Under Attack — Looking into the Trans Experience
Five days ago I came across a news story about a woman in Turkey that had been killed. She was 23 years old. She was an LGBTI activist. She was well known in her community, and respected amongst those that knew her. She had been raped, and her entire body burned. Sadly, I doubt the burns were postmortem. Her name is Hande Kader, and reading about Hande’s brutal murder shook me to my core. The emotions I felt ran the entire spectrum; from guilt, to anger, to — of course -immense sadness. Over the course of the weekend, I found myself crying, hard, over the death of this brave woman, whom I had never met. Inconsolable, I barely got through Monday, and eventually succumbed to my grief as I wound up breaking down into tears at my desk. In life, and in death, Hande Kader had done more for the trans community than I ever have, or ever will. Her brutal murder spurred a nation, well known for it’s history of violence against trans people, to come together and condemn this sort of violence. In honor of her bravery, I sought to bring to light some of the major problems we face as a community.
The transgender community’s challenges are multi-faceted. They include (but are not limited to): marginalization, discrimination, and our greatest challenge, violence. Much of that violence is self-inflicted in the form of suicide. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, released in October of 2010, 41 percent of transgender people in the United States have attempted to commit suicide. That’s nearly 9 times the national average. Another 19 percent of transgender people reported they were refused medical care because of their gender-nonconformance. Even worse, 2 percent were violently assaulted in a doctor’s office. The study surveyed more than 7,000 transgender people.
In a story published by the LA Times in January of 2014, a new study was released where researchers dug deeper into the results of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey to examine what puts transgender people at such high risk. Research conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law discovered that transgender people who had suffered discrimination or violence, for instance being physically or sexually assaulted, were severely at risk of attempting suicide.
According to the new study, 69 percent of transgender people who became homeless because of bias against their gender identity had attempted suicide. Of those turned away by a doctor because of their transgender status, 60 percent had attempted to end their life. Furthermore, almost two-thirds of respondents who were victims of domestic violence at the hands of a family member had attempted suicide.
Not surprisingly, they also found that suicides were less common among transgender individuals who said their family ties had remained strong after coming out.
These statistics aren’t just limited to the United States thoough. In an article published by the Guardian on November 19, 2014, a survey found that 48 percent of transgender people under the age of 26 had attempted suicide. Additionally, 30 percent said they had done so in the past year, and 59 percent reported they had at least considered suicide. The study involved interviews and a survey of more than 2,000 people in England from 2010–2014. The research was performed by Pace, a mental health charity for the LGBT community, with support from Brunel University, the University of Worcester, and London South Bank University. Conversely, approximately 6 percent of all 16–24 year olds said they had attempted suicide according to the Adult Psychiatry Morbidity Survey.
While the suicide numbers of transgender, or gender non-conforming, individuals are staggering, a major contributor to that is discrimination, bullying, and most worrying of all, assault and fear of homicide. According to statistics released by the Organization of American States, which included incidents from Canada, the United States, Central America, and South America, transgender homicides in North and South America were 50 percent higher than that of gays and lesbians in July of 2013. In that month alone, there were 39 LGBT related homicides, 23 of which were transgender people. The significance of these numbers is amplified when taking into account that only 0.3 percent of the population in the United States openly identifies as transgender. In contrast, 3.5 percent of adults identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual according to the New Civil Rights Movement.
The stories behind these homicides are especially troubling; like that of 17-year-old Dwayne Jones, who was brutally cut and stabbed to death by a mob in Jamaica. Closer to home is Islan Nettles, a transgender woman and resident of NYC who was beaten to death in Harlem. For whatever reason, the murders of trans women are particularly gruesome and sick. Victims are dragged behind cars, burned alive, stoned to death, skinned, and quite often beaten to death in the middle of a crowded street or parking lot.
These incidents barely begin to demonstrate not just the physical violence, but the emotional and verbal assault transgender people experience on a regular (read daily) basis. Sadly, but not surprisingly, incidents of violence are even more common towards trans women of color. Frankly, it is depressing how often vigils have to be organized for slain transgender men and women. On July 29, 2013, a trans-woman was found dead in her apartment. She was strangled. It was the fourth trans related homicide in seven months in Turkey. The woman sold flowers in downtown Istanbul. Eleven other transgender individuals had been assaulted in Turkey by July of that same year.
Perhaps the worst part is that in most parts of the world, no one even really knows what the true numbers of trans-related homicides are. Most outlets say the reported numbers are likely far below the actual. In the United States, The Department of Justice doesn’t currently track data on gender and sexual orientation, which makes gathering data through law enforcement agencies extremely difficult. A prime example is the FBI’s annual report on “hate crimes,” it’s flawed due to low participation from states. In 2011, the state of Mississippi reported only 1 “hate crime.”
There are organizations out there that do try to pin down a number though. The European group Transrespect versus Transphobia, or TvT, reported that between October 2013 and September 2014, 226 transgender people were murdered around the globe. Most of those were trans women of color. The numbers were gathered by sifting through countless news articles and by reports submitted through partner organizations in countries like Honduras and Thailand. There is also the website for Transgender Day of Remembrance that has its own list containing the names of some 700 murdered trans people. Their list looks back all the way to 1970; however, the majority of murders occurred between 2000 and 2012. Again, there are a large number of women of color in this list.
In another report published on May 17, 2013, 78 trans people were murdered in 13 countries from January 1, 2013 to April 30, 2013. That’s a trans person murdered every 1.5 days. That same report stated there were 1,233 reported trans homicides in 59 countries from January 1, 2008 to April 30, 2013. These figures were collected as part of the Trans Murder Monitoring project by Transgender Europe and published on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
In a story looking at the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, published by VICE on November 20, 2014, it looked critically at the imminent threat posed to trans women of color and the grotesque lack of help proffered by their local police. Not only were these women under attack from people in and outside of their communities, but also from those meant to “serve and protect.” In the summer of 2014, 2 black trans women were murdered just six weeks apart in Baltimore. Trans women in the community told reporters that they were terrified to go outside for fear of police harassment (which is apparently quite common) and what they felt was an attack on their identities.
The Vice story also looked at stories of two particular trans-women of color, the details of which were downright shocking. Cece McDonald, a black trans fashion design student, went to jail for manslaughter when she was assaulted by a homophobic Neo-Nazi under the influence of methamphetamines in Minneapolis. McDonald took a pair of her fabric scissors out of her purse and held them in front of her in self-defense. Her assailant ran towards her, impaling himself on the scissors. He later died from his injury. McDonald was in prison for 19 months of a 41-month sentence in a men’s prison, yes a men’s prison. Regardless of her conviction, that never should have happened. Her early release was on the terms of good behavior with the support of international protests and Laverne Cox, the actress from Orange is the New Black.
The story of Eisha Love and her friend Tiffany Gooden isn’t even close to as rosy. The two stopped for gas in Chicago when men began yelling slurs at the two black trans-women. Love was punched in the face before the two women were able to make it back to their vehicle. They attempted to drive away but were pinned from behind by one of the men’s cars while another tried to open the driver’s side door. The two women were terrified and in an effort to escape, Love maneuvered the car around and hit one of the attackers, severely injuring his leg. Love and Gooden escaped with their lives, but when Love went to file a police report, she was the one arrested. Eisha Love is still in jail, charged with first-degree attempted murder. Her friend Tiffany Gooden was murdered two months later in the very same neighborhood where the attack occurred
These stories are absolutely disgusting, but made even worse by the fact that these are closer to the norm than the exception. Stories like these further compound the problems the public has with police, which have already been highlighted by the media in places like Ferguson, in the case of Michael Brown, and others like Phillando Castille, and Sandra Bland. As horrifying as these stories are, they perfectly frame the trans experience and the legitimate fear that all of us have when we leave the safety of our homes.
The simple fact is that our lives are in danger for simply being true to ourselves. No trans person asks for, or deserves, this type of treatment that for all intents and purposes, is commonplace. The current state of affairs is unacceptable, and so is the loss of one more trans life. Sadly, I know that there won’t just be one. There will be many, many more as time goes on.
PS: This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Hande Kader, Kate von Roeder, and Leelah Alcorn.