When transgender Chicagoans honor those lost to violence at Transgender Day of Remembrance ( TDOR ) events each November, they are usually not mourning their own. This year was different.
When the lights dimmed and a video about transgender homicide victims began to play, the theatre at the Center on Halsted went uncomfortably silent. Sandy Woulard's name appeared on the screen, and someone in the audience cried out her name.
Woulard was found shot in the chest in Hamilton Park in June. She is one of the four transgender Chicagoans to die unexpectedly since last November. Community organizer Johannah-Baker Johnson died in a high-speed auto accident in March. Selma Diaz turned up floating in Monroe Harbor in May. Quinn Collins was killed in a car crash on Halloween.
Of all four, only Woulard will be commemorated nationally. National TDOR statistics solely recognize homicides. ( Diaz's death was controversially ruled a suicide by police. ) However, local advocates say that violence against transgender people in Chicago takes many forms, often goes unreported and is far more complicated than police and government officials recognize.
Few statistics about transgender communities in Chicago exist, especially when it comes to hate violence. But local advocates like Lisa Gilmore, who directs the Anti-Violence project at Center on Halsted, estimate that rates are high.
"I think gender policing is the number one reason why people are targeted for hate violence," said Gilmore. Gilmore said she is "100-percent certain" that more trans people were murdered in Chicago this year than went reported.
That would be because many trans people choose not to report incidents, said Owen Daniel-McCarter, project attorney for Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois ( TJLP ) ."One of the problems that we have is that the only data we have is from police," Daniel-McCarter told Windy City Times. "Most people don't call the police if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender because they've had a bad experience with [ police ] in the past."
National statistics about transgender life paint a grim picture. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that people read as transgender are 17 times more likely to be targeted for hate violence that people read as gay. Of the 22 anti-LGBTQ murders that were reported to the Anti-Violence Project ( AVP ) nationally last year, 50 percent of the victims self-identified as transgender women. Most of the other 50 percent were gender-non-conforming males ( i.e., feminine presenting men ) . The Sylvia Rivera Law Project asserts that transgender people are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated that the national average.
Daniel-McCarter says that statistics like those point to a trend of violence against trans people that goes far deeper than hate violence. He said that violence against trans people in Chicago has many faces from lack of access to gender-affirming healthcare to harassment in schools. Cultural bias and discrimination place transgender people, and transgender women of color in particular, at higher risk for being targeted on the street and in intimate relationships. It also forces many trans people to commit survival crimes.
Daniel-McCarter also blames the state.
"The violence that I see with our clients at TJLP is largely police and correctional staff," Daniel-McCarter said. "It's constant. It's almost every day someone is being arrested for being a trans person of color."
National findings suggest that queer youth of color are targeted disproportionately by both police and hate offenders. Of 22 hate murders recorded by AVP last year, 79 percent of them were of people of color. The same report suggests that of all violent incidents reported by LGBTQ people in 2010, police made up 6 percent of offenders, double that of "pick-ups" ( dates and/or hookups ) .
The Chicago Police Department has increasingly faced accusations this year that officers are arresting transgender women in Lakeview without just cause and charging them with solicitation. However, no specific cases have been brought to public light.
Benji Perry is an organizer with Gender JUST, a direct-action organization of queer youth of color. She said she does not hang out in the Lakeview area because she "doesn't want to become a statistic" of trans youth who are targeted by police. "Cops and police and people just always think [ trans youth ] are up to no good because they're trying to be something that they're not," she said.
But, she said, many of her peers do not have a choice.
"Being a queer youth of color, there aren't really places to go," she said.
Police officials have declined to comment on the issue outside of LGBT community forums, but local organizations like Lakeview Action Coalition have been working with CPD to draft a policy on respectful treatment of transgender people.
Lois Bates, the transgender care manager at Howard Brown Health Center, confirmed that she too has heard reports of police harassment But she said that transgender people need to start "holding those systems accountable" by reporting incidents of police harassment and hate violence.
"Some trans people think this happened but there's no use in saying anything because no one will do anything," she said. "When we talk about reporting abuse, it's on us as a community to change our minds and do what we need to do to make this happen."