We Must Continue to Fight Violence Against Transgender Women of Color

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November 16, 2015

Like many young women, Elisha Walker was a Beyoncé fan, and interested in beauty and hair care. According to her mother and friends, the Salisbury, N.C., resident was always smiling, though that warm and upbeat character was tempered by a fierce sense of independence. Just 20 years old, Elisha had her own car, a silver Pontiac Sunfire, and plans to move out and begin a life of her own.

But on Thursday, October 23, 2014, all of this changed. On that day, Elisha went missing.

For nearly a year, Elisha’s family and friends hoped steadfastly that she would be found. She was — on August 13, 2015 — in a shallow grave behind a house in Johnston County, N.C.

Police later charged and arrested a man for the murder, though few details have been released since. Regardless of whether it can be proven that Walker was killed because of her gender identity, her killer will not be charged with a hate crime, as North Carolina is one of five states without a formal hate crime statute.

This year has seen an alarming increase in the number of reported murders of transgender women, with the majority of those reports involving transgender women of color. Even more concerning is the fact that murders of transgender people are largely underreported, meaning that the numbers being reported likely reflect only a fraction of the total number of transgender women lost to violence. Some of this underreporting occurs when transgender people are misgendered in reports because their identities are disrespected.

While only 16 states and D.C. have hate crime laws that include gender identity as a protected status, transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) respondents to Lambda Legal’s 2013 Protected and Served? — a community survey with more than 2,000 participants — were more likely than their non-TGNC counterparts to report that they had been victims of violent crimes in the previous five years.

Some 18% of TGNC survey respondents reported having experienced intimate partner violence, compared to 11% of non-TGNC respondents, and 21% of TGNC respondents reported having experienced personal assault in the past five years, compared to 11% of non-TGNC respondents.

Most alarmingly, 52% of TGNC survey respondents who sought out police when they were the victims of sexual assault reported that police did not adequately respond, compared to 33% non-TGNC respondents. 55% of TGNC respondents said they experienced at least one incident in which police failed to fully address their complaints about intimate partner violence.

Similarly, in its 2014 report, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs wrote that “[t]ransgender people of color were more likely to experience police violence, physical violence, sexual violence, violence in public areas, discrimination, threats and intimidation, harassment, and were more likely to require medical attention as a result of hate violence.”

Even more notably, the report  found that transgender women of color were 1.6 times more likely to experience physical hate violence, and that transgender women were 2.9 times more likely to experience discrimination, 2.4 times more likely to experience harassment and 1.9 times more likely to experience threats and intimidation compared to overall survivors. Stemming the tide of violence against transgender women of color will take a concerted effort not only to strengthen legal protections against violence, but also to address the many factors that make transgender women of color more vulnerable.

As a group, transgender people face widespread discrimination in virtually every area of life, including housing, employment, and education.  The effects of this systemic discrimination are magnified further for transgender women of color, many of whom are forced into survival and underground economies.

Transgender women of color face the threat of violence not only at the hands of civilians, but also law enforcement officers. Police frequently target trans women of color for perfectly legal activities — such as walking down the street or carrying condoms — as evidence of criminal activity. 

The increased risk of violence to transgender women of color posed by both civilians and law enforcement was painfully highlighted in the circumstances surrounding Shelley “Treasure” Hillard’s death. Hillard, a 19-year-old Black trans woman, was murdered in Detroit after police allegedly coerced her into becoming a criminal informant against a suspected drug dealer and then reportedly revealed her identity to the suspect, leading to her brutal murder.

Even with the mounting numbers of reported murders, experts and advocates say it is important to look beyond the numbers and to shift the discourse surrounding transgender women of color from victims to survivors.

“Headlines don’t give you a full narrative,” said Lala Zannell of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. “Yes, these women are transgender but they are all more than that. We need to change the narrative to humanize the individual.”

Zannell encourages other anti-violence advocates to recognize and highlight the work of transgender advocates as they work to end violence against trans women of color. “There is a beautiful community of activists whom you never hear about,” she says. “As allies, it is important for people to listen and show up, to be reminded of the complete definition of community.”

As the number of homicides of transgender women of color increases, we need hate crime legislation that explicitly protects gender identity as well as continued legal, policy and community efforts to end the pervasive and systemic discrimination facing transgender women of color. This discrimination robs transgender women of color of educational, employment, housing and other opportunities and makes this community particularly susceptible to violence both within and outside of the criminal justice system.

If you have been discriminated against because of your gender identity, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk.

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