In just the first four months of 2015, the deaths of seven women have been broadcast over the local news: Papi Edwards, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, and Kristina Grant Infiniti.
The commonalities these women face go further than their time of death. These seven women went against the gender norms of society. These seven women faced gunshot wounds, burnings, strangulation and beatings for nothing more than their gender identity. These seven women, and all who face similar cruelties, signify a snapshot of a larger epidemic occurring in our nation: violence against transgender women.
To be a transgender woman means one who has been assigned ‘male’ at birth but self-identifies as a woman independently of sexual orientation. Since 2012, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) 2013 Hate Violence Report, there has been a significant increase in violence (including homicide, intimate partner violence, and other) against transgender women.
Of all the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) reported acts of violence, more than half were transgender women at 72 percent. At a disproportionate amount, 67 percent of these acts were committed against transgender women of color.
This was an increase from the year of 2012, where transgender women constituted 50 percent of total hate violence homicides, according to the NCAVP’s 2012 Hate Violence report. The most recent data, which came from the Human Rights Campaign, embodies the trend in current—and rising— numbers from January 2015 including the seven deaths of the previously named women.
There are statistics that surround this phenomenon from poverty to intimate relationships, however the main reason for this stems mainly from societal angst.
According to sociologist Laurel Westbrook of Grand Valley State University, the violence against transgender women speaks more about society as a whole rather than an individual person. Focusing on sexuality and gender as a part of her research and in a study she conducted in 2009, she looked into transgender people and how they were viewed in separate societies finding what she calls “gender panics.”
“Gender panics are people’s assumptions of what someone’s gender might be. When someone trans comes along, those assumptions are challenged and they try to repair those beliefs,” says Westbrook.
One student is conscious of this phenomenon nearly every day she steps out of the door.
“It’s jarring how strangers – particularly men – feel entitled to know about my body,” says Vyvyan Dickens, a transwoman and former student at the University of Georgia. “Some people have had no problem calling me out in public, which is pretty humiliating. I try to use gender neutral bathrooms if possible or whichever bathroom I feel is most safe depending on how I’m presenting. For my safety, I have to evaluate how other people are likely to perceive me on a daily basis.”
Westbrook believes that these gender panics lead to the denial of transgender people’s rights due to their non-conformity of the gender binary, or the social construct of gender as only male or female. Westbrook notices a cycle from the time non-conforming genders set panic to the societal marginalization that they receive in return.
This pattern has been relevant among the transgender community and starts from transgender women already being at higher risk for violence and discrimination than their LGBTQ counterparts. Transgender women of color (predominantly African-Americans) are then discriminated against even more because of their race. Others claim the societal lash out against transgender women to be nothing more than transmisogyny.
“The term transmisogyny was consequently coined to describe the intersection of misogyny and transphobia faced by trans women,” says Dickens. “Given that trans women make up a fraction of the broader queer community, it’s especially alarming that around half of anti-LGBTQ murder victims are trans women. If I’m out at night, I avoid being alone and make sure someone knows where I am. However, my whiteness means I’m far less likely to experience violence as a trans woman, as women of color are affected the most.”
Sociological studies have shown that the rising violence against transgender women is intersectional, a sociological term denoting the crosses between race, class and gender. Westbrook’s 1998 study of transwomen in private, sexual relationships supports the current subtrend of intimate partner violence (IPV) that also affects transgender women.
According to the NCAVP’s 2013 Intimate Partner Violence report, transgender women accounted for 10 percent of IPV survivors and victims, jumping from the subtle 6.4 percent in 2012.
Intimate partner violence typically occurs in sexual relationships and as Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, formerly the Racial and Economic policy adviser at the National Center for Transgender Equality, points out is usually the reason for many of the homicides we see occur against transgender women.
“In many cases, it’s IPV that is the root of the violence, especially women of color,” says Freedman-Gurspan.
As for victims like Ty Underwood whose accused murderer was a male she had been dating at the time, Westbrook says that IPV occurs in moments of male insecurity and a need to prove themselves as men again when sexual with a transwomen. Men in these situations feel that they have been tricked and freak out and react with violence.
The evidence is true as most offenders at 52.8 percent in the 2013 NCAVP report were identified or self-identified as male. The problem of IPV doesn’t get any better once the additional factor of race is factored into the numbers either. Of all the reported incidents of IPV, transgender women of color represented a majority of victims at 50.02 percent in 2013.
When it comes to overall violence against transwomen, transwomen of color fare no differently. In 2013, transgender women of color made up of 58.88 percent of victims from hate violence (all inclusive of violent acts) jumping from the 55.20 percent in 2012.
“Low-income trans-women—especially those of color— have to live ‘part-time’- for survival. You know, they have to play stealth during the day because there is an intersectionality of transphobia, racism and class that causes violence,” says Freedman-Gurspan. “It’s all intersectional!”
The same national trend of this cross-sectional violence occurs on campus as well. Danielle Lasker, former Director of Public Outreach for Lambda Alliance, the University of Georgia LGBTQ club, says that it really is all tied together.
“Violence and discrimination are really all encompassing…to have multiple minority statuses really increases your chances as a target,” says Lasker.
Some believe that the additional marginalization factors, like race, are significant part of the reason for the rise in numbers of violence of trans women and trans women of color.
There was an overwhelming majority of agreement that intersectionality is a main issue in the uprising numbers against transwomen dealing with violence. Along with race and gender, poverty affects many transgender women as well.
Reported in the 2012 NCAVP report and the National Center of Transgender Equality’s 2013 “Injustice at Every Turn” report, transgender women of color face an increased risk for discrimination in housing, employment and education, with staggering rates of 34 percent of black transgender people and 28 percent of Latino/a transgender people living in extreme poverty. It has consistently remained from 2012 to present-day, that the transgender community have twice the national rates of poverty.
Westbrook’s research has shown her that this increased risk of poverty leads many transwomen, especially those of color, into underground employment and sequentially, higher risk of violence.
“Because of the stigma against transwomen of color, no one will hire you and this is particular among women of color so sex work becomes sort of the only option,” says Westbrook.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 34 percent of Latina transgender women and 50 percent of black transgender women had engaged in some form of sex work during some point in their lives which becomes dangerous when dealing with clients who are not sure that the person they are engaging with is transgender because of gender panics.
Although the problem of violence against transgender women is ultimately a cultural issue, policy advisers say that increased protection and more resources for transpeople and the LGBTQ community in general can help to decrease the alarming numbers that reports are showing.
Having worked in the policy division of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., Freedman-Gurspan understands the affect that policy can have on trans people, transgender people of color and housing and homelessness issues.
“Policy is real good at starting a conversation and giving framework…it really informs the conversation that is happening here in Washington D.C. and how [policies] are going to stop violence against transwomen,” says Freedman-Gurspan.
Some of these policies that Freedman-Gurspan elaborates on includes local law enforcement training and how police report victims who are transgender without misgendering them. In fact, in 2015, there were multiple media outlets went on naming victims like Ty Underwood and Tamia Beard by their ‘male’ names and identifying them as a male, disregarding their identity.
Policy that has been currently affecting transgender women and their survival is the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) which is the first time federal legislation included non-discrimination protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities and gender identity as underserved populations.
“LGBT activists were aware that VAWA was being reauthorized and we wanted to ensure that it didn’t discriminate against trans/LGBT communities and that included the reporting of violence and murder from intimate partner violence, or IPV,” says Freedman-Gurspan.
VAWA provides services such as shelters and rape crisis centers for those who are experiencing violence such as domestic abuse or stalking, but in the past members of the LGBTQ community have been discriminated against in their efforts to receive assistance. Though policy may not be perfect and there have not been much reduction in the violence that transwomen face, a former University of Georgia transwoman student, April Liera, believes that tiny steps make will make a big difference in getting transwomen the full resources they need.
“I think any sort of legislation that protects against discrimination is important, as trans people are at a very high risk of institutionalized discrimination,” says Liera. “Besides protection from violence, trans women need access to healthcare, protection from job discrimination, easier access to name and gender change, and also identity protection. There is a tendency for families to erase trans identities following their deaths, despite having legally changed their names and fully transitioning. I think all these things contribute to violence. If the government discriminates against trans people, why wouldn’t an ordinary citizen as well?”
There is light at the end of the tunnel though. Fortunately, Westbrook believes that we are moving towards more progressive terms with a huge topic right now being parents let their children be trans kids if they feel more interested in the norms attributed to another gender or just being creative with their gender. Such is evident in fashion line J. Crew’s 2011 advertisement with their creative director, Jenna Lyons, and her son Beckett’s pink-painted toenails and toys.
“Boys’ and girls’ toys aren’t as strict as once before, either,” says Westbrook. More boys can be seen playing with dolls just as girls can nowadays being seen playing with Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles during this day and age.”
Heightened visibility of transwomen such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox who have jumped out as advocates for transgender equality and anti-violence, have gotten the discussion of violence brought to the front of the room. However, some still believe that this violence will continue with policy. Raquel Willis, a former student of the University of Georgia and transwoman, says that the gender binary is the problem.
“The idealist…the optimist in me would say yes…we would continue to break down walls between different groups of people, but the realist in me says we often need labels and need categories to keep people comfortable because we can have gender-neutral pronouns and gender-neutral bathrooms but people have to have enough empathy to put in the work,” says Willis.
Despite what the figures might show, Westbrook disagrees that there is an actual increasing trend of violence against transgender women. Instead, she believes that the increased exposure of this violence has jolted our attention to the matter, which is a good thing.
“I don’t believe violence is going up but we’re becoming more aware,” says Westbrook. “I think the more transwomen become- not to say they are abnormal- but normalized, then we’ll see a reduction in violence experienced by transfolk.”
For transwomen like Vyvyan, the exposure is one that is necessary because of the many angles that are involved with the problem, but they should be addressed before the unfortunate violence occurs.
“There are systemic forces at play – racism, transphobia, misogyny, poverty, etc. – that lead to the disproportionate violence faced by trans women of color,” says Dickens. “This year alone there are 6 trans women of color whose murders have been reported. Advocacy surrounding transphobia must prioritize transwomen of color if we truly want to make a difference. The needs of transwomen need to be highlighted and met while we’re alive. While acknowledging the violence is vital, we are more than our deaths.”
August 31, 2016by