Brianna Ghey’s Murderers Have Received Life Sentences — Is That Justice?

Feature image from a vigil for Brianna Ghey by Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Last week, British publications like The Telegraph and BBC and American publications like The New York Times reported on the life sentences of the two cis teenagers who murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey.

They wrote about how the cis girl was motivated by a fascination with murder and the cis boy was motivated by transphobia. They wrote about how Ghey was eager for friendship and trusted these kids who used her for their bigotries and fantasies.

As I read about the incarceration of these two teenagers, I thought about Gwénola Ricordeau’s Free Them All: A Feminist Call to Abolish the Justice System. I specifically thought of when she wrote: “I do not wish to turn the non-use of the criminal justice system into a matter of principle.”

She goes on to explain that to critique individuals for utilizing the criminal justice system in the absence of alternatives is to prioritize theory over practice. “The criminal system is, in my view, a collective failure, which must be grasped in order to reflect on collective solutions,” she writes.

My internal conflict over the incarceration of these teenagers was a theoretical dilemma. I hope it brings Ghey’s family peace. I fear the violence these individuals will cause toward other incarcerated individuals. I know there is no effective “solution” given the current limitations of the UK justice system and our cultures’ views on justice in general.

But more than anything I feel the futility. The murder has already occurred. No punishment of her murderers will bring Brianna Ghey back. And if the primary goal for incarceration is to prevent future violence, there are greater culprits to fear.

It’s possible — nay, essential — to mourn the death of Brianna Ghey while also acknowledging that most violence against trans teenagers occurs under different circumstances. Most trans teenagers who face violence do so after being kicked out of their homes or within abusive homes; most trans teenagers who are killed die by suicide. This case is unique. It holds within its narrative the type of violence that draws people toward serial killer stories. It’s a violence fetishized by the same media that perpetuates those other types of violence experienced by trans youth every day.

This past weekend, the weekend after Ghey’s murderers were convicted, The New York Times published its latest anti-trans op-ed. “As Kids, They Thought They Were Trans. They No Longer Do.” by Pamela Paul follows the usual beats of this kind of piece already found in The New York Times. There’s a suggestion that this is an issue with two reasonable sides, “false” transitions are framed as an epidemic, and the care needed to keep trans kids alive is questioned. Similar articles are regularly published in UK press. Articles from The New York Times have been cited as Republican politicians introduce anti-trans legislation.

While a line can be drawn between this culture of transphobia and the killing of Brianna Ghey, I’m hesitant to directly blame anyone other than the two teenagers who carried out this violent act. But it’s worth questioning why, as a society, we prioritize punishing individuals over changing the beliefs that lead to crime. Even after these two individuals are incarcerated, the primary issue remains the anti-trans rhetoric and anti-trans laws that propagate isolated extreme acts of violence such as this one and day-to-day suffering that can lead to suicide.

The truest form of justice is prevention. Once a child has been killed — by someone else or by themself — any justice will always be insufficient.

We won’t ever be able to erase all violence or all bigotry, but we can look to who holds the most power and who creates the most harm. This is the collective justice work that must occur. I believe we must build a society that creates alternatives to incarceration in response to violent crimes. But I also believe conversations about what to do after these acts occur can pull focus from their causes and the causes of suffering pervasive in our societies.

Brianna Ghey should still be alive. The press that reported on her murder should stop villainizing the trans kids who are still here. Future generations of trans kids shouldn’t have to face this same cruelty. Brianna Ghey should still be alive. That would be the only justice. Brianna Ghey should still be alive.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 553 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for this piece. I feel your pain, but overall, I find this attitude naive.

    There will, unfortunately, always be violence and other crime in our society; it’s a fact of life that we must contend with. Appropriate punishments must be meted out in the interests of deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, or some combination thereof. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. (I’m open to the idea that incarceration is overused and ultimately does more harm than good in many instances, but I am opposed to universal prison abolition.)

    Even if we were to rid the world of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and racism, men of similar ethnic and class backgrounds would still keep killing each other. They represent the overwhelming majority of murderers and victims.

    I do think that education will lead to a reduction in bigotry, but it will never get rid of it completely. Even without bigotry, people commit crimes out of desperation, greed, anger, and probably other motivations I can’t think of at the moment. I googled someone’s name today and accidentally came upon the grave of a girl my age who died 18 years ago at the age of 20; I clicked, only to discover that she had been shot in the head by her boyfriend at her job. I don’t think the boyfriend was the spawn of Satan — I don’t believe in Satan. I believe that he, like all people, is theoretically capable rehabilitation and remorse. But I’m not going to support the destruction of societal structures that protect the vulnerable among us from those who wish to do us harm.

    I will finally point you to statistics around violence against women in Mexico: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_against_women_in_Mexico

    The lack of punishment reflects a societal indifference to the value of women’s lives. The same could be said of transphobic crimes that go uninvestigated, unsolved, unpunished. It’s a necessary evil, perhaps, but punishing wrongdoers is society’s way of recognizing the value of the person harmed.

    I realize it’s de rigueur in some circles these days to explain away the impulse behind certain criminal actions, to view the incarcerated as victims of an oppressive government. And that’s not entirely wrong. But it’s not the full picture.

    • you may find this attitude naive, but tbqh i think your attitude lacks creativity and understanding and even a small shred of interest in the potential of new solutions that could actually be effective.

      • I’m actually very open-minded about alternatives to incarceration for many crimes, especially for people with drug addiction or other mental health problems. I’m doubtful when it comes to violent offenders, like the ones listed above.

        What do we do with violent people who remain threats to a community? Aside from banishment or death, I’m not aware of any alternatives that don’t put innocent people at risk.

  2. While i was surprised by such a high sentence for teenagers, which would not happen in other European countries, it seems like it also reflects the intention of the judge to deter transphobic crimes within the current transphobic climate in the UK. And it might well have that effect and prevent lesser transphobic crimes, specifically among teenagers. It might also have been that high to deter from copycat crimes.
    By viewing society or the state as monolithic, this nuance of the judge’s intention gets lost. Here is a judge who is trying to make a difference within her capabilities. Society, even the state, is always the amalgamum of many actions and opposing striving.
    Importantly, she also publicly stressed that one of the motives was transphobia, something that the police denied.
    What was invisible from the case because the main perpetrator was female, was a common psychological or sexual aspect of transphobic crime, i.e. the fact that many trans women are attacked or killed by someone who is also attracted to them.
    The female perpetrator talked about being attracted to Brianna in a weird way. If she would have been a boy, this would have been a focus of the trial, but it was illegible to the public because she is a girl, possibly even to herself.
    I’m still waiting for society and feminism to grapple with this sexualized aspect of transphobia, both for male, and in this case female perpetrators.

    • So – under British law, life sentences are mandatory. While the judge has some discretion with minors, in this case, the murder was premeditated, a hate crime, particularly brutal, and the killers expressed no remorse. When arrested the teenage girl had a list of other people she wanted to murder.

      I also agree with you that the judge wanted to send a message, and I applaud that. Anti-trans hatred in the UK has been escalating year on year for close to a decade now, and so have hate crimes.

  3. I’m sorry but as a British person who has been following this case since it happened, this piece made me incredibly angry.

    Cheapening her life and murder by saying that people / the media are ‘fetishing’ it, in the ‘same way as serial killers’, is disgusting.

    You have no idea what Britain is like, and the fight her family and activists had to obtain justice for this little girl.

    I’m not hesitant to blame anyone else; Brianna was murdered because anti trans hatred and as a direct result, hate crimes, have been normalised in the UK. There is a direct correlation between the media campaign of hatred against trans people and year on year increases in material violence.

    Turning this into yet another vehicle and soapbox for Autostraddle’s anti-carceral politics is extremely disrespectful and incredibly upsetting.

    I’m not sure I can read this website anymore.

    • Could not agree with this comment more. There is nothing that makes changing policy or media mutually exclusive to appropriately safeguarding the public or punishing hate crime.

      Shortsighted.

  4. I’m glad to see other voices of reason on here. As someone who absolutely wants reform for the criminal justice system in much of the world, this is not the place and time to debate it. It’s insulting to Brianna and everyone who fought so hard to bring her justice. This isn’t a sociology class. She is not a case study. She deserved justice. I’m appalled that Autostraddle approved this article. Very much rethinking whether or not I want to support this site anymore. And to the author, please do some soul searching. The fact you made this girl’s horrific murder a facet in your self-serving rant about prison reform is shameful and quite frankly disturbing.

  5. Its crime and punishment, not crime and deterrents. Punishment is not ever meant to be a deterrent. Punishment never stops any crime from happening again. Everyone on planet Earth should know this. Those who think someday it might are living in a fantasy world. My cousin was murdered and they still have no leads. We will never get true justice for her here, but God will surely take care of that scum that murdered her.

  6. I think I get some of this? Like the average bigot isn’t going out to commit murder about it, but Joe or Jane Hate Crime isn’t formed in a vacuum – a person who’s already violent and prejudiced is going to have all of that compounded by living in a society where people are constantly working themselves up over how the minority group is scary and dangerous and subhuman and something should be done about it. And after a hate crime happens, people use it to redefine what counts as unacceptable levels of bigotry and exorcise their uncomfortable feelings about their own bias in a way that is not particularly productive – “Those murderers are ontologically evil and should probably get the chair! But also, we definitely need another article about detransitioners that doesn’t talk to a single person who realized they were doing it for kinda fucked up ex-gay reasons, which is fine because it’s not physically violent and definitely has no negative consequences.” Caring more about how to prevent the environments that create hate crimes than what to do with the people who’ve committed them is absolutely a good idea, and will have more of an affect on potential victims.

    I feel like it’s in bad taste to specifically try to have a moment about prison abolition right now, though, unless the victim was known to have strong feelings about that herself.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!