The Truth About the Escalating Anti-Transgender Crime Epidemic

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 19, 2019

The Truth About the Escalating Anti-Transgender Crime Epidemic
  (Source:nito100/Getty Images)

The fire was so intense that the car had turned ashen, and the grass around the car had burned black. Inside the torched vehicle was the body of Bee Love Slater, charred beyond recognition.

Before she was murdered, Slater, 23, who transitioned early and stood out in the small Florida town of Pahokee, had begun to fear for her life. "There were some Facebook posts made," Sheriff Whidden told the New York Times, "that this person needed to die."

In reporting on Slater's death, police said it was too early to call it a hate crime, and multiple media outlets deadnamed her as Bolman Slater VI. Friends believe Slater was targeted because she was transgender. Kenard Wade told CBS Fort Myers affiliate WINK News that they had texted the night she died, and Slater said she feared for her life.

It had been a summer of unprecedented violence against transgender women of color, attracting not just the attention of the LGBTQ community and mainstream news media, but of presidential hopefuls including Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O'Rourke who all referenced the spate of brutal black trans murders as an election issue. The American Medical Association (AMA) flagged the violence as an "epidemic." "According to available tracking, fatal anti-transgender violence in the U.S. is on the rise and most victims were black transgender women," confirmed AMA Board Member S. Bobby Mukkamala.

A cycle of poverty, crime, and incarceration caused by an array of circumstances trap many transgender women of color in a cycle that the country is struggling to break. Murders have occurred all across the country, from Detroit to Dallas, with trans women beaten, shot, dumped in lakes, left dead in parking lots and abandoned houses. Dallas and Kansas City lead the nation in trans murders. Dallas police have even enlisted the help of the FBI.


Robyn Crowe, who lost two black trans relatives to murder, told the Dallas Morning News, "Why it's happening more in Texas now is we don't have transgender laws that cover our rights... People feel like they can get away with more. There's always been violence. But they're killing us now."

The case of Muhlaysia Booker in Dallas illustrates the perfect storm of systemic homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism fueling this epidemic. Booker was involved in a minor parking lot traffic accident, after which Edward Thomas savagely beat her. Another male kicked her while she lay on the ground. A crowd gathered and watched as Booker was left unconscious.

Supporters of Booker held a rally at which she spoke, saying, "This time it was me, the next time it could be someone else close to you." On May 18, she was found shot and killed. She was last seen getting into a man's car, in connection with her escort services.

In Texas, gender identity is not listed under the state's hate crime statute, and gay or trans panic is still used as a legal defense. Black trans blogger Monica Roberts, covered Thomas's trial, noting, "The prosecution was arguing for a felony assault conviction, while defense attorney Andrew Wilkerson kept deploying his reprehensible spin on the trans panic defense by deliberately mis-gendering Muhlaysia Booker and claiming the fight was between two men. ... After four hours of deliberation, the jury found Thomas guilty of the lesser charge of misdemeanor assault and sentenced him to 300 days in jail... Really? This is straight-up BS."

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) 26 trans women, the majority of whom were black, were murdered last year. In addition to these deaths are countless unprovoked attacks, most of which go unreported.

"People are not often safe or feel safe in going to law enforcement," says Executive Director of New York's Anti-Violence Project (AVP), Beverly Tillery. "Trans people have often experienced violence and re-traumatization when they go to the police, and there is still a lot of legitimate mistrust within the community about the police."

Tillery and the AVP agree with the AMA's assessment of the violence against black trans women as "of epidemic proportions and it has been for several years," she says. "While the number of attacks and homicides fluctuates year to year, it's way too many, and it's clear there is a huge disproportionate impact for trans women of color in this country around homicide and bias- and hate-related homicide."


Cecilia Gentili
Cecilia Gentili  (Source: Photo provided by Cecilia Gentili)

Tillery identifies the factors fueling the attacks as transphobia, the dehumanizing of trans people in general, and the current political administration's negative view of transgender people, such as the Trump administration's rollback of LGBTQ rights
relating to health care, housing, employment and service in the military.

"It's contributing to a climate in which not only are trans women of color marginalized, but people feel like it's easier to commit acts of violence against them. We see incidents of violence happening in communities, in public... and people are not necessarily responding and saying this is not okay," said Tillery. "And even though there is more attention to the violence, there's not necessarily a lot of effort around preventing [it]."

"It's a terribly perfect intersection where transphobia, misogyny and racism cross," says Argentinian-American activist and trans woman Cecilia Gentili. "When a black trans woman is murdered, it's not just because she's trans. It's also because she's a woman. It's also because she's a black or a brown person. I think that the interaction of transphobia and misogyny creates a vulnerable space where men happen to believe women are disposable. Because they're trans, it's even worse. You're not just disposable — you are to be erased."

"Trans women of color have a hard time finishing school, and if you don't have an education, you have a hard time getting a good job, and even if you do have a good education, you face discrimination around employment," says Gentili. "Family rejection is a huge problem — facing homelessness, mental illness — this creates a reality where most of us either have to look for alternatives to alleviate our mental health issues through drug use and many of us have to start working in alternative economies such as selling drugs or trading sex."

While seeking services, Gentili discovered the network of trans advocacy and began working for GMHC and Transcend Legal. It was through these organizations that she began to understand the systemic reasons why so many trans women are economically disadvantaged.

"It was not just income inequality that drove me to sex work. It was also reaffirming as some-one who was constantly told that my body was wrong and my body was bad — having some-body pay for time with my body was kind of reassuring. It is an intricate and complicated equation that drives trans women to sex work. Sometimes it reassures your gender, and, of course, sometimes it's just money — a transition costs money."

Many trans women of color, caught in a vicious cycle, are murdered in the context of sex work or drug trade gone wrong. Gentili argues that the decriminalization of the sex work profession "would be a great piece of legislation that would help trans women create their economy — and also help them if they choose to do something else."


Transgender women who are not part of these "alternative" economies are also affected by violence. The AVP reported that New York City's LGBTQ community experienced a particularly violent Pride season.

"From May 15 to July 15, there were 14 homicides in the LGBTQ community," says Tillery. "There were a number of targeted attacks that were orchestrated by white supremacist groups at prominent LGBTQ community events, and we believe that part of that intensity of violence had to do with the visibility of Pride season; of people saying, 'We need to put this community in their place, they're too comfortable.' There is a backlash, and it relates to the legal victories the community has experienced in recent years."

In Tillery's view, misogyny is key to this violence with "trans panic" used successfully by cisgender offenders on trial. "We know that violence against women is only really now getting the attention it deserves in this country," says Tillery. When a man discovers a potential partner is transgender, this may further embolden violent acts. Last summer, 17-year-old William Watson was charged with shooting and killing Kiki Fantroy.

Although the police did not release a motive, the Daily News reported that "Fantroy was coming home from a party with friends, when she was approached by a group of men who wanted to have sex with her. She refused the advances, and the suspect began shooting at another person of the group. He then ran after Fantroy, and shot her multiple times in the upper torso." Watson is being charged as an adult for the crime.

"If you're just waiting for a response to homicides, we've already waited too long," says Tillery. The AVP emphasizes the need for educating communities, from individuals so that when they witness incidents of violence, they know how to intervene safely and what to do, to build-ing partnerships with government officials and community organizations to unite and respond to incidents of violence.

Tillery says individuals should know how to respond when people are being attacked — whether in the workplace, supermarket, or bar — so that "when we see forms of violence happening, we respond in a concerted way with a clear message that transgender and gender-nonconforming people are valued in our communities. Part of it is about coming together and saying, 'We're not going to tolerate this violence on any level.'"


Dallas City Council member Chad West
Dallas City Council member Chad West  (Source: Photo provided by Chad West)

Nathan Robbins, co-chair of this year's Black Tie Dinner (Dallas's annual major LGBTQ fundraising event), says that in addition to fundraising, the organization wanted to make sure the dinner was a platform for bringing visibility and action to the issue of transgender violence.

"Through remarks I made, remarks my fellow co-chair made, and a few other speakers, we wanted to make sure that every single person in that room knew it was a problem — not just for visibility's sake but to make sure that people knew we needed to do something about it. Our entire community needs to step up."

This year's 17 beneficiaries include Trans Kids and Families, Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, which offers transgender health services. The John Thomas Scholarship Fund enables a percentage of people to attend who otherwise couldn't afford to ensure that the event reflects the composition of the community.

Dallas City Council member Chad West, appointed in May 2019, says he is targeting three areas in which he can improve the situation for transgender constituents: housing, jobs, and safety. The City Council makes sure developers and property management asking for subsidies adopt "inclusionary policies" that extend to employees and residents so that they consider people of color, diverse sexualities and gender.

But with Dallas leading the nation in transgender murders, safety is the biggest issue. Dallas Police Department (DPD) is "actively recruiting LGBTQ officers and conducting community training," says West. "They're training their officers and people in terminology, training them about the history of the LGBTQ community — including the transgender community. Officers go through bias training before becoming a DPD officer." West says that the DPD conducted LGBTQ town halls, and "they've done a pretty good job of showing from a law enforcement perspective they want to help and they recognize there is a problem."

During Dallas Pride, the LGBT Employee Association of Dallas collaborated with the city, brought in speakers on transgender rights and flew the transgender flag at City Hall. "We want to show the community that we support them and we want them to feel supported," he says.

While raising a flag may show solidarity, policies and laws make a difference. In November 2015, the city council strengthened its LGBTQ anti-discrimination language to separately list gender identity and sexual orientation.

West cautions the nation to consider Dallas the epicenter of anti-trans violence. "I feel like politically on the national level there's a general intolerance towards people who don't necessarily agree with certain ideals. There's a lot of tension in different political parties, [and] that has made folks that feel like they're being marginalized rise up and be louder and be more out-spoken. When you do that, I mean that's great because you're putting yourself on a platform and giving yourself and others voices, but you're also putting yourself out there as a target as well. With the reward for sharing your story and promoting diversity comes the risk of making yourself a target."

Resource Center's CEO Cece Cox agrees and says the problem is bigger than Texas. "We're in a cultural moment in which the larger society is backlashing against marriage equality and the fact that we had a successful black president. They are reacting in ways where they're looking for edge issues that can divide not only our LGBTQ community but others as well. They're using trans people and the fact that it's a lot harder to understand the reality of a trans life than it is for the country to understand marriage equality."

Cox cites the case of a Dallas child's gender transition, which has spurred national political debate. The governor, the attorney general, and Ted Cruz have all weighed in, in many cases using the trans community to divide further.

And in Texas, "there's nothing enshrined in law, there are no legal protections at the state lev-el" for trans people, says Cox. "We're in a very hostile state. There were 'bathroom bills' filed in the 2017 legislation. The language and rhetoric are horrible."

That language filters down into the general population and becomes the precursor to violence, and that is not unique to Texas.


Protesters block the street in front of the Supreme Court.
Protesters block the street in front of the Supreme Court.  (Source: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. Getty Images)

On the night of August 23, during DTLA Proud, three Latinx transgender women and a gay man were verbally and physically assaulted at Los Angeles bar Las Perlas. The four were part of a group from Bienestar Human Services, a local LGBTQ nonprofit. According to one of the trans women, a straight couple approached them using transphobic slurs, and the encounter turned physical.

"The female aggressor threw punches at me," trans woman Khloe Perez-Rios told a local news affiliate. "The couple then threatened our lives by saying, 'I'm going to kill you all.'" Perez-Rios says that even though they begged management to call the police, on-site security physically removed the trans women. The LGBTQ community protested and called for a boycott of Las Perlas with the altercation now under investigation as a hate crime.

Gentili says discrimination even happens in what many assume to be safe spaces. Gentili visited an LGBTQ country club in Louisiana this summer, accompanied by a trans male friend. They were sitting together beneath a giant rainbow flag when they were approached by management, who requested that the trans man put a shirt on. Gentili was told that state laws al-lowed such policing of gender-nonconforming bodies. She notes that the entitlements of transgender people differ widely from state to state, and a rainbow flag isn't protection.

"The changes that need to happen are changes that come with legislation and how [it] is applied," says Gentili. "We passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) in New York. How does this take form? Do employers know what GENDA is? Does the community know exactly what they are entitled to from this piece of legislation? Is there training around it? What does harassment look like for a trans woman? I've worked in places where I was asked about my body. That's harassment," she says.

Gentili believes top priorities in helping to break the cycle of disadvantage for trans women of color are housing, education and employment. "Homelessness continues to be high," says Gentili. "Because of a history of mistreatment in shelters and housing options from the city, trans people prefer to couch surf or live on the streets and not access shelter services."

Even those privileged within the LGBTQ community might question how they can make a difference. Volunteering, advocacy or charitable donations can make a dent in what appears to be a catastrophic crisis.

"It's not one thing you can do one time," says Gentili. "I ask you to make a commitment, to sol-idly continue to make an effort that is lasting. Because change doesn't happen with one action. Change happens through a process that takes time. We need people to be our allies in the long run."

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.