It is estimated that one in 12 people who are transgender will die through violence in the United States. On the morning of June 21, Sandy Woularda resident of the 7700 block of South Adabecame such a person. Her body was found by a passing motorist near the corner of 75th and Halsted. Authorities report that Woulard died from a fatal gunshot wound to her chest leaving her dead at the scene.
Chicago's transgender community has called for a response to local media coverage of Woulard's death, stating that references to Woulard in the Chicago Sun-Times as a "man dressed in women's clothing" are offensive and lack sensitivity to issues surrounding gender identity. The blogosphere lit up following Woulard's shooting with comments from members of the community offering various statements about the slaying.
A blog for the transgender-advocacy organization Genderqueer Chicago featured a plea that members write to the Sun-Times and express their outrage over how the paper covered Woulard's death. Another online forum featured a brief goodbye letter to Woulard from someone who knows the victim and her family. But the overriding sentiment expressed by those in the transgender community and others who know Woulard, is that media treatment of people who are transgender is generally unpalatable.
Rashanti Ebony, a friend of Woulard for seven years, said, "This is not the first murder on Halsted, but this one is going to change things. We knew it was leading up to something like this. I just can't believe it; we grew up together." Ebony added that a rumor has circulated in the South Side neighborhood that Woulard, a 29-year-old Black sex worker, must have tricked one of her clients into thinking that she was born female. "She wasn't the type to trick people," Ebony responded. "Sandy was very cautious. She's not out there to trick or steal from people. When you can't get a job or nothing, that is all we have. It really can shake you up; it could've been anyone of us. I know because I've walked that street before."
While statistics point to hardships for people who are transgender, life can be particularly difficult for low-income male-to-female trans individuals of color, who face violence at rates higher than their white counterparts. Several services exist in the city of Chicago to help ameliorate the causes of violence, including health and legal services. The Howard Brown Health Center has been a resource for Chicago's transgender community for many years. Lois Bates, the center's transgender health manager, said, "Every time somebody in our community loses their life, it's a tragedy. We don't know if [ Woulard's death ] is a hate crime or not, but the likelihood of it being a hate crime is more likely than not." Bates issued a plea that transgender community members come to the center to use its various services.
Woulard's death comes on the heels of finding the body of another transwoman in Montrose Harbor. Selma Diaz was discovered May 16 by Chicago police officers, and her death was ruled a suicide. Neighbors who knew her find it hard to believe that the thirtysomething Diaz, also a sex worker, would kill herself. "Anyone who knows anything about the gay community knows that Montrose Harbor is associated with sex work," said neighbor Philip Cronce. "To suggest that she killed herself, knowing that there are dangers associated with sex work, is poor police work," he added. "She never would've killed herself. Selma loved life," said Victor Ambrosio, another neighbor. Cronce asked the LGBT liaison for the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) to investigate the handling of Diaz's case but could not reach the liaison after repeated phone calls and a hand-delivered letter. A legal expert at the Center on Halsted is now following up with CPD.
What drives some transwomen like Diaz and Woulard to the sex trade is a mainstream work environment not friendly to people who are gender-variant. In 39 states, according to information released by the National Center for Transgender Equality, it is legal to discriminate against transmen andwomen in the workplace. Twenty-six percent of people who are transgender have been fired from their jobs while 97 percent report being harassed on the job. These figures, coupled with the deaths of Diaz and Woulard present a bleak picture said Bates. "Why is this happening?" she wondered, adding, "Why aren't things getting any better?"
But transgender leaders are planning to help make improvements in the lives of rank-and-file members of the community. Three months ago, a steering committee comprised of different stakeholders was formed to address issues facing transmen andwomen in Chicago. And while the group is still getting its footing, Bates promised that the new panel would help "empower the trans community to take its destiny into its own hands."