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Trans Womanhood on Trial: Transmisogyny in the Assault Trial of Former FDNY Firefighter Taylor Murphy

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Violence against transgender people is a serious and pervasive issue. Far too many trans people, and particularly trans women of color, have been targeted in violent attacks. So reading about the trial of former New York City firefighter Taylor Murphy, who is accused of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, model Claudia Charriez, I was saddened and infuriated by the attempt of Murphy's legal counsel as well as the press to discredit and delegitimize Charriez. Many trans women who find ourselves the victims of violence, domestic or otherwise, often don't report the incidents, out of fear of being further victimized by the criminal justice system or the press. This is what Charriez is experiencing. Some 46 percent of trans people have reported feeling uncomfortable seeking police assistance. So with the epidemic of violence against trans people, it's important to call out the demonization of Charriez, an alleged domestic abuse survivor, by Murphy's defense attorney. It's also important to call out the objectification, sexualization and dehumanization of Claudia Charriez by the press, which by sensationalizing this trial and Charriez's identity, trivializes the very serious issue of violence against trans women.

According to the Anti-Violence Project, 40 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-positive (LGBTQH) murder victims in 2011 were transgender women. And transgender women represented only 10 percent of the survivors of anti-LGBTQH violence in 2011. According to the Transgender Day of Remembrance website, 72 transgender people globally have been murdered as a result of anti-trans violence so far in 2012. According to "Injustice at Every Turn," a national transgender survey, 78 percent of respondents who expressed a transgender identity or gender nonconformity in grades K-12 experienced harassment, 35 percent experienced physical violence, and 12 percent experienced sexual assault. In that same survey 19 percent of transgender respondents reported experiencing domestic violence by a family member at some point in their lives.

Murphy's defense attorney opened the door for the mainstream press covering the trial to do what they love to do: objectify trans women's bodies. Last Friday newspapers reported that Charriez had endured four hours of cross examination aimed at discrediting her claims of assault. Irrelevant questions from the defense about whether or not she was on hormone therapy led to her revealing her surgical status. This and allegations of her having engaged in sex work in the past were all a few newspapers needed to completely exploit her identity and again trivialize violence against trans women. One newspaper referred to Charriez as a "pre-op transsexual hooker," a "surgically enhanced date" and a "heavily-breast-implanted blonde." This reporter said it was understandable that she would be mistaken for an employee at a strip club. The same reporter wrote, "Charriez later burst into dramatic, honking, masculine sobs when the defense lawyer mentioned another of her ex-boyfriends, this one deceased."

We can see why so many trans women fear reporting crimes against us, or going public in any way, for that matter. No one who has survived an allegedly abusive relationship should have to endure this kind of public objectification and dehumanization. I struggled with whether to repeat some of the dehumanizing, objectifying things said about Charriez in the press but decided to do so to demonstrate how, so often, the mainstream media's focus on trans surgery, our genital status and how masculine or feminine we are keeps readers or audiences from seeing trans people as human beings.

The defense's claims that Charriez was once engaged in sex work are intended to suggest that her claims of assault are not valid. Whether she once engaged in sex work is irrelevant. Women who have done sex work can be violently attacked and tell the truth about it. These claims also make LGBT and trans rights advocates, as well as women's right's advocates, less likely to come to her defense. In the criminal justice system and the court of public opinion, just being trans can often discredit a victim. Would-be attackers and abusers know this, so trans women become more ideal targets for perpetrators. If they are engaged in sex work, they become even more desirable targets for perpetrators.

I met Taylor Murphy briefly in August 2008. I was walking in Chelsea with a group of friends, one of whom knew him. Apparently he had been a bouncer at a gay club where one of my friends used to work. Later that same nigh, my friends and I happened to run into him again at a movie theater. He was there with two trans women. Another time, I saw Murphy in passing at a restaurant, on what seemed to be a date with one of the same trans women I saw him with at the movies the night I met him.

When I first heard about the allegations against Murphy in September 2011, I was saddened and disturbed. I thought about the men who date trans women, many of whom are in the closet and are often profoundly conflicted about their attraction. I thought about the trans women whom I know personally or whom I know about who have been physically abused by their boyfriends or men with whom they've had intimate relationships. I thought about how so often, trans women who find ourselves the victims of violence are attacked by men we know. I thought about how often, those men claim "trans panic," asserting that they didn't know we were trans, when in fact they knew all along. I thought about how this case might be an opportunity to raise awareness about domestic violence and trans women.

Last December I got a friend request from Taylor Murphy on Facebook. Aware of the allegations against him, I was initially freaked out by the request. Then I thought it might be an opportunity to shed light on an important issue. I wrote to Murphy requesting an interview. In the email I included a link to that piece I had written for Transgender Day of Remembrance 2011, which mentioned his case. I figured that because he was already publicly outed as having dated trans women, an interview would be an opportunity to understand the men who date trans women and are violent toward us. I was thinking it could be one of those Oprah-style interviews where she talks to perpetrators to understand why they did what they did. Months went by without a response from Murphy, and then I got an unintelligible response that had a threatening tone. I was admittedly frightened and decided not to respond. Over a period of several months, I received a few more Facebook messages from Murphy in which he expressed disapproval of the piece I'd written. I did not respond to any of them.

I often find myself infuriated when I hear about violence toward women, particularly trans women. We must dismantle the systemic transphobia and transmisogyny that sanctions this kind of violence. When trans women have the courage to come forward, even in the face of profound objectification and dehumanization, like Claudia did, and when we as a society support women when they do, reaffirming their humanity and womanhood, those are good first steps.