The media sensation surrounding Bruce Jenner’s “transformation” is disgusting. On the most superficial level, it’s a charade that’s completely insensitive and invasive towards Jenner’s process. It’s also completely off base considering that there were plenty of other news stories (good and bad) about transgender women in the past few months that were far more urgent and compelling. The gossip rags can spout about Jenner’s latest hairdo and family drama all they want, but we have to continue to celebrate the accomplishments of our transgender sisters. By the same token, we have to be alert and responsive when we hear of news of their victimization and criminalization by those who are ignorant and driven by malice and discrimination.
According to the New York City Anti-Violence Project, there were no known murders of trans women by February 2014, while this year has seen at least six in early 2015. One of these homicides was that of Penny Proud, a 21-year-old woman of New Orleans who was shot and killed in what has been called an “ongoing national trend of anti-trans violence.” Then there was the murder of Lamia Beard, a 30-year-old woman from Norfolk, VA that died in a hospital after being found by the police on the sidewalk suffering from a gunshot wound.
There are more stories. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus was a 36-year-old that died of stab wounds in a San Francisco stairwell; she was a victim in a murder-suicide. Michelle Yazmin Vash Payne was also murdered by being stabbed to death; Payne was allegedly killed by her boyfriend and found by firefighters who were responding to a fire in the rear of her LA apartment. Ty Underwood, a 24-year-old nursing assistant from Texas was also allegedly shot and killed by her boyfriend near her car early one morning. Most recently, there was the death of B. Golec, a 22-year-old stabbed to death by her father and left for dead in her home.
These are just a few of the stories you can find after a quick Google search on the topic, but this hardly accounts for the countless acts of violence trans women have experienced outside the mainstream media’s eye everyday. Their stories have been drowned out by the personal and frivolous details of Jenner’s transition period as an alleged transgender person. Janet Mock, the famous trans activist and author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More once cleverly remarked on her MSNBC show, “So POPular!“ that the media has had obsessive coverage on Jenner’s life as a transgender person despite the fact that he hasn’t even spoken out about this matter for himself. It’s a frustrating phenomenon because there’s only a handful of stories that briefly reference these women’s murders online. Even worse, there’s virtually no follow up on additional details of their homicides or what their lives were like before they fell victim to hate crimes. Islan Nettles‘ murder trial? A man named James Dixon was indicted for the murder on March 3 and we hardly heard a peep about it on mainstream media outlets.
People have to care about trans women’ safety (especially those of color) because they occupy the intersections of womanhood, gender non-conformity, racial inequality and occasionally, lower class status. Trans people of color are six times more likely to experience physical violence from the officials in comparison to Caucasian, cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual people. There’s also the issue that while 72 percent of murders towards LGBTQ people happen to trans women, 67 percent of those murders occur to women of color. It is not a secret that Black trans women are being targeted for their gender expression and we have to help protect them against this.
Homicide isn’t the only way that trans women are being victimized for who they are. The stories of Monica Jones and CeCe McDonald have shown us how our justice system attempts to criminalize them in incidents in which they are innocent or fought back against their perpetrators out of self-defense. Jones recently won in a court battle against the city of Phoenix after being charged with “manifesting prostitution.” The charge was deemed unconstitutional by Jones’s legal representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jean-Jacques “J” Cabou. Cabou argued that “manifesting prostitution” is a vague title for local policy that allows the police to target Jones in a sting for being transgender and for advocating for sex workers’ rights.
Jones’ court victory is certainly one to celebrate, but this episode was just one small battle in a much larger war. As Cabou explained in an interview with BuzzFeed News, “The law is still on the books, so they could send out officers to places where there is a lot of foot traffic and arrest people who are not traditionally empowered to push back against the police,” Cabou continued. “Whether the city will do that after all the scrutiny of this law, I don’t know. I hope not.”
McDonald is now a well-respected speaker and activist who has been invited to speak at top schools and media outlets about her perspective as a trans woman. But gaining her platform came at a price. In 2012, McDonald made headlines after being sent to jail for the second degree manslaughter of one of her anti-trans attackers after she was jumped by a group of people outside of a Minneapolis bar. Multiple people had attacked McDonald in the hate crime, but she was the only person taken into custody. McDonald found herself with a 41 month jail sentence in a men’s corrections facility.
When reflecting her prison term with Marc Lamont Hill of HuffPost Live, McDonald said: “Of course they’re going to discriminate against me more because I am trans. They create policies that they say are there to protect you when they’re really there to kind of exclude you from everyone else and kind of put you into your own little box.” McDonald’s story is infuriating because it illustrates the discriminatory treatment that gender non-conforming people face from the justice system regardless of whether or not they are at fault for the crimes they were charged for.
It is easy to glaze over the tragic stories of trans women being victimized in their communities when immensely successful trans Black women are taking the spotlight and leading fabulous careers in pop culture and the entertainment industry. People can’t seem to get enough Laverne Cox, between her compelling performance on the hit show, Orange is the New Black and the platform she’s created for herself as an activist, fashion icon and media personality.
The same could be said for Mock. Despite her humble beginnings in Hawaii, Mock has garnered a huge following through her organizing efforts online, her beautiful writing voice and her even more stunning looks. Cox, Mock and even teenage trans teen activist Jazz Jennings have carved spaces for themselves as historical and public figures—and doing so with glamour, savvy, invention and intention despite the way others may try to sensationalize their female presence.
Fighting for women’s rights means fighting for every woman’s rights. Everyone deserves the right to feel safe and important and every story has an audience. I think Mock said it best:
“We need stories of hope and possibility, stories that reflect the reality of our lived experiences. When such stories exist, as a writer and publisher Barbara Smith writes, ‘then each of us will not only know better how to live, but how to dream.’ We must also deconstruct these stories and contextualize them and shed a light on the many barriers that face trans women, specifically those of color and those from low-income communities, who aim to reach the not-so-extraordinary things I have grasped: living freely and without threat or notice as I am, making a safe, healthy living, and finding love. These things should not be out of reach.”
It’s widely accepted that the media is now going to cover whatever stories are going to get the most hits because we live in world where journalism is ruled by impressions. We all know why Bruce Jenner’s name ranks so highly in Google searches. Still, there are some stories about transgender people that are far more important than others. Once again, the erasure of Black females lives is being swept under the rug and media consumers (as well as media producers) are too distracted to care. We have to reverse the trend.