It’s an all too common, if shocking story: A transgender Latina woman with HIV is attacked on a street close to her home in a low-income neighborhood in the Bay Area. Making a bad situation worse, police officers literally drag her from her bed at 6 a.m. because they think she committed the crime herself.
"They kept telling her she wasn’t who she was, and that she was a man," explained María Carolina Morales of the San Francisco-based Communities United Against Violence as she recounted the incident to Colorlines. "She was arrested. She was taken to the station. She wasn’t listened to. She spent the weekend in jail."
The woman went to court a month after her arrest, but disappeared shortly after her court date.
"She was somebody who was unemployed, who didn’t have a safety net," noted Morales. "We don’t know if she ran away, if she ended up in jail or [was] transferred to another place, another city. Her phone was disconnected the day after court. We just don’t know–don’t know what happened."
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released its annual report on hate violence motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and HIV status last week. The report documents 27 anti-LGBT murders in 2010, which is the second highest annual total recorded since 1996. A whopping 70 percent of these 27 victims were people of color; 44 percent of them were transgender women.
The study also found that transgender people and people of color are each twice as likely to experience violence or discrimination as non-transgender white people. Transgender people of color are also almost 2.5 times as likely to experience discrimination as their white peers.
"It wasn’t a shock," said Morales, whose organization is among the 17 anti-violence programs from across the country that contributed data to the NCAVP report. "For the last four years we’ve seen that trend–of transgender women and people of color in our communities experiencing higher levels of violence. Sadly that continues."
Recent headlines certainly bear witness to this disturbing trend.
A Milwaukee judge sentenced Andrew Olaciregui to an 11-year prison sentence in December after he pleaded guilty to shooting Chanel Larkin three times in the head on a street corner in May 2010. Prosecutors maintain Olaciregui shot Larkin after he offered to pay her $20 to perform a sex act and found out she was transgender. Larkin was 26 at the time of her death.
In another high-profile case, Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix both received decades-long prison sentences last summer for their role in the death of Ecuadorian immigrant José Sucuzhañay on a Brooklyn street in December 2008. Prosecutors contend Scott and Phoenix shouted anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs at Sucuzhañay as they attacked him with a baseball bat and bottles.
Juan José Matos Martínez received a 99-year prison sentence in May 2010 after he pleaded guilty to stabbing gay Puerto Rican teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado to death before decapitating, dismembering and partially burning his body and dumping it along a remote roadside in November 2009.
So what causes disproportionate rates of violence against transgender people and queer people of color?
"What the 2010 report allows us to do is document something we’ve seen and experienced for a long time," said Ejeris Dixon of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which wrote the bulk of the NCAVP report. "It’s really about an intersection of oppression."
Dixon, who was a long-time staffer at Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project until she joined AVP earlier this year, said a lack of employment, housing and health care for transgender people all contribute to disproportionate rates of violence. Morales said that ongoing police harassment against these communities is an additional factor, making those most at-risk for hate violence also least likely to seek help.
"All of those things sanction violence," said Dixon.
The NCAVP report found that half of those who experienced hate violence did not contact the police after their attack. The report further found that 25.4 percent of transgender women did not file a report. So what can be done to reduce these rates of violence against LGBT people and communities of color?
The Audre Lorde Project is among the groups that organize LGBT people in communities of color that are increasingly looking beyond law enforcement and the criminal justice system for a solution. The Safe OUTside the System Collective works with bodegas, businesses and organizations within Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and surrounding areas to create safe spaces for LGBT people of color to curb violence.
"What’s true and important is our communities have been and continue to organize around issues of harassment–whether it’s neighborhood or community harassment or [harassment] by the police," said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project.
Morales stressed that empowering transgender people and people of color to participate in decision making processes around employment, health care, improved access to food and affordable housing is another key component to addressing the problem. "For that, our organizations and institutions need to prioritize opening spaces for people to develop their leadership, to be able to engage, to learn and make decisions and so that they can see themselves not only reflected, but see themselves in the process."
Another potential solution is for anti-violence programs to tackle some of the underlying disparities that contribute to increased violence against LGBT people and people of color.
"That can mean a lot of things: We can talk about low-cost programs, intersections with immigration rights groups," said Dixon. "It’s about crafting programming that focuses on these populations and also developing leadership of LGBT people of color and trans people."
While Morales conceded these most recent statistics are grim, she said she remains hopeful that they will allow her organization and others around the country to develop more effective strategies to tackle hate violence. She stressed, however, this hasn’t happened as much as she would like to see.
"It hasn’t been significantly stepped up enough," said Morales, referring to strategies to further engage community members in the solution. "However, I have seen a lot more conversations and dialogue opening up around the community–the prison population continues to significantly increase every year, and violence continues to increase. I don’t believe its working. COAV doesn’t believe its working. I am hopeful [the report] will open up more opportunities to question the strategy to violence response."
Michael K. Lavers is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, WNYC, BBC, the Advocate and other LGBT and mainstream publications.