March 18, 2011
Murders of Transgender Women of Color Fuel Concern, Advocacy
Joseph Erbentraut READ TIME: 4 MIN.
While some 500 miles separate Baltimore and Forrest City, Ark., the two cities are slightly closer today as transgender activists in both places continue to cope with the tragic loss of someone who called their community home.
The fact that both victims were trans women of color in their mid-20s paints a vivid, chilling picture of the struggles many encounter and the resilience they conjure in their efforts to live their lives openly as their true selves, inside and out.
Baltimore police currently have no suspects in Tyra Trent's death, but authorities have interviewed possible witnesses in their ongoing investigation. Trent, 25, was found asphyxiated in a vacant, city-owned building in northwest Baltimore on Feb. 19. She had been reported missing several days earlier.
Some 50 people attended a vigil organized by the trans advocacy organization Trans-United on Feb. 15. And according to the Baltimore Sun, Trent's mother was even in attendance. The newspaper reported she briefly addressed the crowd and thanked them for their support.
In Forrest City, the body of a second trans woman of color, Marcal Camero Tye, also 25, was found along a stretch of highway on March 8. Initial autopsy reports indicate Tye was shot in the head and likely dragged by a vehicle, either intentionally using ropes or chains or perhaps inadvertently.
Federal authorities continue to investigate Tye's murder because Arkansas does not have a trans-specific hate crimes law. No witnesses have yet to come forward, and there are no suspects.
Randi Romo, co-founder and executive director of the Little Rock-based Center for Artistic Revolution, said LGBT Arkansans are "terribly upset" over Tye's death. Francis County Sheriff Bobby May's assertion that her murder was the result of a routine homicide-and not a hate crime-further infuriated local activists.
May told a local public radio station that early reports of Tye being dragged by the car were "misleading". He referred to her with exclusively male pronouns, and suggested that Tye was likely involved in sex work at the time of her death. May said any claims of persecution against trans Arkansans was an inaccurate description.
Despite local authorities' apparent hesitancy to explore bias-related motivations behind the crime, Romo is confident the Federal Bureau of Investigation's efforts will bring more accurate details surrounding Tye's death to light. Romo hopes the murder will provide a much-needed opportunity to educate media, law enforcement and the general public about hate crimes.
"I think for this young woman to have lived openly the way she did in Forrest City is remarkable," said Romo, adding the example Tye set will inspire other LGBT Arkansans to come out of the closet and stand up against discrimination. "The [LGBT] community [here] has to stop being afraid and hiding and the community at large has to begin to understand the horrific damage being inflicted from the pulpits and government offices."
Moving beyond anti-trans murders is something with which Loree Cook-Daniels of the Milwaukee-based FORGE is all too familiar.
Police said Andrew Olaciregui murdered Chanel Larkin last May after he offered to pay her to perform a sexual act in his car. He reportedly shot her three times in the head after he found out she was trans. Olaciregui pleaded guilty in December to a reduced charge of second-degree homicide, and a judge sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
In response to Larkin's murder; FORGE launched a public awareness campaign, held a vigil, organized community meetings and helped her friends and family file victim impact statements with the court. FORGE has also begun work on a program designed to help trans people further their education and also network with potential employers who can help them avoid the often-dangerous underground work in which Larkin and others turn toward to survive.
"I'm hoping if we can pull it off, we can develop a template that other communities can use," said Cook-Daniels. "But it's going to be tough to get these women off the streets because the options they have, even in a decent economy, aren't too many."
Research heavily corroborates Cook-Daniels' assertion.
The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released last month, found rampant employment discrimination and disproportionate rates of homelessness, poverty and suicide attempts among trans people. Eleven percent of respondents and 44 percent of those who identified themselves as African American said they had engaged in sex work.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs' most recent report on anti-LGBT hate violence also indicated disproportionately high levels of anti-trans violence. Trans women-many of whom were of color-comprised half of the 22 reported anti-LGBT murders in 2009.
As a result of seemingly heightened awareness around these issues, Cook-Daniels hoped LGBT activists as a whole will actively "claim their victims" after Larkin's death and other moments of crisis.
"I think these really horrible crimes remind us what's at stake," she said. "A lot of these women are basically orphaned and nobody is saying this is my sister, literally or figuratively, and what we did as a community. We showed we care about Chanel, who she was and what her loss means; that this was a person who had a lot of value and we made a big deal of it."
Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.