a piece with input from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) and the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). What have traditionally been local tragedies are now beginning to get national exposure. Local bloggers are now getting picked up by those with greater reach, and these stories are no longer being lost in the cyberverse. Monica Roberts is doing a particularly good job on this issue, having persevered for many years to gain greater public exposure.

Over the past 13 years the trans community has come together on November each year to memorialize the trans persons -- generally women, and generally women of color -- on the Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is the only national day shared by all the various arms of the trans community, and until recently it was only focused on grief and anger. Over the past few years, however, various communities, including mine in D.C. and Maryland, have linked the memorials to days of education and advocacy, transforming the grief to work dedicated to preventing such tragedies. These efforts are helping the community get greater traction in the larger gay community, and beyond to the mainstream media, including The New York Times. As these stories about everyday life become more common and the trans community becomes humanized, the hope is that violence will be reduced.

The main issue here is assault and murder. Every other issue pales in comparison. We know, however, that violence does not occur in a vacuum. Murder is usually personal, and these murders of trans women are so horrific that they are clearly driven by intense personal animus. We can't begin to reduce the incidence of violence until we understand the underlying causes. We can't ignore the daily dehumanization some trans persons suffer and pretend, for instance, that simply focusing on male violence in the abstract will solve the problem.

The most recent killing was that of Cemia Dove Acoff, known as CeCe, in Cleveland last week. This story gained traction in the LGBT media because of the grossly negligent manner in which the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported it. The paper misgendered her, described her clothing in detail and referred to her as "it." The AP Stylebook has guidelines for referring to trans persons, but the reporters for the Plain Dealer clearly didn't bother to read it. Granted, reporters often take their basic info from police reports, which in many jurisdictions routinely misgender trans persons, but the AP Stylebook is the reference for journalists and lays out the rules quite clearly. There is no excuse.

Misgendering has implications beyond murder and is often used both by religious and feminist fundamentalists to dehumanize trans persons. It is the root of the "bathroom bill" meme, fostering fear about "men" in women's bathrooms. It is the root of the "gay panic" defense, the belief of men that when they discover that their female partner is a trans woman, they are instantaneously "gayed" as a result of contact with the woman. In some cultures the trans woman needn't be preoperative, with OEM genitalia, to induce the panic; a history of gender transition may be sufficient, and with some just talking to a trans woman is sufficient to transmit those poisonous gender cooties. It is this ignorance-driven fear that leads to the ghastly killings of people like CeCe Acoff.

Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of True Child, whose organization has done a lot of great work on our codes of masculinity and femininity, is conducting a project in D.C. in alliance with most of the local LGBT organizations and the D.C. government to get to the root of the gender-based violence in southeast D.C. She's run multiple focus groups and is currently working on training members of the community where the violence is most prevalent to serve as ambassadors to bridge the transgender and cisgender communities and help initiate dialogue between straight, cis men and straight trans women. One of the most telling discoveries from the project was, as described by one interviewee, the perception that "transgender is just a longer word for gay." For these young men there is often no difference between a cis gay man who is violating the codes of masculinity by behaving in a feminine manner (choosing a male partner is viewed by many as feminine behavior) and a straight trans woman who has completed surgical and hormonal treatment. They are both viewed as men who have failed to live up to code and betrayed the community of men and, as a result, are less than human.

So once again we get back to the fact that discrimination against trans persons is sex discrimination, and we see that discrimination against gay persons is also sex discrimination. The common core is misogyny, which leads to both homophobia and transphobia, a misogyny that is also still too prevalent in the fundamentalist communities.

I have one last point. The murder of trans women, particularly African-American trans women, is terrible and needs to stop. Given the national homicide rate of 4.8 homicides per 100,000 persons, however, it is not statistically out of line. (There may, of course, be cases that are unreported, though it seems that we're getting better, both within our community and without, at recognizing and publicizing these murders.) When that rate is calculated for the black community and broken down by sex, it is still less common than we would expect (at a rate of 11.3 homicides per 100,000 black females between the ages of 20 and 29, we would expect 40 African-American trans women murdered each year, given that there are 350,000 adult trans women in the U.S.). We should not lose track of the fact that while the perpetrators of anti-trans violence are almost always men, the predominant victims of violence in America are young African-American men. We are a violent, sexist society, in spite of the fact that the homicide rate is at a four-decade low, and there is much work that needs to be done to reduce the violence. Being black and trans may compound the risk, but it is already shameful that our country throws up its hands to the violence endemic in our society.