So far, 2018 is the deadliest year ever recorded for transgender people. That’s both a fact and a sentence that LGBTQ advocates want reporters to stop writing.
“This is a crisis that must be addressed and treated as newsworthy regardless of if the number of known cases reaches a certain benchmark set by the previous year,” says MJ Okma, Associate Director of News & Rapid Response at GLAAD. “When it comes to the number of transgender homicides in a given year, the data we have access to never tells a complete story.”
Last month, GLAAD issued a reportcalling on media outlets to cease publishing “deadliest year” stories, which tend to come out in December and summarize the recorded transgender homicides from the previous year.
Last year’s numbers sparked widespread fears of an epidemic of violence against trans people, transgender women of color in particular. Twenty-eight anti-trans homicides were recorded in 2017 the highest number to date.
It’s impossible to ignore an uptick in reported cases this year. Murders in 2018 are on pace to surpass that number. This year alone, eight transgender people have been slain.
Sasha Wall, the latest reported victim, was found dead on Easter in South Carolina. Just days before, Amia Tyrae Berryman was shot to death in Baton Rouge, La.
It’s no accident, say advocates, that anti-trans violence appears to be on the rise.
“This crisis now exists in the context of a current political climate where there are over 20 anti-transgender bills filed in state houses across the country and two states considering anti-transgender side-wide ballot initiatives,” says Okma. “On top of all that we are also dealing with the Trump Administration, which has been systematically attempting to dismantle transgender rights and non-discrimination protections at every turn.”
But experts say those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Media outlets are more sensitive to spotting transgender homicides than they used to be. Even four years ago, police reports identifying the victim as a “man in a dress” weren’t always flagged by news outlets as possible transgender victims.
Shelby Chestnut is the national organizing and policy strategist for the Transgender Law Center. They say it’s clear there’s an epidemic of violence anti-trans violence, but it’s hard to say if the murder tallies actually capture that crisis.
“I think it is a question of whether it is an increase or we as a society are getting better at reporting what’s been happening for some time,” Chestnut tells INTO. “I think current the climate we exist in, violence and hate violence toward many is increasing rapidly.”
Advocates are urging media outlets to complicate the stories on the uptick in violence, by reporting on trans lives and successes and contextualizing those stories.
Earlier this year, Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, lamented in ablog post that the organization “will have to keep that grim count” of trans murders for 2018 again.
“A general societal attitude of passive empathy is not enough,” Tobin wrote. “Vigils and memorials, while necessary, are not enough. We cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
Tobin called for prevention in the form of education, police reform, anti-discrimination protections and addressing poverty and domestic violence.
The latest murders come at time of historic victory for transgender Americans.
On Tuesday, early reports indicatedthat Anchorage voters had rejected the country’s most extreme anti-trans bathroom measure to date, a landmark win that may set the stage for national legislative fights across the country. The measure would have mandated that transgender people use the bathroom according to their original birth certificate, forcing many to break the law or risk physical harm.
Alaska was the first of three ballot battlegrounds this year. Massachusetts voters will decide in November if they want to roll back anti-discrimination protections for trans people in public accommodations. In Montana, anti-trans activists are expected to put an anti-trans measure on the ballot this summer. Legislatures across the country are also considering bills attacking transgender rights.
Monica Roberts, a black trans writer and activist whose blog TransGriot has long chronicled trans communities, links the uptick in anti-trans violence to the 2015 Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality. Anti-LGBTQ activists have shifted their attention from combatting same-sex marriage to unraveling protections for trans people, she says.
“The fundamentalists have decided to come after the trans community in order to mobilize their base. That anti-trans rhetoric doesn’t just vanish in the air,” she says. “It gets acted on. So we’re seeing increased rates of violence and sadly, increased murder rates.”
Roberts wants LGBTQ organizations to take a hard look at their own hiring practices and hire more black trans people to advocate for their own communities.
Chestnut agrees that LGBTQ communities need to talk about racial inequities if they are committed to preventing violence.
“What are we doing to ensure that black trans women are leading this fight?” Chestnut asks. “Oftentimes they are sort of on the sidelines of this conversation, yet the violence that they are facing is the most severe and most deadly in all of our communities.”
Despite this year’s numbers, Roberts remains hopeful. The Anchorage bathroom measure looks to have failed, in part because transgender people took center stage on the campaign to defeat it, say advocates.
“They relentlessly debunked the trans predator myth,” says Roberts.
And maybe visibility is vulnerability. The high rate of murders coupled with a win like Anchorage suggest a tipping point.
“I can think of another similar situation in history in which we got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, and that was the worst year ever for lynchings recorded that year,” says Roberts. “So yeah, there’s going to be a period the bigots finally give up and come to the realization that trans people are not going anywhere. We are part of the fabric of society.”
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