For decades, every year she’s been active in the transgender community, Isa Noyola has attended a funeral for a friend.
As deputy director at the Transgender Law Center based in Oakland, California, she has met many community members who have the same experience. “Death, profound loss, the violence that surrounds us, it’s constant. It’s a significant part of my transgender experience.”
Despite an all-time high in trans-visibility, with celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox now mainstream media stars, violence against the community is getting worse, community advocates say.
“You have this incredible pivotal moment of media visibility with pop culture, but it comes without education and deeper learning about the transgender community,” Noyola said. “Too many places remain unsafe.”
More than two dozen transgender people were killed last year, according to information gathered by CNN, the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group.
It’s impossible to know an exact count. Federal statistics are limited. There’s also “serious under-reporting,” according to the Williams Institute, a public policy think tank focused on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Another issue is that police, media and even family members will often misgender the victims, describing the person using the name and gender with which they did not identify. Of the 28 victims CNN found, the majority were misgendered initially, and in some cases, police and media continue to do so.
It was the second year in a row that more than two dozen members of the trans community were known to have been killed; 2017 was the deadliest on record. At least 29 transgender people were killed in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign. By the group’s calculations, there have been 128 killings of trans people in 87 cities across 32 states since 2013, of whom 80% were people of color.
All but one of the victims in 2018 were trans women, and all but one were people of color. That trend has been consistent for years.
“Transgender people, unfortunately, are at risk of violence everywhere,” said Beverly Tillery, program executive director with the New York City Anti-Violence Project whose National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has been tracking violence against the LGBTQ community since 1996.
The LGBTQ community is much more likely to be violently attacked than any other marginalized group in the United States, says the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that specializes in civil rights and public interest litigation. The transgender community appears especially vulnerable.
“When there is a mix of misogyny, transphobia and racism, people who live in the intersection of multiple identities, the violence they face can be inflamed by the multiplying prejudices,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and author of “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality.”
“While there certainly are examples of individuals killed by people they know, including partners, many of the transgender people who have been killed are murdered by almost complete strangers,” McBride said. “More people need to understand this epidemic of violence targeting marginalized people in this country, including transgender people, is hate-based and a byproduct of existing prejudice inflamed by politicians all too eager to appeal to the darker undercurrent of society.”
Eighteen of these known victims were shot. Four were stabbed. The homes of two victims were set on fire while they were still in them. Four were beaten to death.
Eighteen of the cases remain unsolved.
The victims range in age from 18 to 54. Eleven of the 28 victims were under the age of 30. Police found the youngest, Vontashia Bell, 18, lying in the street in Shreveport, Louisiana, in August, shot in the chest and wrist. She loved video games and was a self-described geek, according to her social media profile. Her case remains unsolved.
The oldest victim, Keisha Wells, 54, was shot in the stomach in June. She had a reputation for making everyone laugh and for spoiling her nieces and nephews. She was the second trans woman killed in Cleveland in 2018, and her case remains open.
On September 5, police found Shantee Tucker shot in the back along Old York Road in Philadelphia. According her Facebook memory page, she had just celebrated her 30th birthday. Months after she died, friends continue to post photos and messages of grief. The images show a joyful woman dancing and posing with friends. Her case remains open.
Diamond Stephens, 39, was shot in the back of the head, killed while driving home to get ready for work in Meridian, Mississippi, in June, according to CNN affiliate WTOK. Police had been called to the scene of a van crash and found her inside. Her case also remains unsolved.
The most recent victim, Kelly Stough, who also went by the name Keanna Mattel, 36, sang in her church choir in Detroit and was an aspiring fashion designer. In 2015, she spoke out against the way police handled violence against the transgender community. Police found her shot to death December 7. The prosecutor’s office said it will present evidence that the murder was a hate crime against transgender people. Police arrested a local minister, Albert Weathers. Weathers’ lawyer told local television affiliates that his client maintains his innocence.
Is a serial killer in Florida targeting trans women?
Five trans women were killed in Florida in 2018, according to Equality Florida. Three victims were in Jacksonville, one in Orlando and one in North Port.
“Each one was somewhat similar: All were trans women of color, in their 20s to mid-30s. And there were some patterns: Each was shot, usually in the early hours of the morning, and their bodies were left in isolated areas to be found the next day,” said Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s director of transgender equality. Some community members remain scared that there someone is targeting transgender women. “While there are similarities, law enforcement in Orlando and Jacksonville continue to insist that this is not a serial killer.”
Some members of the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee said they remained concerned for their own safety. The cases continue to be active investigations.
“The cycle of violence against the community has become too normalized,” said Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of Equality Florida. “We go through the same cycle of horror, anger, grief, vigil, dehumanizing of the victim, and then the next one happens, and no one is shocked. We should be shocked. These should be rare and seen as a community-wide problem.”
Vulnerable to violence
“Trans people face an alarming rate of violence in general,” said Jody Herman, who worked on the 2015 US Transgender Survey and now works with the Williams Institute. The survey found that violence is not confined to murder.
Half of the nearly 28,000 transgender people surveyed experienced some form of intimate partner violence. At least 10% experienced violence at the hands of family members after they told them they were transgender, and 9% said they had been physically attacked for being transgender in the year before they took the survey; 10% were sexually assaulted in the same time period.
The root of instability
“We are oftentimes rejected by family. Turned away by the homeless shelter. Can’t get jobs. Are not accepted at school or at church,” said the Transgender Law Center’s Noyola. “We remain vulnerable and often remain in survival mode. Too many people want to cause harm and think they will get away with it.”
When people are denied equal opportunity for justice, jobs, education and health care, studies show, they are at a much higher risk for violence.
For example, 30% of transgender employees report that they have been fired, denied a promotion or mistreated at work due to their gender identity, according to the 2015 Transgender Survey. Their unemployment rate is three times higher for transgender people than the general population, and 42% report having been homeless at some point – more than five times the rate of the general population.
Without jobs, some transgender people have to turn to the “underground economy.” Sex workers are three times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence, studies show. The Human Rights Campaign estimates that one in three transgender victims of fatal violence was engaged in sex work.
FBI statistics show that hate crimes against all groups in 2017 were up 17% from the previous year, and 106 of those incidents targeted transgender people. That’s a 1% increase from the year before, according to the Human Rights Campaign, but those numbers probably don’t reflect the actual crimes. FBI statistics rely on reporting from local law enforcement, and in addition to the misgendering of victims, many victims avoid reporting incidents. The 2015 transgender survey found that 67% of black transgender respondents feel “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable” asking police for help.
Activists say anti-trans rhetoric stigmatizes the community and raises the risk of violence. There were 21 bills to restrict trans rights introduced in 10 states in 2018, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. At the national level, the Trump administration suggested several ways in which it intended to roll back Obama-era protections.
Tillery, of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, feels that Trump has created a “really scary time for the whole LGBTQ community.”
“Every week, there is another news event that is equally triggering and terrifying, that leaves people not knowing where they can be safe. They are left with an uncertain future in this country,” Tillery said. “When you dehumanize people and try to erase them completely from existence, it emboldens those who hate this community, and no one is really stopping them, aside from the community rising up.”
The community rises
The Fair Michigan Justice Project is working on the case involving the December killing of Mattel in Detroit. The program is a collaborative project with the prosecutor’s office. It helps to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and helps transgender crime survivors navigate the criminal process. The group also created guidelines for police and prosecutor interaction with transgender crime victims.
“Detroit made this program because too many people have been raped and murdered, and none of those were investigated or solved. There were so many times victims were misgendered or shown a lack of respect,” said Julisa Abad, the program’s director of transgender outreach and advocacy. “If people in authority don’t show respect, my community is not going to report a crime, and in turn, violent hate crime continues. When you know you will have a prosecutor that will fight for you, the system works.”
Equality Florida put its transgender inclusion initiative to work in Jacksonville. After the third slaying there, the community requested a town hall with law enforcement.
“The community was fearful of their lives and concerned that they were not being adequately protected and treated as equal citizens,” Duncan said. The sheriff’s office created a task force and named an LGBTQ community liaison. Equality Florida has also been training law enforcement on how to better work with the community.
“It’s important to determine how we can get at the root cause of this and what is putting our community in harms way,” Duncan said. “We definitely saw a gap in the cultural competency of law enforcement. Work with the community has improved matters, but there’s still much work to be done.”
“There hasn’t been enough general outrage about the number of murders of our community,” Duncan said.
The Human Rights Campaign will continue to encourage Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and the jury system.
“We need to address the root factors. Being likely to face violence has a direct relationship to the problems the transgender community has with employment, housing and other places where there is discrimination,” the campaign’s McBride said.
Tillery said violence has galvanized the community.
“There is more mobilization happening, and trans folks are finding each other and working together,” Tillery said. “The community is resilient, and we see grass-roots efforts like groups that are literally going door-to-door checking on people. We are at a place right now where you could be on your way to work and not know whether you are going to come back.”
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Behind these efforts, death remains a motivator.
“In of the first community spaces where we started a program for trans Latinas, at the heart of it, we have an altar. And on it are all our community members we’ve lost,” Noyola said. “We keep that in the middle of our space as a reminder of what is at stake and why we must continue doing this important work.”
CNN’s Naomi Thomas contributed to this report.