As the first month of 2015 ends and we enter Black History Month, already the names Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood and Yazmin Vash Payne, all Black transgender women, are being memorialized.
In 2014, we witnessed an epidemic of deadly violence against trans women of color in this country: 12 women were killed, with the first homicide happening in June. In 2015, we are seeing a disturbing uptick in this trend. We have already seen three homicides of trans women of color in January alone.
If we are going to act to prevent one more trans woman of color from losing her life, we must act now.
That trans women of color are at disproportionate risk for violence is not surprising. They live at the intersection of identities that experience the greatest oppression. The intersections of race, gender identity and, often, homelessness, poverty and employment discrimination, make trans women of color especially vulnerable to oppressive racism, transphobia and forces them to rely on transphobic systems for support -- or no system at all.
If vulnerability to violence occurs at the intersections, so, then, do our responses that will prevent this violence. We cannot expect a singular response to address or prevent this violence. Our responses must be multi-dimensional and contemporaneous.
To start, we have to acknowledge this violence. This means that public officials, community leaders and the public at large must acknowledge that trans women of color exist and then that they experience real and dangerous violence simply for existing. These acknowledgements must be public, must happen frequently, and must be connected to the trauma that the trans community experiences when a high profile incident of violence occurs. This public acknowledgement must also happen when trans folks are talking about the day-to-day bias and discrimination they experience, the need for employment and the rejection they face because of bias, the need for safe shelter and housing, and the fact that trans folks are spoken about and not to or with. If leaders don't see all of these things as connected and their issues, then they are not seeing trans people.
At the same time, the media must quickly, respectfully and uniformly develop their transgender cultural competency. Too often, transgender people are misgendered, disrespected, and made invisible by the media who refuse to use the correct names and pronouns. Lamia Beard and Ty Underwood were both misgendered and misnamed by the media. These reports are not only offensive, but also prevent communities, family and friends from getting accurate information about their loved ones or the violence that is occurring in their neighborhoods. Media outlets who do not use respectful language don't just contribute to this confusion - they are actually plain wrong.
Related to this, law enforcement across this country must respectfully and accurately identify victims and survivors of violence as transgender. This is critical not just to the basic humanity and respect with which first responders should treat the communities within which they work, but to help make accurate investigations, determinations and conclusions when investigating crimes, including homicides, against transgender people.
We also have to stop criminalizing trans women of color. Far too frequently, we see trans women of color, and people of color generally, criminalized when they are victims of violence. As a popular social media meme #IfTheyGunnedMeDown demonstrated, the photos and pictures released to identify the victim of crime or homicide are often mug shorts or pictures that otherwise suggest criminality. Often media and the police very specifically refer to a victim or survivor's criminal record to further dehumanize them. This racist, transphobic response to violence is unacceptable and must stop.
We also need to take action to address this violence. Public awareness ads, such as AVP's Born to Be Campaign, can show positive, affirming images of transgender and gender non-conforming folks. Programs like Audre Lorde Project's TransJustice and AVP's Community Leadership Institute which lifts up the voices of trans women of color and respects and supports their leadership. Non-discrimination protections, such as ENDA and GENDA in New York State, are critical to protecting transgender and gender non-conforming people legally.
These are concrete steps we must take now to ensure no more names are added to the list of those we memorialize in 2015 -- women who are gone too soon, whose lives matter now, and have always mattered.