Today is Transgender Day of Visibility, a noble effort to add media attention to positive, affirming representations of transgender people, who often are recognized only upon our deaths in mass media.
This year, we already have reports of the homicide deaths of at least eight trans people in the United States. For the last three years, various mass media outlets have claimed each year as the “deadliest year on record” for trans people.
A recent article by them, reporting on a newly-released report by GLAAD, has begun to address the problematic nature of “deadliest year” claims. Both the report and them’s article mention the unintended consequences of sensationalist reporting on trans homicide and call for more accurate, compassionate reporting. But they also repeat some of the same language about trans death, and seem to call for more (though, admittedly, different) media emphasis on trans murder rates.
Most media outlets take it as a foregone conclusion that trans people are facing an “epidemic” of homicide. But are we really? And more importantly, does this emphasis on homicide do more harm than good?
Autostraddle, like many other media outlets, keep running lists of trans murders every year. This seemingly important media strategy has been growing in prominence in recent years, though it has been happening in a consistent and dedicated way since the inaugural Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999. This type of coverage attempts to make a kind of record of our lives because the State doesn’t keep accurate or affirming statistics; gives victims of violence some semblance of dignity since mainstream media so often mishandles our deaths; allows friends, family, and the community the ability to mourn; advocates for criminal justice investigation into murders that often remain unsolved; and, through keeping statistics, makes a political point.
Few dispute that transgender people, and trans women of color in particular, face heightened levels of violence compared to our cis peers. Some media pieces, like this New York Times article, give lip service to the fact that trans people experience a wide spectrum of institutional and interpersonal violence: “Advocates say the violence is inseparable from the social climate: that anti-transgender violence and anti-transgender laws — like so-called bathroom bills…” as well as other issues such as the dismantling of workplace protections “…are outgrowths of the same prejudice” that leads to murder. But the bulk of the article is about murder, as is most mainstream media coverage of trans people.
What is the impact of this overwhelming focus on murder? Are mainstream media outlets that only seem to report on us when we’ve passed, that sensationalize our deaths — without deep investigation into the nuances or the spectra of violence that trans people, and trans women, in particular, face — doing us a disservice? Is there a deeper, more accurate story to be told when we talk about violence against trans people?
Are trans people murdered at higher rates?
It has become conventional wisdom that trans people are murdered at higher rates than cis people. But like most conventional wisdom, it may not actually be true. Many other trans statistics have been debunked, like the oft-repeated “trans women have a life expectancy of 35” or “1 in 12 trans women will be murdered in her lifetime.” The only media outlets that seem to want to break the mainstream narrative about how precarious life is for trans women of color in the United States, unfortunately, are far-right, conservative, anti-LGBTQ and/or TERF sites. According to The Federalist, a terrible, far-right blog that you shouldn’t generally ever read at all:
“After researching the known 28 cases [in 2017], it becomes clear that these individuals are the victims of robberies, domestic violence, police use of lethal force, sex work, and drugs or random acts of violence rather than targeted anti-LGBT motivation. In fact, not a single case listed in 2017 can be directly linked to the victim’s gender identity. The most brutal murders were committed by partners or other people the victim knew personally. Others remain unsolved with no indication of a motive.”
While The Federalist obviously has an anti-trans axe to grind, they kind of have a point here. It’s very difficult to determine why people are murdered, and immediately claiming that any trans murder victim was murdered because of their trans identity is reductive and, honestly, essentializing. While I dispute the Federalist’s claim that “not a single case in 2017 can be directly linked to the victim’s gender identity,” it’s clear that we can’t say that all of the trans victims of murder were targeted because they were trans.
Even if you dispute this — even if all of the 28 reported trans people murdered last year were victims of anti-trans violence — would we still classify anti-trans murder an “epidemic?”
Because of misgendering, inaccurate census data, differences in how people define trans identity, and a host of other issues, even knowing how many trans people exist in the United States is difficult. The best estimates we have are about 0.6 to 3% of Americans, or between 1.4 and 9 million people, identify as transgender. The vast differences in estimates are representative of these kinds of statistics — how do you define “trans?” Some surveys group non-binary people with binary-identified trans people, some don’t. Some only count adults, while other surveys show that more young people identify as trans than ever before. The actual number is likely closer to the higher end because these types of surveys tend to under-report marginalized identities for obvious reasons. Because of the same demographic difficulty — especially the misgendering of murder victims by law enforcement — it’s impossible to know how many trans people were actually murdered in 2017, though there were 28 “reported cases.” But for the purposes of doing some data analysis, let’s use these numbers to find an estimate of a national trans murder rate.
The national murder rate is about 0.005%. In comparison, 28 trans people out of 1.4 million is 0.002% while 28 trans people out of 9 million is about 0.0003% — both well under the national murder rate.
Black people make up less than 15% of the U.S. population, but account for over 50% of all homicides. Likewise, black trans people — primarily black trans women — are vastly overrepresented among trans murder victims.
Of course, these numbers obfuscate the differences in homicide rates between marginalized groups. Black people make up less than 15% of the U.S. population, but account for over 50% of all homicides. Likewise, black trans people — primarily black trans women — are vastly overrepresented among trans murder victims.
So, the statistics, and our analysis, have to shift as we control more specifically for certain variables. According to Mic’s Unerased database, 75% of trans murder victims in the last 8 years were black women and femmes.
According to the Williams institute, about 16% of trans people in the US are black. I couldn’t find a source to determine conclusively how many black trans people in the U.S. are women. But whatever percentage of U.S. trans people are black women — and it’s somewhere under 16% — coupled with the fact that they make up 75% of trans murder victims is staggering.
That being said, black women in general face higher rates of violence and homicide than non-black women — the national homicide rate for women is about 0.002%, while for black women it’s more than double that. Black women also face higher rates of intimate partner violence — up to 35% higher than white women — and over half of black women murdered die at the hands of intimate partners. The statistics are similar — though, clearly, elevated — for black trans women.
What are we to make of this data? First, being more explicit, accurate, and intentional in our reporting and data collection is essential; there was data I simply could not find.
Second, it’s clear that transgender people, in general and as a whole, are not facing an epidemic of homicide. If there is an epidemic of trans murder — and again, according to the data, this is very difficult to confirm, and previous long-held “truths” about trans people have been debunked with better data collection — it is an epidemic that specifically targets black trans women.
But it’s very difficult to determine the motivation for a murder. Because of the impacts of racism, sexism, and transphobia, black trans women are subject to violence throughout our lives, on a spectrum from microinvalidations to homicide.
What is Violence?
It is incredibly important here to note that we need to expand our understanding of the term “violence.” Just because we aren’t, according to this data, technically facing an “epidemic” of homicides like the mainstream media has been claiming, doesn’t mean we don’t face disproportionate amounts of violence. It doesn’t mean that the people killed weren’t family and shouldn’t be remembered. They should be mourned. But if we are going to mourn our lost siblings, family and community members publicly, we need to do right by our community and contextualize their deaths with accuracy and intention.
Trans people, and trans women of color especially, do face an epidemic of violence, but murder is just the end of a spectrum that begins when we are very young and affects us throughout our entire lives.
Trans people, and trans women of color especially, do face an epidemic of violence, but murder is just the end of a spectrum that begins when we are very young and affects us throughout our entire lives. To simply focus on the end, on the final act of violence, does a disservice to the discrimination and marginalization — the violence — that trans people conclusively face at disproportionate rates.
We face institutional, interpersonal, and ideological violence every day of our lives. When we are children we are pressured to conform to mainstream gender roles, or face policing from our families and peers. Whether that leads to being kicked out of our homes, or being forced to conform to uncomfortable norms while remaining housed, that policing is violent.
In school, we face bullying from peers, school administration, and teachers. In my previous life as a high school teacher, I have witnessed a teacher tease a young man for wearing a jacket with a flower on it. I’ve heard principals tell students to “man up” when they reported bullying. In Oakland while I was teaching (at a different school), an agender student was literally set on fire by other students. All of this is violent.
If we are able to access housing, we can be evicted because we are trans. If we are forced out of schools or homes, we make our way on the streets. Just walking to the corner store we face aggressive, trans antagonistic catcalls. When strange men are attracted to, then clock us, they often take it as a personal affront and want revenge. “Watch out for dick and balls!” yelled one man recently, outside of the corner store I was entering to the men inside, apparently warning them to put a preemptive hold on any attraction they might have had toward me. I know multiple trans women in unstable housing situations who have slept in parks or on benches and were raped in the middle of the night. This is obviously violent.
We are fired from jobs for transitioning or don’t get jobs in the first place because we “don’t fit the culture” or “disrupt the team.” As such we are forced to engage in street economics such as sex work or drug sales, both of which have the potential to be incredibly violent. If, because we are often forced into street economics, we get caught up in the criminal justice system, we are often brutalized behind bars in horrifyingly violent ways.
If we attempt to access health care, we are mistreated, misgendered, and marginalized. Every time I went to the doctor last year, I was classified as an “MSM” and asked how many times — not whether — I had engaged in unprotected sex with men since my last visit (though I’d made it clear, every single time, that I am not a man, that I don’t have sex with men, and even if I did, it was always protected). This is violent.
When we try to find love, we face increased rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) including physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, financial violence, and stalking.
In the mainstream media, celebrities make jokes about our murders or our insanity, we are the butts of jokes on TV sitcoms and in board games, we are the “gotcha” moments of gritty movies, and we are constantly reminded on social media that we are completely misunderstood. This is violent.
The federal government does not want to protect us from job discrimination, does not want us to have public or in-school bathroom accessibility, and does not want doctors or nurses to be required to treat us in life-threatening circumstances. This is violent.
If we could have safe, discrimination-free access to housing, jobs, health care and/or education, if the government would validate that we have a right to exist in public, it would greatly reduce the violence that we face.
When the vast majority of news coverage about trans people is of our homicides, we often forget about all of the everyday violence that trans people face, which actually affects our quality of life much more. If we could have safe, discrimination-free access to housing, jobs, health care and/or education, if the government would validate that we have a right to exist in public, it would greatly reduce the violence that we face.
This is important because, when it comes to homicide, there isn’t much that supporters can do other than mourn. Murder is already illegal. But much of the everyday violence we experience as trans people occurs in a legal gray area. Laws that are not enforced, don’t exist, or in the current administration, are being rolled back, can be changed or expanded, and representatives that we elect can do much to address this. Interpersonal and ideological violence can shift as we advocate with our friends, family, and peers, as we donate to folks’ fundraisers and to organizations working with and for trans people, as we wield our privilege to support our trans family. But what can we do about murders other than be shocked into turbid lethargy? Is it even useful for cis supporters to read consistently updated reports of trans homicides?
Does this overemphasis on the most sensational aspect of violence that trans women of color face — and ignorance of the everyday violence and discrimination that we face — help? Or is it doing more harm than good?
Collateral Impact of Homicide Focus
Not only is the focus on homicide inaccurate, and obfuscates the quotidian violence trans people face, it also has a discernible negative social and psychological impact. When we constantly see headlines about trans homicide, when those statistics consistently float around about how inevitable our murders are, when the media makes it out to seem like there’s danger lurking around every corner, as every year keeps being more and more dangerous for trans women in America, it affects us and it affects the way cis people understand us.
One of the effects of the prevalence of this type of reporting is a sort of “inevitability numbness” that actually retards efforts to reduce violence against trans people.
For example: the Earth either is or isn’t dangerously close to a “sixth mass extinction,” based on human activity that contributes to climate change, and depending on who you ask, it may be too late to do anything about it. Why do some people care and some don’t? According to climate scientist Michael Mann, quoted in The Verge:
“[T]here is… a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”
In other words, when something appears inevitable, working to prevent it becomes less compelling than attempting to mitigate its effects, or denying it completely to save oneself the mental distress of comprehending it. When the only reporting we hear about trans people is that we are doomed to be brutally murdered, this inevitability numbness can take hold and actually work against creating the political will to actually do anything about it.
When we consistently hear that venturing into public will likely result in our deaths, many of us tend to limit our existence in the public sphere.
As Laverne Cox has so expertly made clear, much of the violence and discrimination we face is “about us existing in public space.” When we consistently hear that venturing into public will likely result in our deaths, many of us tend to limit our existence in the public sphere. This contributes to the silencing of our voices, the curtailing of our visibility, and contributes to our “other”ness and marginalization. Am I a homebody and an introvert because that’s just my personality, or is much of it related to a fear of existing in public, exacerbated by the media emphasis on how dangerous my existence is?
Another impact of this emphasis? It’s depressing.
Though homicide is not necessarily an epidemic for all trans people, suicide definitely is. Over 40% of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their lives — 10 to 20 times the rate of the general population. Though mental illnesses, particularly depression, are elevated among trans people, the discrimination we face is much more directly correlated with suicidality. According to the Williams Institute report, “mental health factors and experiences of harassment, discrimination, violence and rejection may interact to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.”
The report goes on to note that trans people of color, people without jobs or on disability, with lower educational attainment, and with low incomes all had elevated suicide attempt rates. Given that trans people face persistent discrimination in all of these areas, and have a harder time accessing mental health care, on top of the anti-trans violence and discrimination that I mentioned earlier, this makes perfect sense.
Further elucidating this point is this study, which tracked a few dozen very young (ages 3 to 12) trans youth who were mostly white, wealthy, had family and community support, had not yet reached puberty, and existed in the safe, supportive bubbles of families that affirmed their identities, and have lived without the struggles of navigating institutions, housing, work, or other factors that affect older or less-supported trans people:
“Socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety, suggesting that psychopathology is not inevitable within this group.”
The implication is clear: without anti-trans institutional and interpersonal discrimination, we aren’t more depressed than cis people. Discrimination is killing us, but not just via homicide — via suicide. If there’s any epidemic affecting trans people’s lives — and in which we can actually do something — it’s the trans suicide epidemic.
Discrimination is killing us, but not just via homicide — via suicide.
I personally know a handful of trans people who have attempted or successfully completed suicide, at least three people just in the Bay Area so far in 2018. They won’t make the annual roundups of murder victims, but their deaths were arguably more preventable. Almost every trans person I know has at least contemplated the idea of suicide. I spent time in a psych ward in 2016 after a (thankfully unsuccessful) suicide attempt. In every single instance, the prevalence of discrimination in our lives, coupled with the seeming inevitability of this discrimination, was a primary factor leading to the hopelessness that preceded the attempts.
How Do We Shift the Narrative?
Whether transantagonistic homicide is an epidemic or not, the over-emphasis on it when discussing violence against trans people is clearly not doing us any favors. So what can we do? How do we shift the narrative? Remembering and mourning our dead is essential; Trans Day Of Remembrance is not necessarily the issue.
On this Trans Day of Visibility, how do we acknowledge that black trans women face disproportionate violence at all levels of society, including when compared to other trans people? How do we square the idea that there isn’t necessarily a trans murder epidemic, but there is a trans suicide epidemic? How do we recognize and celebrate the lives of trans people who have passed without sensationalizing their deaths and thus traumatizing those of us who remain? How do we resist “inevitability numbness?”
First, we can be more accurate in our reporting. We need to be clear that black women are specifically facing epidemic levels of homicide and that black trans women’s positionally exacerbates this. We can obviously stop sharing long-debunked statistics about trans women’s life expectancies, but the statement that trans people in general are facing epidemic levels of homicide is a similarly unfounded assertion. The work we do in our own lives and communities to combat anti-black racism and misogynoir is essential if we care about reducing trans murder; racism, sexism, and transantagonism are interconnected and perpetuate each other.
We can support anti-racist organizations, get involved with Black Lives Matter movements, donate to and lift up the black trans women in our own cities and towns. Organizations like BreakOUT!, a youth-led organizing collective working to resist the criminalization of queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth of color in New Orleans, have for years changed the “R” in Transgender Day of Remembrance to mean Resistance, Resilience, and Reinvestment as well. They launched the “Give Us Our Roses While We’re Still Here” campaign and #giveusourroses hashtag, which emphasized that issues like jobs, housing, and education are much more pressing and necessary to reducing violence and improving the lives of trans people of color than focusing on death. Their platform has been, since then, “Don’t just mourn—fight for trans lives!” Supporting organizations like BreakOUT! is crucial.
Their work highlights the need to contextualize violence against trans women — we are made more vulnerable to homicide because of the everyday violence and discrimination we face, often at the hands of peers and co-workers, and often due to the inaction of loved ones and friends.
Their work highlights the need to contextualize violence against trans women — we are made more vulnerable to homicide because of the everyday violence and discrimination we face, often at the hands of peers and co-workers, and often due to the inaction of loved ones and friends. A wave of political activism has arisen out of the fallout from our 45th president’s administration. Is getting involved in politics or supporting a candidate running for office — who has defined positions on combating everyday violence against trans people (preferably in ways that don’t increase or perpetuate state violence against us like hate crimes laws or increased police surveillance) — something you can do?
Second, we can shine a light on a definite, and often underreported, epidemic — trans suicide. While the vulnerability of young trans people to suicide has been discussed in mass media, it affects all of us, throughout our lives. Friends, allies, and loved ones of trans people can do much better to make it known to us that they’re here for us, willing to listen and do emotional labor, willing to assist us in accessing mental health services. Allies and supporters can do practical, everyday things like see if we need accompaniment (to the gym or to doctor and court appointments, for example), accountability checks (especially late at night or when you know we’re going through it), can check the degree to which we congratulate trans people on their “strength” for simply existing, and instead make an effort to recognize our vulnerability, tenderness, and frailty.
At present there doesn’t seem to exist a large-scale resource dedicated to remembering members of our trans family who have passed due to suicide. If you have the skills, interest, and/or capacity to take something like this on, I’m personally interested in trying to see if it’s possible, reach out to me.
While we must keep abreast of discrimination and abuse, we can also showcase the work being done to advocate for and support trans people, especially black trans women.
Finally, and this is especially true of media companies but relevant for anyone with a social media outlet like a Twitter or Facebook page — let’s match our homicide-focused posting with equal amounts of trans-affirming material. For every update about a murder victim, highlight a trans success story. While we must keep abreast of discrimination and abuse, we can also showcase the work being done to advocate for and support trans people, especially black trans women. One of my favorite podcasts, The Read, starts of every episode with “Black Excellence,” a story or two about black people doing amazing things. What if every media outlet with a trans-focused vertical had a “trans excellence” column? I’d write one.
Speaking of, we need more writing and reporting about trans issues from actual trans people. I’ve been really impressed and inspired by the way the @disabledwriters and @writersofcolor Twitter accounts share writing opportunities with their communities, but couldn’t find a similar outlet for trans writers. If you work in media, hiring and supporting trans writers and creators (especially black trans women writers) has to be a priority.
Overall, the focus on trans murder has an admirable goal — publicly remembering our dead is at its core an effort to show the world that our lives matter — but the way we’ve gone about it has had myriad unintended consequences. If we’re going to shift a culture that does not value black trans women’s lives, we have to shift the way we report on black trans women — including and especially when we report on our deaths. I implore our peers in media, as well as our readers and everyone else who cares about trans people and especially about black trans women — to take this plea to heart and work on creating this necessary shift.
Author note: Special thanks goes out to Sophie Schmieg, Jamie Berrout, and Mey Rude for support with this post!