2018 Is Shaping Up to Be Another Terrible Year for Trans Murders
2017 saw 28 reported killings of transgender people in the U.S. The June 24 shooting of a Cleveland trans woman brings this year’s grim total to 14.
Between February and the end of June, as Equality Florida noted, four transgender women of color were shot in the Jacksonville area. Three of those women died: Celine Walker, Antash’a English, and Cathalina Christina James.
“During national Pride Month, when others are out celebrating, our community is grieving,” said Kelly Pope of the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee in a statement. “In fact, we are not just grieving. We are actively fearful for own lives.”
The recent rash of anti-transgender violence in Jacksonville only highlights what is shaping up to be a tragic year for the imperiled community: According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2017 saw 28 reported killings of transgender people in the United States.
As Pride Month comes to an end—and as we reach 2018’s midpoint—the June 24 shooting of a Cleveland transgender woman named Keisha Wells marks the 14th reported transgender killing of the year.
It would be impossible to know exactly how many deaths have gone unreported in recent years. Transgender murder victims are often misgendered in police and local media reports, only to be identified later via social media by advocates like Houston-based writer Monica Roberts. But the steady—and in fact, almost identical—pace of the reported killings suggests this violence isn’t receding anytime soon.
“It’s important that all levels of government recognize the full humanity of transgender people,” Emily Waters, senior manager of national research and policy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project told The Daily Beast. “Policies that ensure trans people have the same access as everyone else to health care, education, employment, and public accommodation mean that everyone will have the resources to keep them safe from violence.”
As it stands, anti-transgender discrimination takes a palpable toll: 29 percent of transgender respondents to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey were living in poverty, 15 percent were unemployed, and 12 percent had been homeless sometime in the last year.
Nearly 20 percent said they had, as the survey report notes, done “some type of sex work” for “money, food, or a place to sleep.” Being physically harmed—whether by a sexual or romantic partner, a client of sex work, or a group of people on the street—is a risk many transgender people live with daily.
Fourteen times this year—that we know of—that violence has escalated to murder.
The 2018 killings began with the January stabbing death of Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, the founder of two transgender beauty pageants. Steele-Knudslien’s husband was quickly charged with the murder, drawing media attention to the disproportionately high rates of domestic violence that transgender people experience.
The killings have continued through to June, which both began and ended with homicides in Jacksonville: On June 1, 38-year-old Antash’a English was shot “multiple times,” as WJAX reported, by “someone driving by in a gray car.”
On June 24, as Into reported, Cathalina Christina James was shot on a Sunday afternoon at a local motel, with a man later seen driving away from the scene. (Celine Walker, the first known transgender murder victim in Jacksonville this year was, as The Florida Times-Union reported, murdered in a motel room in February.)
No one has been arrested or charged with the Jacksonville murders—with some in the community fearing that they are linked, although police, as NBC News noted, do not believe there is currently evidence to suggest the work of a serial killer.
But advocates say that the initial police response to these Jacksonville homicides demonstrates why it can be challenging to bring assailants to justice.
Local advocates, as WJCT reported, have criticized the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for referring to victims by what many transgender people refer to as “deadnames”—the names they used before transition—and by the gender listed on their state ID.
A spokesperson for the JSO told WJCT in a statement: “It is not an act of disrespect that we refer to the victims by their legal names. As an agency, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office determines the identification and sex of a deceased victim by using the victim’s government-issued ID or that which is determined by the medical examiner.”
Such a disconnect is not uncommon: Many police departments follow a similar policy with transgender victims. But these policies make it hard to gather information from the transgender victim’s network of friends and acquaintances—especially in the critical early hours of a homicide investigation, when arrests are most likely.
“When police misgender the victims, it means that people don’t even know who the victim is and cannot come forward with information,” the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee told The Daily Beast. “The longer that we go without knowing the victim’s actual name is more time for a killer to get away and for a trail to go cold. We don’t even know most of our trans friends’ deadnames.”
The respect factor, matters, too, advocates say, because it contributes to a broader environment in which transgender people aren’t seen as valid.
Gender markers and birth names on legal documents—which many transgender people cannot afford to change, even if they live in a state where they are legally allowed to do so—are given more weight than the lived experience of the victims themselves.
“When law enforcement misgenders and misnames victims, it sends a message that transgender lives aren’t worthy of protection,” Waters told The Daily Beast.
It also contributes to the already prevalent distrust that transgender Americans have for law enforcement. Over half of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey said they would not be comfortable going to the police—perhaps because 58 percent of the respondents who had interacted with law enforcement in the prior year said that they had been mistreated. Transgender people of color, as the survey notes, are especially likely to be uncomfortable with police interactions.
The majority of 2018’s victims to date are transgender people of color—as they are most years. Many remain unsolved, like the case of 28-year-old Amia Tyrae Berryman who was killed in a motel room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or 36-year-old Nino Forston, a transgender man who, as Them reported, was fatally shot this May during an argument with a group of people at a northwest Atlanta intersection.
Only in Jacksonville has there been more than one reported murder, with others occurring all around the country in cities like Los Angeles, Buffalo, Dallas, Portland, and Albuquerque.
The Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee told The Daily Beast they want many of the same things that transgender advocates nationwide have asked for: “cultural competency and inclusion training” for police and a “liaison” between the transgender community and local law enforcement.
One “way to curb” anti-transgender violence, as Waters told The Daily Beast, is to look at the larger policy picture—to do “public education on trans identities” and to create “affirming and inclusive local and federal policy that ensures that trans people have access to support and resources.”
That kind of change—coupled with changes to policing practices—may be the only way that anti-transgender violence ever becomes rare, instead of the depressing norm of yet another year.