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Islan Nettles' Murder: It Couldn't Have Been Me

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About two weeks ago in New York City, Islan Nettles, a trans woman and an amazing human being, was murdered. What happened to Islan would not have happened to me. As a trans person of color, it would be really easy for me to say that it could have. I could talk about the street harassment I get as a visibly gender-nonconforming person. I could talk about all the times I have been made to feel unwelcome and physically unsafe. But the reality is that even though many of my FTM (female-to-male) friends and colleagues are constantly at risk of automatic criminalization just for being black and male, we are still less likely to be murdered than our trans woman/transfeminine counterparts. (This has a lot to do with factors like access to jobs, passibility, public policing of assumed masculinity, etc.) In the days following Islan's murder I heard a lot of folks in the LGBTQ community respond by saying, "That could've been me," this statement representing a call to fight more strongly against anti-LGBTQ violence. I find this statement completely problematic in this instance.

Let me be fully clear: Islan's murder was not an act of anti-LGBTQ violence. It was an act of anti-trans violence. More specifically, it was an act of anti-trans-woman violence. Over the last few years I have been to many vigils and funerals for LGBTQ folks who were murdered. Ninety-nine percent of the folks in those coffins and urns have been trans women of color. While anti-trans aggressors rarely make any distinction between the L, the G, the B, and the T, some statisticians are beginning to. According to the "2012 Hate Violence Report" released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, trans women make up about 53 percent of all anti-LGBTQ murders. Merely retelling the lie that "it could've been me" erases the urgency of dealing with violence against a very specific part of our community. I believe that this does a huge disservice to those who are living in fear for their lives every day while many of us in the LGBTQ community don't think twice about our physical presence in the world and what it may inspire in others. Many of us who fall on the trans* spectrum know that type of fear.

Last week Janet Mock posted a brilliant letter to her fellow trans women about what she witnessed at the vigil for Islan. Her observations as an organizer and a trans person made me shudder. I was not able to attend the vigil myself, but I believe that what Mock is describing happens all the time. In her letter she details having to watch non-trans people consistently misname and mispronoun a fallen sister. Trans women were left at the margins of a pain that directly impacts them, in the same way that I hear people brushing off this specific experience by boiling down this act of hate to something that's about all LGBTQ people.

The LGBTQ community is constantly ignoring the realities of trans people's lives. If ever featured at LGBTQ events, trans women, and specifically trans women of color, become our featured entertainment at drag night but rarely our trusted public leaders, never the stories from which we glean our next steps toward equality. Even in death they become martyrs for a community that can barely decide on how to acknowledge their appropriate name. I am tired and pained to see another trans woman under 30 gone with so few people able to be honest about whom this violence was against. We need to do better for those in our community who are most at risk. If we are to truly create a world in which equality is possible for all LGBTQ people, we must learn to run directly into the fire to address the problem, rather than merely dealing with the smoke.

What happened to Islan Nettles could not have happened to me. By not addressing that crime's root cause, we leave a segment of our community open to harm, which allows that energy to spread. The violence targeting trans women directly feeds the constant harassment that I am presented with as I am checked verbally and physically by strangers regarding how femme/butch/androgynous/gay/queer I am appearing on any given day. That's why I need to fight harder for my trans sisters than ever before and make sure that they are fully included in that work. They are already being thrown to the fire. Who will step up to put it out?