Human Rights

Living on Borrowed Time: 6 Young Trans Women of Color Have Been Murdered in America This Year

Trans woman activist Elle Hearns declares, "You can't kill us all," as major trans visibility march is planned this Sunday.

Photo Credit: via Facebook

When Kristina Gomez Reinwald was found dead in her Miami home on February 15, she became the sixth trans woman of color to be murdered in 2015. The average age of the women who have been killed so far is 31 years old, according to an estimate based on news reports of the women’s ages.

LaSaia Wade, an African-American trans woman and activist, is just 27 years old. “I cry every time I hear about it,” Wade, who runs the nonprofit Trans Justice Project in Nashville, Tenn., told AlterNet. “It angers me every time I hear about it. I don’t know who I am going to talk to about it other than my sisters and brothers about the situations that are happening because society sees us as something that should not have been born.”

Two of her trans female friends, Alejandra Leos, a Latina, and Gizzy Fowler, an African American, were killed last year in her home state of Tennessee. Citing a widely quoted statistic, Wade said, “The average age of a trans woman is 35. If I live to be that old, I’m lucky.”  

Wade and other trans women activists who spoke with AlterNet say the recent murders reveal systemic failures at government and community levels that have pushed trans women—especially women of color—to the margins of society. Employment discrimination, the threat of transphobic violence and lack of government resources are all barriers that keep transgender women from living normal lives.

If a trans woman is assaulted, she is less likely to seek help from law enforcement. According to a 2014 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, trans women are six times more likely to experience violence from police compared to overall survivors.

Raffi Freedman-Guspan, a policy advisor for the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative at the National Center for Transgender Equality, says another problem with tracking the murders of transgender women is that not all of the killings may be linked to their gender.

“The issue with hate crimes is that not all crimes fall within that definition,” Freedman-Guspan, a Latina trans woman, told AlterNet. “A lot of these crimes, while there are transgender people involved, it’s not always 100 percent clear whether they are motivated because the victim was transgender or there were other issues. It appears that a lot of domestic violence-related incidents are going on as well. So I think that highlights the problem of domestic violence for transgender people in general and transgender women, in particular.”

Soon after Vasmin Vash Payne, an African-American trans woman, was found dead in her apartment in Los Angeles in February, her boyfriend turned himself in to police and admitted killing her. Neighbors say Payne was open about being transgender. The cops did not state any motive behind her killing. Did the boyfriend kill her because she was transgender or because he was abusive? Or were both issues a factor?

These are important questions to ask, because if Payne was a victim of ongoing domestic abuse, did she, as a black trans woman, have access to the same domestic violence services that are available to non-trans women? Trans women weren’t protected under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) but were included in the reauthorized 2012 version by President Barack Obama. Any shelter that takes VAWA money can’t turn away a transgender person. Still, there have been complaints from trans women who have claimed they were denied equal access at shelters in Massachusetts and Washington D.C. In 2011, 27 percent of trans women were turned away from shelters.

Wade says trans women also face isolation within the LGBT community because even many gay people do not recognize the “T” in the acronym.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I have a couple of gay friends who came up to me and said, ‘She should never be involved in the LBG because it’s not a mental thing, it’s a body thing.’ It bothers me because I believe a lot of gay people think this but they don’t realize and acknowledge that we started this movement and we get forgotten about.”

Wade says she has been unemployed for nearly two years after she was fired because colleagues revealed to her superiors that she was a trans woman. Though she has a bachelor's in business administration and work experience, Wade has not been able to secure fulltime work since.

Elle Hearns, central regional coordinator for GetEQUAL, added to Wade’s point by saying many mainstream LGBT organizations participate in the erasure of trans women of color when they don’t create employment opportunities for them.

“When LGBT organizations have no black trans women in leadership, it creates a barrier of trust and also lack of credibility for those organizations because the women who are being murdered are trans women of color,” she said.

While it appears that violence against trans women is getting more coverage than in the past, Isa Noyola, a program manager at the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, told AlterNet it is not because of an “uptick” in crimes against the community.

“Through the advent of social media, we’re able to share these messages quicker,” Noyola, a Latina trans woman, said. “Communities are alerting each other on what’s happening and connecting the dots. I think that the media, because of popular culture and faces like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and the TV series, Transparent and all of these popular culture shows, folks are more attuned to these other issues within our community. But violence and transphobia have been a huge issue within the community and we’re just starting to see the media highlight and actually report on these crimes.”

Hearns joined Wade, who organized a trans visibility march in Nashville this weekend to help raise awareness and support for trans women of color in the state.

“I think that what’s important is that the march was organized and led by a trans woman of color,” said Hearns, who is also a member of the Trans Women of Color Collective leadership team. “We are also taking a stand in amplifying the voices of the black trans community, especially black trans women who live with the fact that at any time we could be murdered.”

The downside to increased media attention for crimes against trans women is consistent misgendering of the victims. When Lamia Beard, the first known trans woman to be killed in 2015, was found dead in Norfolk, Va., the Virginia Pilot reported she was found in an area where “Transgender prostitutes are known to frequent the stretch of commercial and industrial buildings.” However, the newspaper did not provide details about why such a description was relevant to her murder.

Local media didn’t treat Penny Proud, the fifth transgender woman killed this year, in New Orleans, much better. Nola.com’s initial reporting referred to Proud as a “male” and a “man.” The outlet has since updated its story after being criticized for misidentifying Proud's gender. But Nola.com reporter Prescotte Stokes III, who focused on prostitution in the area where Proud was killed without providing evidence it had anything to do with her death, didn’t seem to have any regrets about how he chose to cover the story when he spoke to BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden.

“They called her a girl, but said he was a man,” Stokes told Holden. “I assume he parades around as a transgender woman, but he is actually a man….”

Isa Noyola says the problem when media and law enforcement misgender people in the trans community is due, in part, to how people learn gender norms.

“We are very much conditioned and trained from an early age to think about gender in very basic ways, which is male and female,” she said. “So those two boxes inform everything. They inform media, they inform movies, they inform entertainment, they inform products that are for sale. So because our society is built with this construct of male and female, it’s going to take a concerted effort to get educated and understand the nuances and complexity of the trans community.”

As she prepared to march for her right to live on Sunday afternoon, Hearnes said she is aware that the average age of trans women of color who were murdered this year is 31. But that won’t stop her from fighting for and celebrating her life.

“I’m aware that I am living on borrowed time,” she said. “These murders are not going to end, but you can’t kill us all.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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