US transgender people solemnly mark a deadly year

On Transgender Day of Remembrance, rights advocates honor those killed, call for congressional action

Anti-transgender violence has killed at least 21 people across the United States in 2015, according to rights activists who gathered on Friday to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, in which the trans community honors it members killed in acts of violence.

Friday’s scheduled events included vigils, marches and rallies in cities across the globe — all aimed at not only mourning the dead, but also at raising awareness about the violence targeting transgender people.

Rights advocates say trans women of color represent a majority of the U.S. victims of fatal anti-transgender violence in 2015. They include Shade Shuler, a 22-year-old black trans woman from Dallas whose body was so decomposed when area police found her in a vacant field in August that they had difficulty determining her race.

Weeks earlier, in late July, India Clarke — also a black transgender woman — was found beaten to death in a park in Tampa, Florida. Two days later, another African-American trans woman named K.C. Haggard was stabbed to death while she was walking down a street in Fresno, California.

“It’s been a traumatic year for most trans people,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality based in Washington, D.C. “There have been so many deaths. We’ve had several weekends or weeks where there’ve been two, three, four murders.”

The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was spearheaded in San Francisco in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a trans woman who wanted to honor Rita Hester, a transgender woman from Boston who was murdered in her apartment the previous year.

Since then, the remembrance day has spread across the world.

For Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the TransWomen of Color Collective, also based in Washington, the day is about more than remembrance — it’s about engaging in discussions about the discrimination trans people face when seeking housing, jobs, education and health care.

“It’s more than just naming names. It’s more than just lighting candles,” said Hunter, who is also chief operations officer of Casa Ruby, a Washington, D.C. LGBT community center that offers support groups and legal services to area residents. “Trans people are still dying in the streets and being denied opportunities.”

Fifteen percent of the trans population lives in extreme poverty, surviving on incomes of less than $10,000 a year, according to an April report from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Center for American Progress. But such poverty is more common among trans people of color, the researchers found — 28 percent of Latino trans people, 34 percent of black trans people and 23 percent of Native American trans people have annual household incomes under $10,000.

Experts say such poverty is often caused by discrimination that makes it difficult for transgender people to secure jobs, and forces them to turn to illegal activities or sex work. That, in turn, can put them in danger of violence, said Hunter, who identifies as transgender.

“We know the violence we experience is due to disparities in access to jobs, housing and education … which puts us at risk of engaging in criminalized activity that places us at greater risk of violence,” Hunter said.

Jay Brown, director of research and public education at Washington, D.C.-based LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said that while he lauds the increased visibility and awareness of transgender issues in the past year, anti-trans violence has been as brutal and frequent as ever.

“Some people say there’s no answer for this,” said Brown, who is transgender. “But there are answers. It’s about ensuring that there’s housing stability for people, that people can find jobs and keep employment when they transition, and that kids aren’t getting kicked out of their homes for who they are.”

Policymakers appear to be getting the message. The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, formed in 2008, announced last week that it would launch a transgender equality task force to be chaired by Rep. Mike Honda, D-California, to develop legislation that will address anti-trans discrimination.

On Tuesday, LaLa Zannell, an organizer at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, testified in front of a congressional forum held by the Equality Caucus to discuss anti-transgender violence.

“Hate crime prosecution will only go so far,” Zannell said. “Putting someone in jail in Los Angeles for a hate crime is not going to stop a transgender woman from being killed in Philadelphia. Housing and a job might.”

But on Friday, Keisling, for her part, prefers to focus on remembering the trans people who were killed. “Instead of people saying, ‘I don’t understand these [transgender] folks, I‘m going to learn more,’ somebody said, ‘I don’t understand these folks, I’m going to kill them,’” she said. “To me, that’s what this is about — trying to get that to stop, and trying to remember the people we weren’t able to help.”

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