Don’t Just Say Her Name: The Death Count Of Trans Women Won’t Cut It Anymore

Every November, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, I find myself thinking of Lois Bates,  a luminary Chicago activist who died in 2011.

Bates was not really a homicide victim. She suffered complications from what she believed was an anti-trans hate crime years earlier. But her loss, as an example of hope and resilience, was so profound to our city and to me personally that I never stopped mourning.

I have regretted that it was only in writing her obituary that I learned she was sick. Years later, I wonder what else I missed about her. I never really learned her history.

So much of my career has been dedicated to delivering the grim news of transgender murders. They are almost always black trans women. I have learned to #SayHerName, to put to public record another trans life extinguished.

But this practice of recording names and means of death is an indignity, and I don’t want to do it anymore. Because the women in these reports are not totals to be added up at the end of the year.

Protesters hold candles during a vigil inside the campus of the state university in Manila on October 24, 2014, to coincide with the burial of murdered transgender woman, Jennifer Laude

Several LGBTQ organizations keep a running tally of transgender murders, the most notable being the lists of The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, The Human Rights Campaign, and GLAAD. These lists are only as good as the news articles they source.

In reporting their deaths without properly exploring their lives, we have reduced them to a parade of tragedies, robbed them of their histories and dreams.

It is not enough to count the dead, to name them, and congratulate ourselves for simply getting their pronouns correct. This is not good reporting.

This is the essence of well-intentioned transphobia and racism. We have come to see one transgender homicide as all. We have come to expect and to accept that trans women of color will meet a violent end. And our reporting reflects that.

Lost are the stories of those who mourn the dead, of the dreams they held, the schools they attended, the things they were proud of, the people they loved who loved them in return.

Two years ago, Mic made a visionary attempt at rectifying this with their Unerased: Counting Transgender Lives, which documented every trans homicide since the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs started keeping count in 2010. The project offered a detailed history of every victim. While Mic continues to update the Unerased database, its reporting has simplified since the project launch. Many of the victims’ stories are now aggregated from local news reports, and a number of details are plucked from Facebook posts or are not really told in full.

Missing are the voices of those who knew the victims or the details that make a portrait of a life.

Sasha Garden, a 27-year-old who became the 15th trans homicide victim this year, was largely remembered as “outspoken.”

We asked ourselves little about her dreams.  She wanted to be a hairdresser and complete her gender transition.  Her phone was full of pictures of the hairstyles she had done. She was from Milwaukee, and she had been living in hotels and staying with friends, but recently she was looking to set down roots in Orlando. To find home. In short, Sasha Garden had a story. She was not #15. She was a person.

Laverne Cox and Delores Nettles, mother of slain transgender woman Islan Nettles

This practice, of silencing trans histories, is more than just offensive. It has a deadly effect. For years, we have accepted that trans homicides were the natural upshot of anti-trans animus. Trans women die because of transphobia, we say. We explore no further.

But Florida now makes up a quarter of the nation’s transgender homicides this year. All but Garden’s death happened in Jacksonville. There are striking similarities between the victims in Florida.  

Without telling their stories, we forfeit any chance of learning if their murders are connected. We foreclose opportunities to keep our communities safe in the future.

Transphobia is not simple bias. It flourishes in every facet of our lives. We know that transphobia can position us in harm’s way in all kinds of complicated ways – from the way we make money to the places we live. But that looks different for every person.

There is no debating that transphobia and racism kill. But without telling the stories of those lost, we will be reporting the same tragedies until the end of time. In learning the histories of those we have lost, we not only honor them, we complicate the narrative.

Let’s #SayHerName, but more than that, let’s hear her story. Maybe then, we can write a different one.

Images via Getty

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