Remembering the Transgender Women Murdered Last Year

At least 22 people were killed in anti-gay attacks last year. Hate crime victims are overwhelmingly transgender people of color.

By Hatty Lee, Kai Wright Nov 19, 2010

I’ll cut to the chase: At least 22 people were killed in 2009 because of their perceived sexual orientation, four out of five of whom were people of color. Half of the victims were transgender women and most of the other half, according to the Anti-Violence Project, were men who were either dressed in typically feminine clothes at the time of their murder or were generally gender non-conforming. Not one of these murders made national headlines. Which is why ColorLines joins transgender community activists in marking Transgender Day of Remembrance this weekend.

Since 1997, a national coalition of LGBT hate crime monitors have been culling reports of violence and harassment each year; they have tallied 232 murders thus far. The numbers they collect are neither comprehensive nor definitive. The monitors have limited resources, exist in just a handful of communities and reach only those victims who seek help or whose stories make it into local media. But the groups’ data offers a window into the violence. And what’s become clear over the years is that, across the spectrum of assaults, those who are most likely to be attacked are people of color who don’t fit into neat gender boxes.

There are many reasons for this trend, and most aren’t unique to hate crime. At the most basic level, gender-queer people of all colors lead precarious lives on many fronts. Studies have shown they are more likely to struggle finding self-supporting work, more likely to have trouble keeping stable housing, more likely to receive poor or even hostile health care. Little surprise, then, that they too often find themselves in life-threatening situations as well. 

But "hate crime" is a messy concept, both too broad and too specific to meaningfully describe the violence people inflict on those they fear. The most brutal anti-LGBT attacks are almost always the most intimate, too. They’re the sorts of assaults that used to be called "pick-up" crimes. A man (and the goons are overwhelmingly male) meets and has sex with a transgender woman or feminine gay man, then graphically murders his erstwhile lover. A transgender woman who was tortured but not murdered in 2009, described her horrific ordeal to the Anti-Violence Project (warning: this contains graphic descriptions of abuse):

While using a computer in the lobby a man tried to talk to me. Later he knocked on my door and tried to pressure me to let him in but I refused. He left but soon returned and forced his way into my room. He forced me onto the bed and sexually assaulted me while using homophobic and transphobic slurs. Then he dragged me into the bathroom, filled up the tub and tried to drown me. When that didn’t work, he plunged a hair dryer into the water attempting to electrocute me. Thankfully, the electrical breaker dislodged from the wall. The man then dragged me back to the bed, hit me and bound my hands and feet with a telephone cord

I’ve been reading the Anti-Violence Project’s annual report every year since it’s been published, and this woman’s story is sadly unremarkable. The "overkill" in it is the most definitive trait of anti-gay assaults of all sort; the more intimate the encounter that proceeds it, the more graphic the violence that follows. I wonder if the same proportional relationship exists with the hate speech political and religious leaders hurl about. I wonder whether their hate is directed outward or inward.

Which raises the question of what we can do about it? How do counter someone’s effort to kill their own inner turmoil by striking out at others?

Thus far, we’ve agreed to make it a law enforcement issue. Gay civil rights advocates celebrated in October 2009 when Congress finally added anti-gay attacks to federal hate crime law, creating sentence enhancements. Ironically, attack reports spiked that month, according to the Anti-Violence Project. That’s probably because visibility drew more reports. But it’s also because "hate" can’t be solved with sentence enhancements and aggressive policing. Hate must be countered with love. That sounds trite, but it’s the inescapable truth. If we want to stop this madness, we have to create a society where people of all gender expressions and sexualities are celebrated rather than feared or tolerated.

We also have to stand up for rights. Transgender women are vulnerable to gruesome physical attacks because they are vulnerable to many preceding assaults. Does your community include gender identity in its human rights ordinances? Can a landlord throw someone into the street because he doesn’t like that her gender expression? Can a business refuse to hire someone who refuses to "dress like a man"? These are the precursors to murder. Stand up and stop them and you’ll stop the murders, too.

And that’s what we urge ColorLines readers to make the Nov. 20 Transgender Day of Remembrance all about. Go out this weekend and celebrate not just the idea of gender and sexual freedom, but the people who are living it. Given the stats, those of us in communities of color bear a particular responsibility to stand up for love. Organizers of the international day of activism have culled a list of events here; scroll down to get to the U.S. cities.