REST IN POWER
Inside Monica Roberts’ Mission to Identify Transgender Murder Victims
‘I got tired of them being disrespected in death,’ says Monica Roberts about the misgendering of trans murder victims whose names and stories she publishes on her blog, Transgriot.
Monica Roberts does in 30 minutes what reporters have been failing to do for years.
She identifies murder victims who are transgender.
Whenever she discovers through Facebook that there’s been a death in the community, she begins investigating, combing through local news reports of recent killings in the area. Often, within half an hour, Roberts can match the name of a slain transgender person to a murder victim who has been identified only by their legal name in local coverage. Then she publishes her findings on her long-running blog TransGriot.
Whenever you read about the transgender people killed in any given year, it’s in large part due to the work Roberts does. National LGBT advocacy organizations and mainstream news outlets alike rely on her as an early source of information.
And it’s a task that Roberts first took on, she told The Daily Beast, “because I got tired.”
Like the majority of the transgender murder victims in the United States, Roberts is a black transgender woman. Born in Texas in 1962, she has watched too many in her community die at young ages.
Last year, for example, the youngest transgender woman to be killed was 18-year-old Vontashia Bell, shot in Shreveport, Illinois. As is often the case, an initial local media report identified her as a “man.” The least Roberts can do for these victims, she believes, is stop them from being posthumously misgendered.
“I got tired of them being disrespected in death,” said Roberts.
Already in 2019, Roberts has identified a victim named Dana Martin in Montgomery, Alabama and another woman named Pinky who was shot but not killed in Houston. Both were misgendered in early reports—a function, Roberts says, of local media outlets rushing to post information relayed by police, who often misgender victims themselves.
“They’ve been running with the police wire [copy] far too often,” Roberts said of local news outlets. “And while there are some police departments that are sensitive to our community, there are others which are hotbeds of transphobia and homophobia.”
What Roberts and other transgender anti-violence advocates have been trying to get police departments to understand is that ID’ing transgender victims isn’t just about doing right by the LGBT community; it’s also about securing justice.
Transgender people often don’t know each other’s legal names, Roberts explains, “so if you’re going by ‘Shonda’ and I hear on the news that ‘Charles’ has been killed, I’m going to go, ‘Who?’”
That means that the friends of a black transgender woman might not even know she has been killed until days later, by which point leads and suspects have often evaporated.
“We know for a fact that the first 48 hours are critical in any murder investigation in whether the person gets justice,” said Roberts. “So when you deliberately misgender a victim, then you’re delaying justice for that trans person who has been murdered.”
The work of cataloguing these killings takes an emotional toll, Roberts says, especially because so many victims “were just getting the chance to start living their lives.”
“When you think about the people that we lose to anti-trans violence,” Roberts told The Daily Beast, “these are folks that—who knows—could have been the next person to get elected to public office or had the next great business idea or maybe had the cure for cancer if they had just had the opportunity to live their lives—or just simply gotten the chance to find love and get married and have a family.
“Those are losses not only to our community but to our society as a whole,” she said.
Violence is not the only topic covered on TransGriot. Roberts has been serving as a sort of online historian for the transgender community since her first post in 2006. In fact, the “Griot” portion of her blog’s name is a reference to West African singers and poets who act as oral historians.
There were other transgender-themed blogs that appeared at the peak of the mid-2000s blogging boom, Roberts recalled, but they “really weren’t covering a lot of the issues from a black and person of color perspective.” She wanted to fix that.
Roberts has always been keenly aware of racism’s pervasive and pernicious effects. She was born in a segregated hospital to a mom who worked as a schoolteacher and a dad who worked as a DJ. She attended school in the Houston Independent School District, which didn’t fully desegregate until 1984–four years after Roberts graduated.
Her dad, Roberts recalled, “led a strike at the radio station” to ensure that black people could work not just as DJs, but in sales and management-level positions as well. (“I come from a long line of hell-raisers,” she laughed.)
Before she transitioned in 1994, Roberts took stock of all the ways in which she was seen as “a suspect” by the white people around her, recalling in particular one white woman who “all of a sudden clutche[d] her purse” when she got in the same elevator.
The incident, Roberts said, was especially hurtful because she was in full uniform wearing photo ID at her workplace: the Houston airport.
Roberts worked as an airline gate agent for 14 years—seven before transition and seven afterward. She came out as transgender when she was in her early thirties, long before transgender issues entered the cultural mainstream.
“As a matter of fact, I still laugh about the fact that literally two months after I transitioned, two pilots came out as lesbian,” Roberts recalled.
As Roberts transitioned, she noticed that she was no longer seen as a “suspect” but she was perceived as less “competent” and “proficient” at her job, even by passengers.
“One of the things that I did not anticipate was just how bad sexism was,” she said. “Being able to see how you’re treated differently just because your body changes was eye-opening and frustrating at times.”
That shift took place even as Monica’s overall mood lightened. She remembers now one co-worker who, six months into transition, told her: “Don’t take this the wrong way but we like Monica better than the other person. You’re much happier and outgoing now than you were before this.”
Under the George W. Bush governorship in Texas, Roberts grew increasingly involved in transgender political advocacy. She eventually moved to Louisville, Kentucky where she devoted herself to activism, wrote a weekly newspaper column, and founded TransGriot.
She remembers a heady period of transgender organizing of the late 1990s, when she and others in the community would share their big dreams for the future at small conferences and meetings all across the country.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had open trans military service?” Roberts said they would wonder. “Or if trans kids could come out to their parents and they wouldn’t be thrown out of their parents’ homes, but instead be loved and raised as their true selves?”
Twenty-five years after Roberts came out, much has changed.
“We have that world right now,” said Roberts. “The world that we talked about and we thought we would never see has actually happened in literally the span of two decades.”
But that’s not to say that the path here has been easy, nor that all remaining obstacles have been cleared away. After all, the Trump administration is currently trying its hardest to kick transgender people out of the military.
Roberts had to fight for acceptance not just within the world at large, but within her own family as well. Her late father, she recalled, had high expectations for his firstborn child and “was not happy about my transition.” Through his radio connections, Roberts’s father was able to introduce Roberts to Houston politicians—and Roberts felt as though she was expected to become one herself.
In a conversation the year before her father died in 2013, Roberts said something to the effect of, “When I’m in a position to run for public office, I will be able to do so with confidence because I had to become the person that you see now in order to have the confidence to do that.”
“He finally got it,” Roberts recalled.
The process with her mom, now retired, was much easier. After she transitioned in 1994, Roberts remembers about two years of tension. Then, at Christmas dinner in 1996–after Roberts had been on hormones for two years—her mom joked, “Well, people always said when you were a kid that you look like me. Now you really look like me.”
Today, they call each other often, joking and laughing and talking “about the crap going on in this country,” as Roberts put it.
Roberts moved back to her hometown of Houston in 2010, just in time to watch her city pass a transgender-inclusive equal rights ordinance in 2014 that was then rolled back by a public referendum in 2015.
The campaign against the ordinance was successful in large part because of the myth that transgender protections allow “men in women’s restrooms.” It pre-dated North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill” by one year.
Roberts sees 2015 as a crucial moment because it was the year when the conservative movement “stopped laughing at us and decided to start coming after us.” In the wake of the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage through the Supreme Court, anti-LGBT groups turned their attention to transgender issues—and they were looking, Roberts reckons, for “an easy win.”
This was the starting point of the current anti-transgender backlash.
“But what they failed to realize is that when you have a group of people who have to fight tooth and nail just to be who they are and just to exist, we’re going to fight you just as hard when you try to oppress us,” said Roberts. “They’re finding that it’s been a lot harder to erase us than they thought.”
Indeed, despite anti-transgender efforts from the Trump White House, transgender advocates have had success at the state level, securing protections and successfully pushing back against discriminatory legislation.
In 2017, for example, Roberts was part of a large group of LGBT people and allies who successfully lobbied against the Texas state legislature’s attempts to pass a “bathroom bill.” The first day in 2017 that Roberts made the trip to Austin, she was one of over 100 transgender people there.
“That’s a huge difference from when I made my first trip to lobby in 1999 and there were only 21 of us in Austin,” she remembered.
What has made the difference, Roberts believes, is a rising generation of transgender youth and their outspoken parents, who are often referred to within the community as “mama bears” and “papa bears.” (“We have far more allies and far more help [now],” said Roberts.)
The media, too, is evolving—though not as quickly as Robert would like. She says that outlets are “still repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again,” even though there are widely-available guidelines from the Associated Press, GLAAD, and NLGJA, the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, for covering transgender issues.
National media, “has been a little bit better” than local outlets, Roberts said, thanks in large part to Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera’s 2014 appearances on Katie Couric’s then-talk show. Couric asked Carrera, a transgender model and activist, questions about her genitalia—and Cox famously criticized those questions in the following segment.
Couric has gone on to produce remarkably sensitive and detailed reporting on the transgender community, at first by inviting Cox back on the show for a follow-up conversation. (As Couric herself told The Daily Beast in an interview, she “wanted to make sure that people knew that I recognized I made a mistake.”)
“On the national level, [the media] have been better since then,” said Roberts, identifying it as a major turning point in coverage of the community.
Looking back over two decades of transgender activism, Roberts said that she is grateful to have been a 20th century foremother of the movement.
“I happened to be born at the time that I needed to be born in order to kind of set the table for the advances that we’re making,” she said.
“Our rights movement is like a relay race,” Roberts added. “The torch got handed to me at a certain point and when it’s time for me to pass it on, I’m just going to turn around and hand that torch back to the next generation for y’all to advance—and then hand it to the trans kids behind you.”
“Our goal,” Roberts said, “is to never let the flame go out.”