Remembering our dead: global violence against trans people

In most countries, data on murdered trans people are not systematically produced. Meaningful research requires government backing, but the lack of recognition, through ignorance or malice, for trans people and the violence they face, remains a massive barrier to its commission

Juliet Jacques
26 November 2013

In the past year, across the world, 238 transgender people have been murdered – 22 of whom were younger than 20 years old. Their names appear on the Transrespect vs. Transphobia Worldwide website, part of a total of 1,374 in sixty countries since 2008, found through online searches and co-operation with activist organisations.

78% of the reported deaths since 2008 have been in Latin America – a total of 1,074 people. There were more murders in Brazil (95 in 2013, and 539 since 2008) than any other country, some of whose ends, such as that of a 25-year-old ‘shot’ in Curitiba, and named only as Patricia, are recorded with a heartbreaking scarcity of detail. There is also a high prevalence in Mexico, and the US, particularly amongst African-American trans women such as Kelly Young, aged 26, shot dead in Baltimore in March 2013, or 20-year-old Cernia ‘Ce Ce’ Dove in Olmsted Township, who was stabbed repeatedly and thrown into a pond, naked from the waist down.

But proportionally, the higher rates for 2013 were in Central American nations with smaller populations, with 1.5 trans killings per million inhabitants in Honduras, and 0.71 in El Salvador. By contrast, there have been 117 recorded murders across Asia since 2008; 87 in North America and 84 in Europe; eight in Africa and four in Oceania.

This is almost certainly a fraction of the total number of trans people killed globally. The most recent Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) press release notes that ‘In most countries, data on murdered trans people are not systematically produced and it is impossible to estimate the number of unreported cases’. An additional problem is that in certain instances, victims may be misgendered  by the press especially in places that do not legally recognise their identities. TDoR’s website notes on its entry for 32-year-old Jessica Rollon, strangled in Bergamo, Italy in 2011, that ‘as with most cases, the local news continues to disrespect her by using male pronouns and a male name'. This coverage often mirrors official documentation.

Every year on 20 November, Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) commemorates global victims of transphobic murder – killings which are thought to have been motivated by hostility to an individual's gender identity or presentation. Working to raise awareness of such violence, the Day of Remembrance website aims to record every such death of a trans person committed across the globe per calendar year. It gives the names of those killed, often alongside a distressingly high number of ‘Unidentified’ entries, along with the method of death, the date and the location.

Now observed in 180 cities in twenty countries, The Day of Remembrance sprang from the murder of Rita Hester, an African-American trans woman, in Massachusetts on 28 November 1998. Hester’s case, like many on the site’s list of historical murders which goes back to the 1970s, remains unsolved.

Many of those we remember remembered are sex workers, particularly in nations where there is no provision for hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery and so many trans people, excluded from other employment, do this to raise money for medical treatment. At a social level, intersecting prejudices against sex workers, ethnic minorities and trans people account for the high rates; at an institutional level, they explain the lack of action. For example, the NGO Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) said of the killing of 19-year-old Tiffany Holder in Georgetown: “Violence against transgender sex workers is way too common in Guyana, underscoring that many incidents go unreported because the victims fear that no action will be taken against the perpetrators.” They added that “laws which criminalise cross-dressing and same-sex intimacy provide institutional validation for the prejudices which fuel violence against sexual and gender minorities.”

It is not that the challenges of social navigation for gender-variant individuals have never been raised. One of the strongest explorations is the ‘Genderbashing’ chapter in Viviane Namaste's Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Namaste suggests that visible gender transgression threatens heterosexual and cisgender (that is, crudely, people whose gender identities match those assigned to them at birth) male domination of public space, with entrance ‘secured through the enactment of a sanctioned gender identity, preferably within the context of a heterosexual dyad’. She goes on to point out that this threat is often crushed with physical violence.

One issue which Namaste identifies is that this regulation means that trans people often have little choice but to exist within areas noted for their lesbian, gay and bisexual nightlife or meeting spaces, or are known to play host to trans sex workers, and so may provide some safety in numbers. Consequently, they become targets for attacks which are recorded as homophobic, which they often are, but not as transphobic, which denies the fact that they have been killed because of their gender presentation rather than, or as well as because of their sexual orientation.

The involvement of sexual activity, whether or not money is involved, in such killings complicates this still further: Namaste writes about how rape is often a routine part of violence perpetrated against trans men, telling them, ‘through the act of sexual assault, that they are “really” women, and they will be treated as such’  – the murder of Brandon Teena in Nebraska in 1993 remains the most famous instance, mainly due to Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Teena in the film Boys Don’t Cry.  The extent of this kind of violence remains difficult to ascertain but a study of the corrective rape in South Africa, which interviewed 121 people and colour and was published in 2011, looked at how trans men were just as likely as lesbian women to suffer such attacks, and just as unlikely to report them to the police for fear that they would be ignored, or endure further violence.

A glance at TDoR’s lists for the last few years shows a number of harrowing, almost ritualistic murders of trans women, too, but knowing that such a problem exists is one thing; gathering statistical evidence to form the basis for arguing that transphobia should be included in hate crime policy is quite another. Meaningful research requires government backing, but the lack of recognition, through ignorance or malice, for trans people and their issues remains a massive barrier to its commission. Any study would most likely be conducted through activist and support groups, from which some trans people are isolated, or do not wish to be involved as they prefer not to disclose their gender history.

All told, the scale of the matter is huge, but transgender people worldwide will continue to do all they can to organise against transphobic violence, and the causes are gradually becoming better understood. As communications between activists and governments slowly improve, the Day of Remembrance remains an important way of keeping the issue in the spotlight, reminding everyone that violence against transgender people is a serious concern across the world, throughout the year.

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence

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