2017 has been the best year for trans people; it's also been the worst

This year came with a slew of electoral victories for the trans community, and a record number of trans homicides

Published November 19, 2017 3:00PM (EST)

Demonstrators protest for transgender rights, March 3, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty/Scott Olson)
Demonstrators protest for transgender rights, March 3, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty/Scott Olson)

On Halloween, a horror story played out in real life.

The body of Candace Towns, a transgender woman, was found at the end of a driveway in Macon, Georgia, with fatal gunshot wounds. According to the Telegraph, she had been missing since Sunday, Oct. 29. Reports say that Towns had previously been shot in the ankle in 2009 just blocks from where her body was found.

Towns was the 25th transgender person murdered in 2017, making this year the deadliest on record for trans people in the U.S. Last year also set the record at a horrifying 23. We passed that in October with the death of Stephanie Montez.

Towns' death, as it happens, came the week prior to this Novembers' “blue wave” of progressive election victories

The liberal sentiment after the 2017 elections has been one of triumph if not cautious optimism. With big democratic wins, there was reason to be hopeful as underrepresented groups enjoyed victories, especially the transgender community. But this year also marks a grim milestone for trans people. With the 19th annual Trans Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, there are signs of accomplishment and change for the trans community, but also persisting, escalating violence.

Yes, November’s local elections were no doubt historic for the trans community, with eight transgender candidates sweeping into office.

Danica Roem, a former journalist, became the first openly trans woman to win state office in America after she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. “To every person who’s ever been singled out, who’s ever been stigmatized," she said in her victory speech, "this one’s for you."

In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins, a community activist for black and brown trans people across the country, became the first trans woman of color to serve in any elected public office in our nation's history. With six other trans people also heading toward elected positions on local levels, it's not too much to say that 2017 represents something of a positive turning point at the polls.

As noted, though, 2017 may also be a bloody turning point on the streets.

According to sociologist Nielan Barnes, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, the very visibility and increasing acceptance that helped lift Roem and others into office may lie at that heart of what can feel like a deadly backlash.

“When you have these big legislative gains that are nationally recognized, it actually creates more visibility,” says the researcher, who has studied violence against trans women in Mexico and advocates for asylum seekers using resources like the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. "More attention is directed to the LGBT population, and transgender individuals, because they’re non-gender-conforming, and they’re far more visible, tend to be a target,” Barnes tells Salon.

“You still have media that often depicts [trans] people as deceitful," Rebecca Kling of the National Center for Transgender Equality tells Salon, "and communities that might intentionally or unintentionally lash out or only look at trans people through sex work, or through Jerry Springer, or through porn." She explains that, while political gains are made, one-dimensional, othering stereotypes still hold significant sway in public consciousness.

Indeed, it's a disconnect that may have deepened as the media portrays the electoral victories as the culmination of a struggle, while trans murders, ever underreported by the press, rarely make headlines.

There are a few reasons for this underreporting. Whether by malice or ignorance, trans people are often misgendered when missing persons reports are filed. Such misgendering can come from very close sources, says Kayley Whalen, a trans activist with the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“Often times the lovers or partners of a trans person will deny that their partner was trans," she says, "possibly to maintain their fragile sense of their own identity." She adds that trans people are often exposed the kind of dangerous situations that come from living a marginal economic existence on the streets or elsewhere in the first place, due to their families expelling them from their households once they come out. “It is often [from] family members that transgender people have faced the harshest rejection.”

This, combined with the fact that some local news outlets may be unfamiliar with best practices for reporting on trans individuals and some medical examiners may misreport transgender people on death certificates, means that many trans murders may simply disappear as cisgender homicides buried in police blotters.

Basically, we don't know how many transgender people are murdered because of their identities every year, but we know it's more than we're registering. “Ultimately, the murders of transgender people are underreported for a number of reasons that all combine to really downplay the regular levels of violence that trans people experience,” says Kling.

A tragic case in point is the death of Papi Edwards, who was murdered in Kentucky in January 2015. While LGBTQ outlets reported that she was a trans woman, Edwards’ partner insisted to the larger press that Edwards was a gay man and went by the name “Lamar.” He went so far as to “correct” stories that properly reported Edwards’ trans identity. Months later, a Buzzfeed investigation would reveal the deception and that Edwards did indeed identify as a woman.

It's simple, cruel economics that often puts transgender people in harm's way. As Isa Noyola, the Director of Programs at the Transgender Law Center, explained to Salon, wherever trans people face discrimination, access to basic needs becomes a struggle.

“For communities that have been in survival mode for so long and have continued to be under attack," she says, "it is an uphill battle and it’s a battle that is faced every day, not just when the murders are occurring." She adds, "It is happening in everyday life in terms of access to housing, barriers to employment and higher education to healthcare." It's a gap that activists like Noyola tries to close by working at the community level.

But when trans people do fall through the cracks and find their basic human needs unmet, they are often compelled to participate in street economies that pose their own risks. Without a home or job, safety becomes precarious for anyone; being visibly different makes it doubly so. "All those things converge and form a perfect storm for trans and gender-nonconforming communities to continue to be vulnerable,” says Noyola.

Being from an already vulnerable community and then joining the trans community doubles the dangers. Statistically, trans women of color are most at risk for murder, and the killings often occur in the South, making the Towns story all too familiar. Twenty-one of the 24 murders this year were women of color, 16 of those were black trans women and, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 60 percent of this year's victims were killed in the South.

It's small wonder. The South has the "fewest states that currently provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in education, employment, hate crimes, housing and public accommodations," according to the HRC. It also has the hardest requirements to change gender designations on identification documents. Georgia, where Towns was killed, has extensive requirements for identification changes.

And it's not always easy or safe for trans people to turn to authorities when they're under threat, as law enforcement can also be a source of violence against them. “Police profiling of trans women of color as 'sex workers' – commonly referred to as 'walking while trans' – is prolific across the U.S.,” Whalen tells Salon.

In Phoenix, Arizona, student and trans activist Monica Jones garnered headlines after local authorities harassed and arrested her on multiple occasions while she was organizing against a police operation called Project Rose. The operation led to mass arrests of trans women of color charged with “manifesting” and “intent to prostitute.” Those scooped up in the dragnet were required to participate in a diversion program led by Catholic charities or else face jail time.

In another case in Washington, D.C., a police officer solicited trans women for sex and then fired his gun into the group when they denied him. It’s cases like these that make trans activists support more holistic, community-based solutions to the violence rather than turning to law enforcement.

“If we are prioritizing putting more money into police forces in order to ‘keep us safe’ from hate crimes instead of prioritizing putting money into programs that help trans people access jobs and job training, access housing, access health care," says Whalen, "we’re not actually prioritizing those in our community most affected by violence."

She added, "We need jobs programs, not prisons.” Indeed, re-entry into society is difficult for any prisoner. Imagine how hard it is for someone who already is at a disadvantage because of their gender identity.

With a number of trans people in positions of political power working with advocates on the ground to help the most vulnerable trans people, there is some hope within the community that, with time, the current spike in trans murders could end. However, as with so many things, the elephant in the room is the man in the White House.

The administration of President Donald Trump has taken multiple official positions against transgender protections and employments, the proposed military ban being the most infamous, within its first year.

To Kling, this trend at the top could result in street-level dangers. She said Trump's leadership is "going to have both the direct effect of rescinding guidance that the Obama administration put in place or of changing the focus and understaffing offices of civil rights across multiple departments."

She also noted that the administration is sending out the "more insidious message, which is empowering people in the legal system, at the local, regional, state and national level, to take the concerns of transgender people less seriously.”

Kling explained that all this may combine at a cultural level, at a legal level, at an institutional level to mean that there’s less support for transgender people from the places that we need it the most." Bottom line, the further Trump extends his anti-trans agenda, the more trans homicides we may see.

But it doesn't have to happen. Indeed, many believe that the electoral strides trans people made this year were a direct rebellion against the ideologies of the Trump administration.

“With 45 in office," said Barnes, "it has really caused liberals, folks who are on the other side, so to speak, to become more radicalized in response to what is seemingly a national agenda to eradicate any gains made by progressive liberal politics.”

Kling also sees a potential glimmer of hope. “Progress isn’t always perfectly linear," she said. "Changing policies, changing laws, are incredibly important and hopefully those could go hand in hand with also a shift in culture, so that people can have a better understanding of trans identity.” A better understanding, the logic goes, would instill more respect and, therefore, fewer deaths.

Whalen, too, noted the upsides of 2017 for trans people. “One election does very little to change the actual living conditions for trans people, but this one election has immense consequences for the collective imagination of our country,” she said.

Generally, she's hopeful that the new generation of transgender politicians — and those who may come after them — have the potential to make a considerable impact on the problem, thanks to the knowledge they've collected from their own lived experiences.

“None of those transgender people were ignorant of violence against their community," she said, "and right after this election, they’re going right back to working to stop that violence."


By Jarrett Lyons

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