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Epidemic: Murders of trans women of color largely ignored
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-02-18

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[Originally posted Feb. 15 at Windy City Times]

Shortly after Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year, the media worldwide erupted with stories and opinions concerning the Transgender Tipping Point.

Attempting to discern what it really meant, a June 24, 2014 editorial in the New Statesman declared that "something enormous is happening in our culture. In the past three years, and especially in the past twelve months, a great many transsexual celebrities, actors and activists have exploded into the public sphere."

And this month, mainstream news outlets and websites across the United States have been focused on transgender news. Almost every moment of the life of sports celebrity Bruce Jenner had been detailed, scrutinized and commented on since rumors began to surface that Jenner was reportedly considering matching outward appearance to inner self. Then, on feb. 7, Jenner was involved in a car accident in Malibu, California, and the attention became frenzied.

TMZ noted that, despite the incident, Jenner's reality TV series was still going ahead as planned. TMZ had been reporting on the incident to the point of a pathological obsession—posting photos and videos of the wrecked cars involved while People magazine carried a blow-by-blow account of the accident declaring that Jenner was given a breathalyzer test. CNN updated results of the investigation while victoriously trumpeting the revelation that Jenner might have been smoking a cigarette at the time. "Still a very sad story," a CNN reporter said. "Because a woman lost her life."

Meanwhile, at 1:30 a.m. Feb. 10, the body of Penny Proud was discovered at the corner of Ursulines and North Claiborne avenues in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that she had been shot multiple times and that she was possibly the victim of a robbery.

The publication and its associated website NOLA.com had scrambled to update all their stories on Proud after they had consistently misgendered her in their initial reports and watchdogs such as Media Matters for America and the Poynter Institute called them out.

In an editorial defending his employers, NOLA.com/Times Picayune writer Jarvis DeBerry said "we should all agree that no group of people deserves to be killed on account of who they are. If that is what's happening—not just here but around the country—we need our law enforcement officers to say so. But to report a rash of attacks on transgender people would first require them to acknowledge the existence of transgender people."

CNN, TMZ and People offered no stories about Proud that day or the fact that she was the sixth transgender woman of color reported to have been killed in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2015—an average of one per week.

In fact, outside of a few articles in local press concerning the circumstances of their deaths, Facebook calls for attendees at candlelight vigils or short obituaries on funeral home websites, there was very little information to be found as to who these women were, the kind of lives they led alongside their friends or families, shows they liked to watch or music they enjoyed. They were just faces permitted a moment in a media spotlight shining over the transgender community and—with sublime indifference to the easy-to-find resource kits on transgender reporting offered by organizations like GLAAD—in most cases they were faces with male names and pronouns.

With a few rare exceptions, further information about the women was only available if they showed up in a search through social media.

The women on the frontline

According to a Facebook page, 20-year-old Lamar Edwards was from East Chicago, Indiana and an alumni of North Central High School in Indianapolis. Edwards worked at a Starbucks in the city's upscale Fashion Mall at Keystone at the Crossing and looked forward to trips to Chicago. Interested in the ballroom scene, Edwards enjoyed watching both VH1 and ironically TMZ.

What drew Edwards to a Louisville, Kentucky motel Jan. 9, 2015 is unknown. Using Edward's birth name, local media reported that at 11 a.m. police discovered Edwards' body in the motel's parking lot with a gunshot wound to the chest. One article contained an interview with the father of the chief suspect in the shooting who expressed concerned for the whereabouts of his "award-winning son" while reports identifying Edwards utilized an Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) mug shot.

According to both her obituary and an article written on the website Alternet, 30-year-old Lamia Beard from Norfolk, Virginia was a born musician. She was an accomplished and angelic singer who was paid to perform at weddings and funerals and played the flute, oboe, piccolo, cymbals and piano. When she attended Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk she was part of the marching band. Her Facebook page noted that she was a student at Norfolk State University, pictures demonstrated a keen interest in Hindu Goddesses. "Lamia was a kind person who would give the shirt off her back," her obituary read. "She was loved by many because of her humble and giving spirit." Beard was a fan of Beyonce and seemed to hold a particular fondness for the song 'XO'.

She was discovered shot to death Jan. 17. The newspaper The Virginian Pilot used Beard's birth name and male pronouns in the original report while being sure to point out her prior arrest record. As with Proud, the publication thought better of it only after they were challenged, this time by GLAAD, and issued the following clarification: "Norfolk police provided the name of the person killed near the Five Points Community Farm Market as a 30-year-old man named ____ Beard. According to GLAAD, Beard was a transgender woman who used the name Lamia."

When 24-year-old Ty Nunee Underwood was found shot to death Jan. 26 in the North East Texas town of Tyler, this time there was a little more media attention. Even People wrote an article about it. However, the focal point of the stories was on her alleged killer—a 21-year-old college football player. The People article went to great lengths to point out assertions that the killer was supposed to receive a sexual favor from Underwood and "realized the victim was a male" while adding that police were not characterizing the murder as a hate crime. The article also used Underwood's birth name and placed her chosen name in quotation marks—once again contrary to GLAAD's 2012 guidelines for reporting such stories. The same happened in the Tyler Morning Telegraph which, alongside KLTV television, referred to her with male pronouns. Neither they nor People seemed to be able to agree on whether Underwood had chosen the name Ty or Tyra.

A candlelight vigil for Underwood was organized by multiple groups Feb, 4. The Trans Pride Initiative noted that she has was born in the East-Texas town of Lufkin and had "just been accepted into nursing school."

KLTV covered the vigil. In their report they quoted a colleague of Underwood's who said: "She kept the whole place alive with her personality. She was bold, took risks, and lived her life."

Also in attendance was the Rev. Jeff Hood. "I am incredibly moved to be here tonight," he wrote on his blog. "Because looking at Ty's life from a distance … I can tell she lived her life authentically. Let us live lovingly as Ty lived. Stop persecuting people. Stop the oppression. Stop the violence."

But it didn't stop.

Five days after Underwood's death, emergency services responded to a fire in Van Nuys, California. In the burnt-out bedroom of an apartment unit they found 33-year-old Yazmin Vash Payne. She had been stabbed to death. By now, entities such as Buzzfeed and the New York Daily News had begun to sit up and take notice but again reports largely focused on the man charged with the crime who had turned himself in to police while, according to the Daily News, in the company of a local pastor to whom he had made his confession.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign, which has been criticized for its lack of engagement on the problems facing transgender women of color in particular, said in a post on its website that it mourned Payne's death. "The epidemic of violence against the transgender community—and particularly transgender women of color—is a crisis that advocates are working to address," the post said.

Sue Kerr writing on her blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents (pghlesbian.com) shared a video of the candlelight vigil and march that was held for Payne Feb. 1. In the video, political candidates running for local office described the Latina woman as "special in our community." Trans speakers and their allies demanded that the murders stop and that trans voices should be heard. "We are humans and we deserve to be treated like humans," they cried. "We're more than marriage!"

On the same day Payne's vigil was being held, 36-year-old Taja Gabrielle De Jesus was discovered stabbed to death in the stairwell of her apartment building in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. This time, local media had more to say about the deceased than the suspect, who apparently committed suicide less than a week later.

According to the Edge Media Network, De Jesus was determined to help others in the LGBT community of which she was a part, excited at the prospect of volunteering for local food pantries and shelters.

An IndieGogo page set up to raise money to assist her family described De Jesus as "a beautiful soul who was unapologetically unafraid to always be herself. She had an infectious energy that, combined with her sweet nature, made her a delight to everyone whose path she crossed. And when she did cross your path, she always had a story to share. It might have made you laugh or it might have made you cry, but it was always truly, authentically her. She was well loved by everyone for her kind heart, inspirational spirit and impeccable style—she loved to rock those flashy outfits. Like so many other trans women of color, Taja does not come from money. It's truly unfortunate that we need to mobilize to honor her properly, but she deserves no less."

Then Feb. 10, while the national media was still indulging its infatuation with Bruce Jenner, Proud became the sixth trans victim in as many weeks—and the ninth queer or trans individual of color to be murdered in the United States this year.

According to her corner of social media, Proud was an alum of OP Walker College and Career Preparatory High School. In December she celebrated her 21st birthday adding pictures of herself showing eyes that sparkled over a radiant smile. One friend wished her prosperity and a long life. When mourning the loss of her big brother the following month Proud posted "This shit Still Don't Feel Real."

The New Orleans-based LGBT advocacy organization BreakOUT managed at least to get Black Entertainment Television's attention after it released a statement about Proud and her fellow slain trans women.

"These deaths had little to no mainstream media attention," BreakOUT wrote. "The silence and lack of action from media on behalf of the Black transgender community sends a strong message that Black Trans Lives, in fact, do not matter. When these deaths were covered, they were often not given the respect they so deserve."

Ja'Leah Shavers is the outreach and development coordinator with BreakOUT, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of LGBTQ youth 13-25, and to ending their criminalization.

"We wanted to call the media out on misgendering folks and the way they are reporting crimes," Shaver told Windy City Times. "It affects the way these crimes are resolved."

Shaver added that one of the many things that BreakOUT is pushing for in New Orleans is increased housing, education and employment for trans individuals. "Being visible is a big part of our identity," she said. "Solidarity is a big part of us being successful in our fight. We have to work together right? There's power in numbers."

'Extreme Poverty' fuels the problem

The 221-page Injustice at Every Turn is a 2011 report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) authored by Jaime M. Grant Ph.D., Lisa A. Mottet J.D., Justin Tanis D.Min., Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman Ph.D. and Mara Keisling.

Among its key findings were the extreme poverty endured by transgender individuals—61% of the 6,450 trans and gender non-conforming participants in the study suffered physical assault, while 64% were sexually attacked.

"Discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire sample," the report said. "Yet the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating. People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined."

The Illinois Accountability Initiative is a member organization of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP). Longtime anti-violence advocate Lisa Gilmore is the principal and founder. of the Initiative

"These numbers are so high," she told Windy City Times. "Trans women of color represent a high percentage of the people in our community who have died by violence in comparison to the reported incidents of violence. Trans people have been 8 to 11% of the total reports of hate violence against the LGBTQ community, yet we're seeing them show up in between 65 to 85 percent of the people who died by homicide. These are only the people we know about—where the identity has been confirmed as someone who lived and identified as transgender. If you're trying to follow this from media sources, you have to put into your [search terms] 'man in a dress found dead'. They're not identifying these homicides as involving transgender women of color. It takes a bit of collaboration to discover who it actually is we're talking about."

Chicagoans Respond

In separate interviews, Windy City Times spoke with three Chicago trans women of color—social worker Channyn Lynne Parker; Medical Case Manager at the Howard Brown Health Center Trisha Lee Holloway, and advocate Ebonii (last name withheld).

They have worked, in some cases for as long as 13 years, to level the playing field for disenfranchised or transgender individuals while not actively seeking the media spotlight focused on the community via individual members who have or are achieving a measure of celebrity.

The goal of each conversation was to attempt to determine through their opinions a root cause for the violence and deaths of trans individuals of color and what, if anything, can be done to stop it.

"Trans people have been actively denied personhood throughout our community," Parker said. "They have been the dolls, the performers, the she-males—they are all of these objectified names, but they are not people."

"I think society likes us to be in a situation where we are disposable," Holloway stated. "That we shouldn't be here."

"A lot of the time people who don't understand something that is foreign to them will react to it with violence or discrimination," Ebonii noted. "With these murders, people know they can get away with it because we don't matter to a lot of folks like police officers or the media who just try to make us look bad."

The media spotlight

"The media actively deny us personhood," Parker said. "[According to the media] we're tricksters who actively reshape our bodies to deceive men for our own personal agendas, uncouth people who go through society as over-exaggerated caricatures. Any trans person who dares to be downright boring makes no news. A trans person's success is an active offense to heteronormative society."

"The media is giving us a lot more recognition," Ebonii acknowledged. "Nevertheless it [can be] poison. I feel like the spotlight has brought more attention to trans folks and some may love it but they put so much out there about us it makes life harder for trans folks who live stealth. Now people are looking at everything about us. Trans women who are stealth and just want to live their lives have no privacy. If [the media] want to start publicizing stuff, it should be the murder rate and why people have transphobia—even recognizing that it is a problem instead of just sweeping it under the rug."

"I think that the reason there's not much press on a lot of the situations with trans women is because people fear our existence," Holloway said. "They also look at us in ways of 'this lifestyle is a joke. That's one less trans person on the face of this planet.' If [the media] actually cared about trans folks and their lives, because they do matter, they would respect the lives we live. They wouldn't put us out there [with male pronouns] or names that we no longer use. Our lives don't matter to them because they don't acknowledge the lives that we lived after we pass away. They don't really care."

"The people who do the most amazing work are the ones behind the camera," she continued. "I feel like if I was to go on the media wanting to be seen, I would be doing my community a disservice. I'm not throwing stones at the women who are in the public eye but I say 'take a step back and look at the overall picture. Are you making it better or are you making or worse?'"

"The media is vested in our being sensationalized," Parker added. "The media subtly portrays this image of 'well it was their fault. What did they think was going to happen?' They make us into perpetrator and victim all in one."

Poverty

Parker said that she believes that the most pressing issue facing the transgender population is rampant homelessness that begins when transgender children are put out by their own family members.

"I believe there are people who are thinking 'take off that dress, cut your hair, stop playing dress up'," she noted. "The refusal to acknowledge that we did not just wake up and decide to do this for shits and giggles is denying us our personhood. Until society begins to acknowledge our personhood, this will continue."

"The real story is the girls who are out there struggling on a daily basis," Holloway said. "Nobody is shining a light on that. People don't want to see the dark and the ugly. They want to see the clean version not the rated-R version. You have numbers of trans women of color who are out on the street right now and don't know where their next meal is coming from. These women do not have jobs and might not get a job because they're not pretty enough to be passable in society."

"I'm going to get a lot of hate for this, but I'm not worried about it because this is my truth," Ebonii said. "I feel like a lot of the time our own community has played a big part in the problem. We as a community haven't stepped up as much as a lot of people should have done. We have given ourselves some bad stereotypes because we have a lot of trans girls who don't want to go to school or don't want to get a job. I'm not knocking sex work at all but a lot of folks don't respect themselves. If you don't have respect for yourself, other folks will disrespect you."

'Advocacy' Groups

Parker said that if she could address Griffin and the HRC, she would tell him to invest money into stabilizing the futures of young, underserved trans women. "Start off with a housing initiative," she said. "It's what we build our stability on. Please invest it in our youth. I would ask him to take the time to visit LGBTQ social services like Taskforce [a prevention group on Chicago's West Side], sit down and find these kids who are doing everything they possibly can and invest in them."

"Folks who put in the work and facilitate programs are not getting any recognition," Ebonii said. "They're getting paid pennies while these CEOs are getting $400,000 just to sign a few papers and to issue money only to certain projects. That doesn't make sense to me. They make it sound like their job is so hard but their job is nowhere near as hard as our job is. While they are reading papers and on conference calls, we are called at 3 in the morning because one of our clients has been found in a hotel room dead because they killed themselves or someone has killed them and we have to identify the bodies because they have no family." [Human Rights Campaign listed income of more than $38 million on its 2014 tax return and a salary for President Griffin in excess of $408,000.]

"When I see these CEOs who are making a lot of money I would ask if their organization is providing a space that acknowledges the community." Holloway said. "Do you have more than one or two people from the community working for you and are you paying them well? And are you treating them as they should be treated? To hand someone a $10 gift card and a bus card to come in and better your organization is horrible. I've seen it done and isn't right."

Whether the violence will stop remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the present echoes with the lyrics of the Beyonce song 'XO' that Beard especially seemed to enjoy. "Your love is bright as ever even in the shadows. Baby, kiss me before they turn the lights out."

Reporter's note: There has been some debate as to whether Edwards was the first transgender woman of color to be murdered, owing to Edwards' self-identity. No matter what the arguments back and forth within the LGBT communities, there is still an unsettled issue of the motive behind the attack, and whether that was connected to the perception of who Edwards was.

For more information on covering transgender issues, see the following links:

http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender.

http://www.glaad.org/transgender.

www.glaad.org/transgender/mediaresources.


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