With Heavy Hearts, Remembering Those Lost and Pressing for Change
It was almost a blur this year, oftentimes numbing, that the names kept coming. 22 of them so far.
Taja in San Francisco.
India in Tampa.
Shade in Dallas.
Amber and Ashton in Detroit, killed in the same park a month apart.
We still remember the names and the vigils from a decade ago around the time NCTE was founded: Stephanie, Ukea, and Bella, all in DC. All murdered. Today, many of us gather to mourn and remember together.
There are so many reasons transgender people are vulnerable to violence, and why transgender women of color are the most targeted. There are so many things that need to change in society for trans people to be safe. Every one of us, trans or not, has a role in helping push society to change. But what does that mean? How do we do that when this problem seems so overwhelming?
We can start by looking at why people are being killed and how they got to that moment of vulnerability. There are many factors that cause these scenarios to repeat; trans people are probably familiar with all of them. All of them boil down to lack of social acceptance of trans people.
1) Trans panic. A man meets a trans woman, either online or in-person, and flips out when he discovers his potential romantic interest is transgender. Or, they date for a while and he snaps when someone else finds out about her trans status. In either case, he feels he has to hurt or kill her to prove he is not gay.
2) Being on the street. Because of the discrimination, rejection, and high levels of poverty they face, trans people today are more likely to be living or working on the street. This puts them at higher risk for being the victims of hate violence or other crimes that wouldn’t happen to them if they had a safe place to live and work.
3) Family and intimate partner violence. Sometimes a trans person is stuck living with a violent partner or family member because they have nowhere else to go. They may be afraid and know that the person may try to kill them, but don’t have money to escape the situation. They also believe that homeless and domestic violence shelters won’t accept them or won’t respect them or keep them safe. They may even be afraid, quite reasonably, of being assaulted in a shelter. Seeing no alternative, they stay and the violence escalates.
4) The belief that trans lives don’t matter. Regardless of the underlying cause, someone feels like they can kill a trans person because they can get away with it—it won’t get much attention or sympathy or be taken seriously by police. This belief is especially prevalent when it comes to trans folks who bear multiple stigmas, such as doing sex work. And it helps explain the fact that attacks against trans people—whether they started as domestic violence, a robbery, a trans panic, or a seemingly unrelated dispute—are often especially brutal.
While trans people everywhere are harmed by transphobia and violence, these scenarios severely affect trans communities of color. The rise of social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and Occupy have placed a spotlight on the national crisis of social and economic inequality. This inequality is particularly devastating to communities of color because of systemic racism. The combination of race and poverty results in trans people of color having limited access to resources, participating in underground economies, and being unable to get the help they need.
Working toward social acceptance and culture change is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. It means changing our culture to value trans lives and especially to respect trans women as women. It means helping families to understand and support their trans kids, rather than shame or abuse them, kick them out or drive them away. It means confronting the shame and stigma felt by men who are attracted to a trans person.
There are also real policy solutions that can address the root of these problems. Here are five big ones.
We need to expand economic opportunity and make our existing safety net safe for trans people. To do that, we need schools to let trans kids be who they are and ensure they stay in school. We also need employers who embrace and don’t reject trans job applicants. The same is true for homeless and domestic violence shelters, job programs, drug treatment centers, and other safety net and opportunity programs. That means passing nondiscrimination laws and policies and requiring trainings for schools, employers, job programs, and critical safety net programs.
We need to decriminalize sex work. It’s going to be a while before we are able to completely transform schools and workplaces to be welcoming of trans people. In the meantime, people need to be able to live. Today, over 10% of trans people have participated in the sex trade, and the rates are much higher for trans people of color. Leading human rights and public health experts agree that decriminalization is essential to protect the safety of sex workers as well as to combat HIV and would help focus law enforcement resources on coercion in the sex trade. Trans people doing sex work to get by could work under safer conditions, more easily seek help from police, and find other work without a criminal record.
We need to reform policing and increase accountability. When trans people are attacked, we are often afraid to talk to police. The same parts of our communities are hardest hit by anti-trans violence and by police violence. We need to thoroughly reform policing in this country and that includes increasing oversight and ensuring policies and training prohibit profiling and mistreatment of trans people.
We need government data on trans people to support solutions. Even though we have heard countless stories from our trans neighbors, friends, and family members, we still desperately need large-scale research and data regarding trans people’s lives to help drive policy solutions. This means including gender identity/transgender status in major government surveys and in key research projects on violence and other topics.
We need to increase opportunity across American society. For too many people in this country, economic opportunity is not a reality and the safety net is broken. It doesn’t have to be that way. We could ensure a living wage for all workers. We could expand access to health care. We could end homelessness by making smart investments in affordable and supportive housing. We could reverse the trend of increasingly segregated and unequal schools. We could reform our criminal justice system and eliminate barriers to opportunity for those previously incarcerated. All of these changes would disproportionately benefit trans people because trans people today remain disproportionately poor, homeless, and lacking real opportunity.
There are many more trans-related policy and training solutions that can help. But these steps would dramatically improve the quality of life for most trans people across America. For years NCTE has actively worked on discrimination in schools and jobs, as well as working to make the safety net safer. We have made many gains on these fronts, but there is so much more work to do until schools and workplaces are truly welcoming and safe. More recently, NCTE has spoken up for police reform and sex work decriminalization, together with a growing number of other voices.
Ultimately, it's our responsibility to work in our communities, families, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. We need to make it okay to be transgender. We need it to be okay to be a transgender woman, a transgender man, or a non-binary or genderqueer person.
There is also the larger picture that the trans movement is operating in. It’s up to all of us to make the safety net real in this country for everyone. And it’s up to all of us to address the racism and economic inequality that translates into people of color being unable to have real equal opportunity in this country.
Until then, we will keep losing people. We will lose trans women, trans men, and non-binary people too. Most of them will be people of color. We will lose many, many more transgender people to homelessness, joblessness, bullying and violence, despair, HIV, and yes, even more murders.
As we continue to mark Trans Day of Remembrance annually, we pause to allow for a moment of sadness and anger. But our resolve is stronger than ever to keep fighting for trans rights.