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LGBT Leadership: Split Hairs and Burnt Bodies

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HENRY HILLIARD JR
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When Matthew Shepard was beaten bloody, tied to a fence, and left to die alone in agony, a call was heard around the United States for tolerance toward differing sexual orientations. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community banded together, mourned and got to work to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a law that expands the definition of a hate crime to sexual orientation and gender identity. Thankfully, we've come to a better place and time where gays and lesbians can focus on marriage issues, Don't Ask, Don't Tell and employment discrimination. These are all extremely important issues, so naturally some other stuff is going to have to wait. Things like, say, burning bodies.

It is not surprising to me that virtually no one is familiar with the name Shelley Hilliard. Shelley's body was just found on the side of a busy highway in Detroit last week, burned to death. Shelley's mother, who had reported to police that her much-beloved teen was missing, had to visit the medical examiner's office to identify her child's torso -- all that remained.

Shelley was part of a much-disparaged group whose high rates of HIV, physical and sexual abuse and murders go largely unnoticed by the LGBT community, both in terms of consciousness and in terms of programming and funding. I'm talking about transgender individuals -- especially young transwomen of color. Nov. 20 is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which memorializes all individuals who were murdered because of their gender identity over the past year.

In marking this TDOR, it is time for leaders in the LGB communities to admit that they need to do more. Transgender individuals are a small minority of the LGBT community but are also the ones who need the most support this day and age. I ask you to imagine being a transwoman walking down the street and how many hateful epithets you would have to tolerate in order to pick up a gallon of milk or visit a doctor's office.

Or imagine a child at 13 or 14 being disowned and having no safe space to turn to -- no school, no shelters, and no public services ready or willing to take her in except for law enforcement, who will many times pick up young transwomen on suspicion of prostitution, whether there is valid evidence or not.

Or imagine a 19-year-old girl being dropped off at an acquaintance's home by a taxi on a Sunday night and finding three men on the lawn waiting for her. Imagine them kidnapping, torturing, decapitating, dismembering and burning her alive for sport, as young, raucous boys would to a Barbie doll. Imagine them chucking her torso on the side of a highway, with absolutely no regret or sense of immorality. Imagine being the mother called into the morgue to identify a defiled torso as your daughter. Swallow that bitter pill of reality and tell me that marriage is the most important issue for the LGBT community in 2011. For several in the transgender community, it might as well be 1969 all over again, because nothing has changed for them.

Yet there are many organizations that espouse to support the transgender community, but really what they are doing is splitting hairs. In light of Shelley Hilliard's charred torso, the actual amount of money and human resources that most LGBT organizations devote to transgender services is insulting. Even in large cities there are only a handful of nonprofits doing substantive work for transgender people. Many argue that there are few funding streams to support programs for this community because no data is collected on transgender individuals, and they are correct. But that didn't stop them from identifying funders for LGBT and HIV causes in the '80s and '90s -- where there's a will, there's a way, as they say. And with the release of new studies like Injustice at Every Turn, service providers now have the numbers they need to substantiate the need for funding. Moreover, LGBT groups could choose to prioritize lobbying the government to start including this group in data collection; however, few are taking up that fight.

The solutions for this quagmire should be pretty obvious to community leaders that have already had to build support for gay and lesbian causes at a time when such issues were highly divisive. Self-identified LGBT organizations should devote a set amount of resources to transgender programming -- prioritizing HIV, housing, education and economic issues. This will require groups to identify general operating funds, grants and funders who would be interested in the transgender population (many exist and there are more every day). They should include transgender individuals on their board and staff and clearly define transgender issues in their mission statement and policy priorities. These nonprofit organizations, who naturally work with many public officials, also need to let local, state and federal governments know that data collection and funding for this population is a priority and is desperately needed.

The transgender community has remained steadfast to LGB causes and is resilient despite the magnitude of hate and discrimination still present in our world, but the time has come for allies to seriously address the letter T. The words of Martin Luther King, as always, ring true: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." For the Shelley Hilliards of America, the silence is deafening. No more splitting hairs, no more burning bodies.

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