In case you missed it, last Monday, November 21st, marked 2017’s recognition of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The day, which happens unnoticed due to low press coverage, is meant not only to highlight the increasing rate at which trans people are murdered at home and abroad, but also to honor the people we lost. In a society where queer visibility and survival can be considered radical acts in and of themselves, paying homage to lost members of a community whose bonds are often similar to those in a family is an act of healing rebellion against a system whose intentional lack of action serves to condone the deaths.
According to TransRespect, an organization that tracks and produces an annual report on violence against trans people for TDOR, a confirmed number of 2609 trans and gender-diverse people have been murdered between January 1st 2007 and September 30th 2017 in attacks motivated by queerphobia. However a 2016 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs provides information showing that victims of anti-LGBT violence in the United States only report at a rate of 46%, and of those who did report, 35% of survivors reported that police were indifferent and 31% reported that police were hostile. To complicate that further, non-white reporters of violent incidents were nearly three times as likely to experience dismissive and aggressive treatment by police they were reporting the incidents to.
Because the data TransRespect tracks is only carried out by official reporting, only around 15% of incidents involving all anti-LGBT violence can be assumed to have been properly handled. The data around trans-specific violence may be even lower than that because of a greater amount of tension between trans people who are often unjustly and incorrectly arrested for sex work, and the police. If we can’t trust reports from survivors of violence who can describe the attack, how can we trust reporting carried out solely by investigators who often have little-to-no training related to working with the trans community?
The short answer is that we can’t. Not the way the system is set up now anyway, in a country where we just started requiring local departments to report data about officer-involved deaths last year, we need major reforms not only in the way we track this data but in the way violence against trans people is handled altogether.
We need greater accountability for people who commit violent acts against trans people
The data is clear, this is an increasing problem and one we cannot ignore. While long-term reforms depend on a cultural shift, the body count will continue to rise if we do not take action. In many states, it remains a legal defense to murder someone for being transgender. While infrequently used, the fact this defense remains one people can deploy in court to escape culpability for murder is unacceptable and must be changed. Illinois, where such legal defenses were taken off the books this June, saw cases in 2009 where a man was acquitted after stabbing his neighbor 61 times in the chest and in 2015 where a marine used the same defense to escape charges after strangling a trans woman to death.
In 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) produced a resolution urging government at all levels to adopt legislation prohibiting such defenses, saying that,
“Successful gay and trans panic defenses constitute a miscarriage of justice. One form of injustice is obvious: the perpetrator kills or injures the victim, and then blames the victim at trial based on sexual orientation or gender identity… in excusing violent behavior towards LGBT individuals, courts teach those who hold anti-LGBT bias that the law does not take bias attacks seriously. For those looking to hurt LGBT individuals, nothing can do more harm than the notion that violence, even homicide, is a reasonable response to a life lived openly.” (Report pg.1)
Some are quick to point out that this still won’t change the bias and hatred that motivates people to conduct these attacks, and that’s a valid response, but it misses the point of eliminating loopholes and enacting tougher sentences against those who commit hate crimes. Writing tougher legislation gives marginalized people a greater sense that they are protected, and further than that, we cannot expect society’s attitude to shift in a certain direction if our laws support violence against a group of people.
We need greater accountability for officers who participate in violent acts of trans people, including looking the other way when they know it’s happening
Like mentioned before, 66% of people surviving anti-LGBT violence reported that they encountered inaction when they reported it, with 31% reporting that police were outright hostile towards them. When we look at trans people specifically, the numbers become even grimmer: according to a 2015 report published The Williams Institute,
“A 2012 report examining the interactions of law enforcement with Latina transgender women in Los Angeles County found that two-thirds of the women reported that they had been verbally harassed by law enforcement, 21% reported that they had been physically assaulted by law enforcement, and 24% reported that they had been sexually assaulted by law enforcement.” (pg. 2)
The same report goes further to say that a more broad report shows 22% of transgender people say they have experienced harassed by law enforcement due to bias, 6% report having been physically assaulted by police officers, and 46% of trans people say they feel uncomfortable asking the police for assistance in the first place. These numbers show not only that trans people are regularly victimized by our police, but that trans women in particular experience a higher rate than other groups.
The solution for this is the same as the solution for handling anti-trans violence in general: steep penalties, especially for those who conceal incidents, and a closing of legal loopholes that allow officers to escape prosecution. By going after those who conceal incidents, officers who act with impunity against trans people will lose their power to do so. Internal inquiries in areas where interactions leave trans people feeling threatened or dismissed must be conducted, watchdog and whistleblowing groups must be given more resources, and legislation specific to our policing institutions must be passed ensuring that unique provisions are in place to deal with authority figures who abuse their position.
We need to reform our institutions all the way to the core – legislation, inclusivity training, reporting systems given real authority, and more
Real institutional change will come from reforms within the power structures within them. This includes better training, equipping reporting systems with more authority, and legislative solutions that encourage institutions to do better while punishing those who fall behind. The Washington Post covered a study conducted in 2016, a followup to a falsified 2008 study, that showed when highly-trained canvassers went door-to-door in communities, anti-trans biases could be significantly reduced, with the effectiveness of these interactions lasting up to 3 months. If a 10-minute conversation can impact a community enough that its effects are visible months later, solutions are obviously within reach.
Many colleges and universities have begun adopting Bias Incident Reporting systems, a mechanism that students can use to document incidents of bias and prejudice on their campuses. Clemson University’s system is a good example of this, allowing students a wide avenue of ways to file the report and ensuring a due-process system is upheld. While the systems are usually filled with reports of bias-filled speech from other students, which campus cannot act on, they also serve a role in which students can report instructors and authority figures on their campuses without fear of retribution.
These also serve as a mechanism that bias and prejudice can be quantifiably traced, giving greater insight into where work needs to be focused. When a nearly half of trans people report that they feel uncomfortable making their reports to authority figures, this kind of anonymous system opens a new avenue through which they can seek recourse.
Reforms will not be difficult unless we make them that way. Transphobia is a deep-rooted societal issue, one that we will likely still be fighting a decade from now. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore it, especially when we see an increasing rate of violence against trans people. Every year, we receive a list of names, and every year we are forced to contend with the reality that unless something significant changes, we will continue to. Every Trans Day of Remembrance, I read Still, I Rise by Maya Angelou as a way to remember that though we walk a difficult road, one day we will reach its end.
If you have not seen the list of names for 2017 yet, you can find a copy here. Read their names and their stories, and please, think about what you are doing to make your community a safer place. Join us as we bury our dead, and stand with us when we fight like hell for the living.