October being LGBT History Month, it seems timely to think about what is happening to primarily black transgender women across the country. It’s not simply timely, it’s urgent given the growing number of mostly black trans women being murdered.
In 2018 at least 26 murders of transgender people occurred in the U.S. The majority were black trans women. The year before, the number killed was 29. So far this year, at least 26 transgender people, largely black trans women, have been killed. The numbers recorded for any year may be low due to under-reporting by victim families and law enforcement. These killings align with other significant factors that render trans people more prone to violent death, such as poverty, homelessness, health-care barriers, depression, homophobia, racism and sexism.
These tragedies demand a human face. Bailey Reeves, 17, was fatally shot in Baltimore in September. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding her death. Jordan Cofer, 22, who was out only to close friends and used male pronouns on social media, was among the nine victims killed in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, in August. A friend told the media he was “one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet, a true saint, but he was scared constantly.” Dana Martin, 31, “beloved by everybody,” was fatally shot in Montgomery, Ala., and found in a roadside ditch in her car. Claire Legato, 21, described as “full of life,” died of a gunshot wound to her head in Cleveland, Ohio. There are 22 more stories like this so far this year.
Two troubling cases remain unresolved. A 25-year old woman named Medina, denied treatment for a severe health problem in an ICE facility, died at a Texas hospital hours after being released by ICE. Another woman, Polanco, died in a cell at the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York.
According to GLAAD.org, the American Medical Association has declared the killing of trans women and other trans people an “epidemic” exacerbated by a variety of social issues, including the fact that transgender people face high levels of discrimination and poverty. According to one national survey of transgender people, their level of unemployment is twice the rate of the general population. Transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty, and 90 percent of them report experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job. Access to health care is extremely limited for transgender people, in part because until recently, private insurers have treated transition-related medical care as if it were cosmetic. Some procedures are still not covered, and it continues to be difficult to find a provider who is knowledgeable about transgender health care. Sadly, 41 percent of transgender people reported attempting suicide in one large study.
“We are the most afraid we’ve ever been,” Mariah Moore of the Transgender Law Center, says. Kayla Gore, a transgender advocate in New Orleans, adds that the threat of violence is “always forefront in our minds, when we’re leaving home, going to work, going to school.”
It’s important to understand what “transgender” — and sexual orientation” — mean, among other terms, if violence born of fear and prejudice is to be adequately addressed. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a transgender person is someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know themselves to be on the inside. It includes people who have medically transitioned and people who have not. Sexual orientation refers to emotional, romantic, sexual and relational attraction to someone else, whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight or use another word to accurately describe identity. “Gender identity” is one’s internal concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. “Transition” is a process that some transgender people undergo when they decide to live as the gender with which they identify. They are not “becoming” a man or a woman; they are starting to live openly as their true gender. Transitioning is a difficult and private decision. People who make that decision deserve respect.
The reality of living a transgender life makes LGBT History Month an important time for increasing awareness, acceptance and safety for trans people. Started in 1994 by a Missouri high school teacher to educate schools, religious institutions and communities about LGBTQ people, it led to LGBTQ Pride Month, celebrated in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. It has grown from a day of gay pride to a month of events.
All the activity surrounding LGBTQ history and life is important. So is the need for lawmakers to strengthen hate crime legislation and for law enforcement and media to do a better job of addressing relevant issues. As Sarah McBride of the Human Rights Campaign puts it, “the prejudices don’t add upon one another, they multiply upon one another.” They lead to the murder of innocent human beings, largely women of color, who simply want to live their lives free of fear.
Surely that is not asking too much.