The Heartbreaking Duality of Transgender Issues in the US

Looking back at the end of Pride month 2014, we’ve seen some incredible advances in transgender rights. With increasing anti-discrimination protections and expansion of basic healthcare rights to trans people, a lot of my own federal policy agenda for trans folks is getting met.

At the same time, four trans women of color were murdered this June. The epidemic of violence targeting trans women of color, playing out while LGBT folks should supposedly be celebrating our pride, should stop us all cold, and make us think seriously about what’s really needed to win liberation for all trans people.

Monica Roberts reports at Black Girl Dangerous on the horrific murders we learned about in June:

First there was 40 year old Kandy Hall, whose lifeless body was found June 3 lying in a northeast Baltimore, MD field near a school and playground. While I and other members of the national trans community were gathered in Philadelphia for the 13th annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, on June 13 the body of 28 year old Latina trans* activist Zoraida ‘Ale’ Reyes was found in an Anaheim, CA Dairy Queen parking lot.

The very next week, the shot and burned body of 31 year old Yaz’min Shancez was found behind a dumpster in a Fort Myers, FL alley. To add more emotional baggage to the horrific way that Shancez was killed for her family and friends, her death happened two years to the day her 16 year old sister Cha’Riah Owens was shot and killed.

Now we complete a deadly month for transwomen of color with the news that on June 26 the body of 28 year old Tiffany Edwards was found at 8 AM EDT shot to death and lying in the street by a sanitation worker in the Cincinnati suburb of Walnut Hills, OH.

The loss of these four women is immeasurable. That their names join a list of over 100 trans people who have been murdered worldwide this year is still incomprehensible to me.

And the timing shakes me to the core. I was catching up with Monica and other friends and colleagues at Philly Trans Health when Zoraida’s body was found. More broadly, the trans community has been celebrating a series of major political wins. At the very end of May, the Medicare ban on coverage of transgender healthcare was overturned, inspiring other health programs to examine their discriminatory policies as well – in my home state of Massachusetts, the Medicaid ban on trans healthcare was lifted, making us the third state to cover trans medical services, and Washington state followed with a partial ban on trans exclusions. On the issue of employment, the Department of Labor recently released clarification that anti-trans discrimination is sex discrimination, part of a growing chorus of federal agencies making clear that this is the government’s position on anti-trans discrimination. This followed the President’s announcement that he will sign two executive orders targeting trans employment discrimination.

We can’t let this provision of rights distract from the terrible reality faced by too many trans women of color. It might be tempting to take a step back from the fight now that I’ve been given the basic right of healthcare. But the enemy of trans liberation is systemic – it is a cissexist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy – and the provision of rights will not undo this system.

The murders of Kandy Hall, Zoraida “Ale” Reyes, Yaz’min Shancez, and Tiffany Edwards are a tragic reminder that winning rights is not enough. We still exist in a late stage capitalist system in which income inequality is becoming more extreme and entrenched than ever before. Identity and class are deeply linked, so that the majority of trans women are living in poverty. Employment protections will help some, to be sure – those who already have an education or workplace experience or a foot in the door. They won’t do anything about, say, the casual, everyday employment discrimination I’ve faced that I know can’t be addressed by the federal government, the everyday bigotries folks can easily get away with even with protections in place. And while we continue to address individual acts of discrimination, we also need to recognize that income inequality is a much broader issue and one that will continue to disproportionately impact marginalized folks. When we recognize income inequality as a trans issue, we must turn to the violent policing and criminalization of folks engaged in street economies, since these are often the only options left for low income trans women and trans women of color. When we center the criminalization of sex work in trans politics, we must look at the prison system as a tool of oppression used disproportionately to target trans people of color. Even a trans girl of color like Jane Doe, a minor and ward of the state who was not charged with a crime, can face incarceration for being herself. We can see this as a massive failure on the part of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, and it is. It’s also the state continuing the active oppression of the most marginalized in our community, at the same time the state is also extending us basic rights that will benefit those who can access them. Intersecting systems of oppression, playing out in a capitalist context, end up exposing trans women of color to violence. The horrendous murders of four women in June are the acts of individuals, and they are also the result of a system that teaches through action that trans women are worthless and deserve death.

Trans women of color have been representing the community and our issues in public on their own terms in unprecedented ways, and it’s about time. Laverne Cox graced the cover of TIME, and talked about real issues like violence in the cover story. 45 years after trans women of color kicked the gay rights movement into gear at Stonewall, this seemed to be the year of the trans Pride Grand Marshal. Laverne Cox led New York Pride with the mother of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color who was murdered. Janet Mock was joined as a Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride by Jewlyes Gutierrez, a 16 year-old who stood up to anti-trans bullying, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a hero of the community who was part of the Stonewall riots and the Attica uprising and who now leads the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, an organization run for and by trans women of color who have been targeted by the prison system. At the same time, New York Pride was heavily policed by the same NYPD forces that routinely target trans women of color and seem to do nothing when they are murdered. Meanwhile at SF Pride, folks from Gay Shame protesting’s prison-themed party say they were assaulted by police and thrown in jail. For having a problem with Pride celebrating prisons. And of course Prides everywhere were big promotional events for banks – the same banks that swindled us all and got away with it, continuing the perpetuation of extreme income inequality.

Pride is perhaps the perfect example for thinking about what we face in this particular moment in trans politics. An event inspired by the Stonewall riots, an act of resistance against state violence, has turned into an event that supports the police and the banks, institutions that perpetuate oppression of poor and marginalized folks. There’s been discussion throughout the years about the ways trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera were pushed out of the gay rights movement as politics were sanitized to become more acceptable – and in turn left the most marginalized in the community in the dust. As the trans community wins crucial rights, I am seeing the drive from some quarters to shift focus to issues of mainstream acceptability. Both Janet Mock and Feministing’s own Katherine Cross have called out the way a debate over the word “tranny” has drawn more attention and visible outrage than Jane Doe’s incarceration. I’m not going to pretend language is not important – I’ve spent much of my media career calling out poor press coverage that misgenders trans women and brings up salacious details to construct a victim-blaming narrative when trans women of color are murdered. As I have argued before, this terrible press coverage dehumanizes trans women, paints them as victims who deserve what they get, and therefore contributes to cycles of violence. So yes, words matter. But as Monica Roberts points out, this media disrespect continues, as it showed up in coverage of three of the four murdered trans women of color last month. I wish disrespect of these murdered women garnered the same level of attention as the language used on a game show on Logo.

If we are to show respect to Kandy Hall, Zoraida “Ale” Reyes, Yaz’min Shancez, and Tiffany Edwards in death, we cannot let winning important rights lead to resting on our laurels. When the more privileged members of a community gain the rights they need, it can lead to a shift away from broader politics of liberation that will help the most marginalized in a community. We’ve seen this play out in the gay rights movement and, as trans women of color once again claim the mic and leadership, that can’t happen again.

This is a time to redouble our efforts, to use the momentum of wins to address the serious injustices still taking place. It’s time to take on big issues like prisons and income inequality in a way that centers the voices of marginalized folks who are targeted by these institutions and systems, even as we continue the fights for basic rights like healthcare in New York. The struggle for liberation is a broad one that doesn’t end with rights – it begins there. We still have a long way to go when trans women of color are still being murdered in the streets.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of

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