For transgender Americans, it is the best of times and the worst of times.
The best: Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a young trans woman of color, has just been hired by the White House, the first openly transgender person to join its staff.
The worst: Tamara Dominguez, another young trans women of color, was murdered in Kansas City at 3 a.m. Saturday, in what police are investigating as a possible hate crime. By various counts, she is the 16th transgender woman to be murdered in 2015.
Freedman-Gurspan recently worked at the National Center for Transgender Equality, focusing on racial and economic justice issues, including violence against trans women of color. This past weekend, she was at the wedding of two gay, Orthodox Jewish friends of mine.
Dominguez was run over multiple times by a pickup truck, in a church parking lot. She and her killer appeared to have argued prior to the crime. Through a translator, her brother said of the killer that he “forgive[s] them for what they did to her.”
Are these two stories connected, save by commonalities of race, gender, and time? Has the increased visibility of transgender people—Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock—led to a backlash focusing on the most vulnerable members of the LGBT and POC communities?
It’s impossible to know. This is by no means the only year in which trans women have been victims of violence, though this year’s rate is higher. In 2013 and 2014, 12 transgender women were murdered. If the 2015 trend continues, the total will be 21.
But this may be due to reporting. Police and media have a notoriously awful record in reporting violence against trans women, often mis-gendering them, sexualizing them (this New York Times piece from 2012 is a particularly egregious example), or treating the crimes as crimes of passion or as related to sex work (which trans women disproportionately do in order to survive).
So it’s hard to say that we’re seeing a backlash. We may just be just seeing some long-overdue visibility.
Advocates for transgender people have long decried the mainstream media’s lack of attention to the continued violence against transgender women of color in particular. And there is hope that the population’s increased public profile can shine attention on the discrimination transgender people still face in employment, health care, and the criminal justice system.
According to a recent study (PDF) by the National LGBTQ Task Force, “transgender people are especially vulnerable to violence because of the discrimination they face in all aspects of their lives, from employment to housing to education to healthcare, and are five times more likely to live in extreme poverty—making less than $10,000 a year—than the general population.”
There are finally cracks in the wall of media silence. For example, Caitlyn Jenner’s already historic speech given last month at ESPN’s Espy Awards was widely praised for calling attention to how trans people are “getting bullied, they’re getting beaten up, they’re getting murdered and they’re committing suicide.”
Jenner specifically named Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old found stabbed to death in Mississippi this year. For the record, here are all the names in one place, based on information from coordinators of the #blacktranslivesmatter campaign and other sources:
1. Papi Edwards2. Lamia Beard3. Ty Underwood4. Yazmin Vash Payne5. Taja Gabrielle De Jesus6. Penny Proud7. Kristina Gomez Reinwald/Kristina Grant Infiniti8. Keyshia Blige9. London Chanel10. Mercedes Williamson11. India Clarke12. K.C. Haggard13. Amber Monroe14. Shade Shuler15. Elisha Walker16. Tamara Dominguez
All but Haggard were women of color.
Even this tabulation, though, is subject to interpretation. Reinwald was originally considered a suicide, but was subsequently investigated as a homicide. Walker’s body was only recently found, but she was likely murdered in 2014. Some sources say Edwards identified as transgender female; others as a male drag performer. Blige had only just begun taking hormones, had been described as male by some media sources, and has been omitted from the #blacktranslivesmatter list. And so on.
Moreover, some names have been omitted but could just as well be included. Bri/Brian Golec, stabbed to death in February, identified variously as transgender and as an androgynous man. Sumaya Ysl was found dead in Toronto, Canada. Mya Hall was shot by police, probably for security reasons (she drove through a security cordon near Fort Meade), but the entirely of the circumstances remain unknown.
Needless to say, these are only the names of the murdered, and of those whose murders have been reported. And the erasure of trans lives continues even today: as reported by The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen, India Clarke’s name and gender identity were misreported just last month.
At the same time as this horrific race- and gender-based violence escalates, it is undeniable that trans* people are thriving like never before in America and around the world (consider the remarkable milestones in Thailand and Nepal, for example).
Governmental milestones like Freedman-Gurspan’s appointment, and changes in the military’s policy toward trans soldiers, are examples of that. Although Freedman-Gurspan will not be working directly with trans issues in her new role, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, made a point of highlighting her advocacy work in a statement accompanying her hiring.
“Raffi Freedman-Gurspan demonstrates the kind of leadership this administration champions,” Jarrett said. “Her commitment to bettering the lives of transgender Americans, particularly transgender people of color and those in poverty, reflects the values of this administration.”
At home in Freedman-Gurspan’s Jewish community in Boston (she was raised in Brookline), there was jubilation. “This is incredible news for all of us,” Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national, Boston-based organization that works for the inclusion of LGBT people in Jewish life, told The Daily Beast. “As a trans Jewish woman of color, Raffi was a powerful leader for trans inclusion in her Boston synagogue and mobilized faith leaders in the campaign to pass the Massachusetts Trans Equality Bill. We are confident that she will continue to lead by example in her new role.”
Of course, the appointment and the Pentagon policy change are purely executive actions, and could be undone by the next president. Indeed, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee opined that trans people should not serve in the military, because “the military is not a social experiment.”
Perhaps more importantly, they are top-down changes—like Jenner’s speech, Cox’s Emmy, and other high-profile shifts. They are enormously important, but they aren’t always accompanied by changes on the ground.
On the contrary, some are retrenching. Just last year, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention decided that transgender people don’t exist at all. There has been an avalanche of anti-trans “bathroom bills” across the country, which would forbid Jenner, Cox, and Freedman-Gurspan from using the women’s room.
And despite all the progress, 15 percent of transgender people are living in poverty, compared with 4 percent of the U.S. population. Between 19 percent and 30 percent report suicidal ideation before gender transition therapy (just 1 percent to 6 percent do afterward). This is a population that continues to be oppressed, with trans women of color experiencing the triple oppression of racism, sexism, and transphobia.
Will more high-profile advances help, or hurt, this situation? It’s too soon to tell. In the meantime, we’re seeing the Tale of Two Trans Americas.