By John Edwards
June 28, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, commonly referred to as the birth of the LGBT+ rights movement in the United States. At the forefront of the riots and the early movement were transgender and gender non-conforming women of color, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. While unfairly marginalized even within the burgeoning LGBT+ rights movement in favor of the more palatable gay rights movement, these three and activists like them were and continue to be the backbone of the LGBT+ rights movement. Miss Major continues to fight against the disproportionate incarceration of transgender people. Johnson and Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to help and protect queer homeless youth and sex workers, populations which transgender people of color are also disproportionately represented in. Despite their tremendous efforts and 50 years, transgender people, especially transgender women of color, continue to be disproportionately abused, incarcerated, forced into homelessness, and murdered. Intersections of identity (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.) as well as harmful laws, policy, and rhetoric have ensured that anti-transgender violence continues to become more prevalent, especially for those with various layers of oppression.
According to the Human Rights Campaign Anti-Trans Violence Report, between 2013 and 2018 there were over 128 reported cases of anti-transgender homicides. 80% of these were committed against transgender women of color. These statistics are likely underrepresenting the issue due to the fact that police and media reports misgendered 74% of the known victims of anti-transgender violence in 2017 and 2018. For example, these reports sometimes label transgender women as men, therefore it is likely that many more transgender deaths went unnoticed or uncounted.
The oppression of transgender people manifests itself in many ways, including as challenges in accessing basic resources. Many transgender youth face familial rejection. Not only is the family an emotional support network, but it also affects educational, economic, and housing stability. Without a family to stay with, many LGBT+ children, are forced into homelessness, with 40% of the homeless youth population identifying as LGBT. Furthermore, transgender students face obstacles that other students do not. 84% of transgender youth report not feeling safe in their classroom and, as a result miss large amounts of class time. The lack of educational opportunities and stable home life makes steady employment difficult. The transgender unemployment rate is three times that of the general population. Even worse, African American transgender people have double the unemployment rate as that of the total transgender population, and four times that of the general US population revealing the effects of layered oppression even within the transgender community. As a result, a significant portion of transgender women rely on the underground economy to survive, including criminalized activity like sex work. This causes many transgender women to avoid interactions with or even seeking help from the police for fear of incarceration, leaving them even more vulnerable to violence.
The above factors combine to put the transgender community in a particularly vulnerable position. Transgender people face disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness due to inability to access educational and employment opportunities. Transgender women of color face even harsher realities. Native American transgender women have a 59% homeless rate; for African American transgender women the homeless rate is a staggering 51% rate, over five times that of the general US population. As a result, many of them require social services like housing. However, 52% of transgender people who have stayed at a shelter report being verbally, physically, or sexually attacked due to their gender identity, leaving them without shelter. Furthermore, prior to the Obama-era protections for transgender people in attaining healthcare, 19% of transgender people report being outright refused any care due to their gender identity. With this continued marginalization and oppression, transgender people, especially transgender women of color will continue to be the scapegoat and most vulnerable population. To combat anti-transgender violence legislators should provide safe housing, access to employment, and better health care to create safer environments for the transgender community.
These extant conditions are exacerbated by hostile rhetoric and policies. In 2018 alone, 10 states introduced 21 anti-transgender bills. Furthermore, the Trump administration recently has reversed protections for transgender people. In October of 2018, the Solicitor General argued before the Supreme Court for the United States that civil rights protections in the workplace do not cover transgender employees. This continues the administration’s attempt to redefine “sex” to justify excluding protections for transgender people under federal civil rights law. The administration had already implemented this change in schools, and prisons. In April of 2019, the Trump administration implemented its transgender troop ban, excluding openly transgender service members from serving in the military despite being fully qualified. A month later the administration promulgated two devastating rules discriminating against transgender people. The first allows federally funded homeless shelters to deny people admission based on the shelter’s religious beliefs or to force transgender patrons to share sex segregated facilities that do not match their gender identity. The second rule stated that the Department of Health and Human Services would no longer consider gender identity to be a part of “sex,” protected by civil rights laws. This allows health care workers to deny transgender patients transition-related procedures or possibly even general services. The rhetoric and policy changes have stripped the few protections that transgender people had in the US, in the vital services they need.
LaLa Zannell, the lead organizer at NYC Anti-Violence Project, summarizes the situation saying that these types of anti-transgender policies give people a license to discriminate. As reported, transgender murder rates have increased over the last few years, the lack of protections leave transgender people, especially transgender women of color vulnerable to transphobic abuse and violence. The 2019 statistics already reveal the tragedy that such anti-transgender policies and rhetoric foster. At least eight transgender people have already been murdered, all of whom were transgender women of color: Dana Martin, Jazzaline Ware, Ashanti Carmon, Claire Legato, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, Chynal Lindsey, and an unnamed transgender woman in Detroit, Michigan. Compounding the targeting of transgender people, many hate crimes bills leave out gender identity as a protected category. In fact, seven out of the eight known transgender victims of 2019 so far were murdered in states without a hate crime law protecting transgender people.
Due to the gutting of protections for transgender people and as the reported number of anti-transgender violence cases and rhetoric continues to rise, transgender people, especially transgender women of color, become more and more vulnerable to discrimination and violence. The work that transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy fought for 50 years ago this month, is still not complete. At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Stop Hate Project seeks to continue this effort and works to ensure equal protection for all individuals, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation. Please contact us for further information as to how you can make a difference in your own community.
John Edwards is a rising 2L at the George Washington University Law School. He graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA in 2018, where he studied political science, and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. He is currently a legal intern with the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.