Texas Rep. Garnet F. Coleman has tried to change the state’s hate crime law every legislative session since 2007 to add protections for transgender people.
He had little hope that 2019 would be any different in the Republican-controlled legislature. But with more headlines drawing attention to violence against transgender people, it felt as urgent as ever to try, he said.
“If something’s right, you have to keep trying to do it until it gets done,” he said. “By filing these bills over the years, it gives people who are pro-LGBTQ rights something to organize around.”
One week before the bill’s supporters made their case to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on April 29, a mob yelling hateful slurs assaulted Muhlaysia Booker, a transgender African American woman in Dallas.
Nearly three weeks later, Booker was dead and Coleman’s bill had failed to make it out of committee.
Now that another transgender woman has been found dead in Dallas – the latest in a string of unsolved cases involving transgender victims – advocates say they see a cause-and-effect relationship between the violence and inertia from elected officials and law enforcement.
But action – or inaction – prompts reactions, Coleman said. And that’s what LGBTQ advocates say they are seeing now in Dallas.
Rep. Jessica González, a member of the jurisprudence committee and vice chair of the LGBTQ caucus in the House, co-authored the bill with Coleman.
“While it may seem like a small, procedural step, hearing Rep. Coleman’s bill was a meaningful leap forward in the struggle for transgender rights, recognition, and equality in Texas. Because of Rep. Coleman’s leadership, a committee heard testimony directly from trans Texans, including stories about fearing for their safety every day,” she said in a statement.
Two community meetings in one night
Community members had two meetings to choose from on Thursday night: one hosted by Dallas Police and another convened by members of Dallas’ black transgender community.
The second one was convened at the last minute after the discovery of Chynal Linsdey’s body in a lake on June 1, just two weeks after Booker’s death, said Carter Brown, founder of Black Transmen and a member of the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition.
Her death was the latest sign that transgender people can’t rely solely on authorities for safety or protection, he said.
“We’re spending our time and energy building the LGBTQ community at large in order to support transgender lives because the legal system and the criminal justice system are failing us.”
On Wednesday, the black transgender community gathered in a closed-door session to discuss their needs, Carter said.
On Thursday, representatives from a broader coalition of LGBTQ groups from across Dallas crammed into donated office space to listen and share ideas.
“After we buried Muhlaysia, I looked into the casket and that was the first time that I imagined and thought that could be me,” co-organizer Camarion Anderson of BTAC told the crowd.
“I believe we are in a position to come together as a community to combat some things that are overlooked.”
What the black transgender community needs to feel safe
Notes scribbled on a whiteboard under the heading “Black Trans Emergency Community Meeting” guided the conversation.
Transgender-friendly housing and medical resources, including counseling, emerged as short-term needs, along with jobs and help changing gender markers on identity documents.
One after another, volunteers offered help.
Reverend Dr. Neil G Cazares-Thomas, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope, where Booker’s funeral was held, offered housing for transgender youth.
Another person pledged to create a private Facebook group offering self-defense and shooting classes in response to comments that more transgender people were arming themselves to stay safe.
Mark Newman from Equality Texas offered Lyft codes of up to $10 dollars, although an audience member said drivers could pose be threat.
The meeting ran nearly two hours, but it’s just the start, said co-organizer Niecee X of Black Women’s Defense League.
“I feel empowered as a community to start to deal with our issues as a collective.”
Mieko Hicks attended both meetings. The Dallas Police meeting focused on a recent deadly shooting at a car wash, she said. The lack of discussion about the slayings of transgender women didn’t bother her as much as the stalled progress in those investigations.
“They want us to believe that they are going to protect us and that they are doing all that they can. But, there are people on the internet that know more about the case than you do,” she said. “So it is like, what are you really doing? Unless they become more transparent with us and start showing us more results, it is going to be what it is has always been.”
The ‘protocol’ of public mourning
Booker’s assault followed by her slaying prompted a cycle of rallies, vigils and forceful condemnations of the violence that befell her.
Brown said such gestures fall short of providing transgender people with measures that will protect them, such as updating the state’s hate crime law to include gender identity in the list of protected classes.
“It’s starting to feel like protocol to pacify community with a town hall, a few meetings, a few rallies,” he said. “But then at the end of the day, we are back where we started.”
In a Monday press conference announcing Lindsey’s death, Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall emphasized the department’s commitment to solving the cases in spite of limited resources. She asked the public for tips and said she has reached out to the FBI to see if federal hate crime charges are warranted.
“We are actively and aggressively investigating this case, and we have reached out to our federal partners to assist in these efforts.”
What changing the hate crime law would do
Texas is one of 13 states with hate crime laws that cover sexual orientation but not gender identity, according to the nonprofit think tank Movement Advancement Project.
The laws take different forms, but often, the laws bring enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes.
A change to the state hate crime law would send the message that Texas lawmakers value transgender lives, said Leslie McMurray, transgender education and advocacy coordinator for the LGBTQ-focused Resource Center in Dallas.
She was among those who testified in favor of Coleman’s bill. And she attended Booker’s funeral, where she was horrified to hear one proclamation after another from elected officials condemning Booker’s death.
“How many people have to die before they do something?” she said. “There are political messages that are being sent that transgender lives don’t matter.”
Those messages aren’t just coming from Texas, she said. She pointed to policies from the Trump administration, including the ban on military service for new transgender recruits and the repeal of anti-discrimination protections for the transgender community in health care and public housing.
Why transgender people are vulnerable to violence
These protections would help remove barriers that make transgender people vulerable to violence, said Ginger McMurray, director of the Dallas chapter of the international support group, Trans-Cendence.
Studies show that transgender people experience elevated levels of discrimination when they seek jobs or housing. The combination of housing insecurity and joblessness can lead to a cycle of poverty which drives some transgender people into illicit work, such as prostitution and the drug trade, which makes them more susceptible to violence, Ginger McMurray said.
While it’s not clear that these factors were involved in the cases of Booker, Lindsey or other unsolved homicides, she said their deaths should be a wake-up call to the wider world of the policy solutions that could make life easier for transgender people.
“We see and hear a lot when a crime happens, but outside of that, it’s crickets,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of finding who did it and keeping them from doing it again, it’s about providing resources and opportunities for us to live in peace.”
Texas lawmakers will reconvene for the legislative session in two years. And when they do, Coleman said he intends to refile the bill to amend the state hate crimes law.
He sees momentum building around the normalization of transgender lives in America, and he’s hopeful for the future.
“I feel like if you do nothing, you’re acquiescing to the people who don’t understand. And as generations go by, the level of understanding increases.”
Rep. González pledged to support his efforts.
“Dallas is experiencing a deeply disturbing trend. The threat of violence trans people face right now for simply existing is unimaginable. I am working with community partners to find ways to address this crisis right now, but going forward, adding gender identity to our hate crimes statutes is critical to making clear that trans lives matter.”
CNN’s LaRell Reynolds reported from Dallas and Emanuella Grinberg wrote and report this story in Atlanta.