Why Have There Been So Many Trans Murders This Year?
2017 is on track to be the most violent year on record for transgender people in the United States.
In the past week alone, two black transgender women living in New Orleans—Chyna Doll Depree and Ciara McElveen—were murdered within a single 48-hour period, as local media first reported.
If this violence continues to emerge at its current rate, 2017 will see over 40 reported transgender killings by the end of the year. By comparison, LGBT media outlet The Advocate tallied 27 reported killings of transgender people in all of 2016.
It is unclear whether the murder rate is increasing or whether victims are being more accurately and consistently identified as transgender—but it is clear that the danger transgender people face is not dissipating.
The continuing attacks have left transgender women of color, like Houston-based blogger and prominent trans activist Monica Roberts, feeling lucky to be alive—and outraged that so many others in her community won’t ever see old age.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around on this planet now approaching 55 years—24 of it in this community,” Roberts said in a video message she and fellow members of Black Transwomen, Inc. recorded in response to the 2017 murders. “The sad part, to me, is these folks that we lost this month are under age 40. Two of them are under age 30. They will never see a 30th birthday, or 40th birthday, or 50th birthday. And that pisses me off as an elder.”
The stories of these seven deaths are indeed all the more tragic for the youth of the victims—and for the sheer brutality with which their lives were discarded.
Mere days into 2017, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, police only found the body of 28-year-old transgender woman Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow because, as KSFY reported, “a neighbor reported a strong odor coming from the apartment.”
Just days prior, police in Madison County, Mississippi, had found 41-year-old Mesha Caldwell, a transgender hair and makeup artist, dead on the side of a rural road outside of Jackson, as Mississippi News Now reported. Caldwell had died from multiple gunshot wounds.
“I feel like how you are going to kill a person and throw them out the car? That is the most heartbreaking thing,” Caldwell’s brother, Cedrick, told the local news outlet. “I feel like if you did it, hold up for it. If you were man enough to do it, be man enough to hold up for it.”
In early February, 23-year-old JoJo Striker was found shot to death in an empty parking garage in Toledo, Ohio, as WTOL reported. Later that month, a single gunman shot 24-year-old Tiara Richmond multiple times in a car in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, as the Chicago Tribune reported.
And in late February, the string of murders in New Orleans began.
On Feb. 19, 18-year-old Jaquarrius Holland died from a gunshot to the head, as the Monroe News Star reported. The next week, Chyna Doll Depree, also known as Chyna Gibson, was shot to death outside a shopping center, as NOLA reported, with neighbors reporting they heard 10 gunshots.
And on Feb. 28, Ciara McElveen was stabbed multiple times before being dragged out of a car by the driver, as NOLA reported. Police say that the murders do not seem to be connected.
Part of the difficulty with tallying these homicides—as The Daily Beast has previously reported—is that the local media outlets who first report them often misgender the victims, even when informed of their transgender status.
When 25-year-old transgender cosmetology student India Clarke was found dead in 2015, for instance, one local TV station used the chyron “Man Dressed as Woman Found Murdered.”
That leaves the task of holding local media outlets accountable to supportive family members and friends of the victims. As a result, transgender homicide victims do not always become legible as such until days—or even weeks—after they have been slain. Some cases may never become known, which is why reporters typically introduce the figure of total transgender killings with the qualifier “at least.”
Often, Monica Roberts—who did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for an interview—draws national media attention to the initial misgendering through her blog TransGriot.
For example, even though JoJo Striker was killed on Feb. 8, it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that Roberts learned—and relayed on her blog—that she was transgender. Similarly, Jaquarrius Holland died on Feb. 19 but Black Transwomen, Inc. didn’t discover that Holland was transgender until March 1, when they released a statement condemning the local media for misgendering her.
“It results in not only the delayed recognition and response in the trans community of us honoring our last trans sisters, it is disrespectful to their memory and can delay justice in these cases,” the statement read.
The national LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD has also called on news outlets to “respect and use the lived identity, name, and pronoun of the victim,” in accordance with both GLAAD’s own guidelines and AP style.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin called anti-transgender violence an “urgent crisis for our country” in a statement, pleading with “elected leaders, the media and our own communities to finally address this epidemic of violence.”
These murders, as Griffin pointed out in his statement, come at a difficult moment for the transgender rights movement more broadly.
While young transgender women were being murdered in New Orleans, the Trump administration rolled back Title IX guidance to schools instructing them to allow transgender students to use restrooms corresponding with their gender.
Later this month, a 17-year-old transgender boy named Gavin Grimm will appear before the Supreme Court to fight for the right to use the boys’ bathroom in his Gloucester County, Virginia, high school.
But as transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox has been observing on her recent press tour, these two issues—restrooms and violence—really boil down to one simple question: Do trans people have a right to live?
“When trans people can’t access public bathrooms, we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health care facilities,” Cox told Chris Matthews last week. “It’s about us existing in public space. … It’s really about us not existing—about erasing trans people.”
That question—Do trans people have a right to live?—is one that will be answered by transgender women of color’s resilience in the face of fatal threats.
As Roberts said, piggybacking on Cox’s point, in Black Transwomen’s video response to 2017’s transgender killings: “I’m sorry. I do have a right to exist and have since the day I came on this planet. And if you don’t like the fact that I transitioned in ’94, too damn bad.”