How the Transgender Murder Rate Reveals the Ugly Lie of ‘Acceptance’
As 2018 starts with the murder of four more trans women, the author reflects on the contrast of increased media representation set against more brutal, life-extinguishing reality.
Measuring anti-transgender violence by the year, as both LGBT organizations and media outlets do, feels about as arbitrary as measuring anything on annual basis. Years are just numbers—lines drawn in an agreed-upon place between units of time.
Yet somehow, every year, I naïvely expect the pace of anti-transgender killings—that relentless, awful thrum of headlines—to slow down.
And so far, 2018 has offered no reprieve.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, four transgender women have already been killed in the first six weeks of the new year. First in January was 42-year-old Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, the founder of two transgender beauty pageants, who was beaten and stabbed in her home, leading police to charge her husband with murder.
Mere days later, 33-year-old Viccky Gutierrez, as the Los Angeles Times reported, was stabbed to death and then had her home lit on fire, allegedly by a man she met online who was attempting to rob her.
February has already seen two fatal shootings: 35-year-old Tonya Harvey of Buffalo, New York, who, as the Buffalo News reported, was gunned down on a dead-end street; and 36-year old Celine Walker, who was killed in a Jacksonville, Florida, hotel room in early February, her transgender identity only brought to the attention of LGBT media after writer and advocate Monica Roberts blogged about the case.
2017 was the deadliest year on record for the transgender community in the United States, with a total of 28 killings, surpassing 2016’s figure, which, in turn, was higher than the tally in 2015. If the reported violence continues at its current pace, 2018 will match or exceed last year’s grim total.
But these killings are not just numbers, and the deaths of transgender people have meaning beyond the years in which they occurred. Steele-Knudslien, Gutierrez, Harvey, and Walker all had lives that were cruelly shortened and personalities that were extinguished from the world too soon.
The Berkshire Eagle, citing a friend of Steele-Knudslien, described the pageant founder as “a bubbly, vibrant fighter who encouraged those around her to be their best selves.”
Gutierrez, as the Anti-Violence project noted, was described by friends as “the nicest girl in the world” and “an inspiration.”
Harvey, as the Human Rights Campaign reported, was “sweet and loving,” according to a friend who mourned her on social media. Walker, as described by a friend who criticized the local media on Facebook for misgendering her, was “not a pageant girl,” but rather someone who didn’t “enjoy going to gay clubs or events” and lived a “low key life where she did whatever needed to be done in order for her to survive.”
Even then, these descriptions are just snippets of who these people were—and what they meant to other people. In the transgender community of which I am a part—comprised of a mere 1.4 million of us in the United States—these deaths send shockwaves that are felt far beyond the victims’ inner circles.
This horrible violence, the unceasingness of it, is what keeps so many transgender people living in fear, especially those who are poor, or who are not white.
Two dozen killings are more than enough to make a tiny percentage of the population afraid of suffering a similar fate, whether in our homes or on the streets.
It’s easy for me to expect the violence to eventually dissipate from the privileged vantage point afforded by my whiteness and my employment.
People like me tend to think about these things in years: Surely, we think, 2018 is a better time to be gay in America than 1998. Life may be particularly challenging for people of color now, we assure ourselves, but at least it’s not 1950.
The myth that social progress is, as activist Bree Newsome recently put it on Twitter, a “byproduct of the passage of time”—the theory that these nu actually mean something, and that we should adjust our cultural expectations accordingly—has a certain, seductive sort of believability when you live your life in the box seats.
But for those who are most at risk of violence and discrimination, there’s no reason to automatically assume that 2018 should be any safer for the transgender community than 2017 or 2016 or 1999. After all, the social factors that perpetuate anti-transgender violence are still securely in place.
The shame that people feel around dating or having sex with transgender people has not disappeared—and we know that it is this shame that often propels sexual partners of transgender people to be violent toward them.
The laws still do not protect transgender people evenly across the country. The unemployment and poverty statistics remain high. Discrimination—in the workplace, in bathrooms, in public—is still widespread.
The only difference is that now, the Trump administration has been rolling back what few protections transgender people have secured, first removing important guidance on transgender students’ restroom usage and then trying to ban transgender people from military service.
The White House is still pushing forward on both of these counts in 2018. In fact, on Monday, as BuzzFeed reported, the Education Department announced that they will no longer handle transgender students’ civil rights complaints about discrimination in restrooms. As BuzzFeed also reported, a new anti-transgender military policy could come as soon as Feb. 21, after Trump’s initial ban suffered defeats in court last year.
Is it any surprise that anti-transgender violence is not abating in 2018 when the federal government seems determined not to protect this marginalized community, but to actively persecute it instead?
There is every reason to believe right now that things are getting worse for transgender people, not better. So why did I still expect 2018 to start off less violently than 2017 did?
Sure, there are a few transgender people on TV and in the movies now, but I think people in my position have been falsely conditioned to believe that a certain kind of media visibility precedes a deluge of acceptance.
It’s that sort of logic that led Joe Biden to declare that Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public [about same-sex marriage] than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”
Yes, that sitcom was important but the brunt of social change around same-sex relationships happened away from the television set, in difficult conversations between family members, friends, and co-workers. As a recent GLAAD survey suggested, even American support for same-sex couples has the potential to backslide.
I think, like too many people who are shielded from the worst forms of discrimination, I saw media visibility on the rise a few years ago and assumed that cultural acceptance for my community would automatically follow.
But after years of reading and writing about anti-transgender violence—after a half-decade of digesting a steady stream of stories that end in stabbing and beatings and shootings and drownings—I have come to know how mistaken I was.
The “Transgender Tipping Point,” as Time labeled it in 2014, won’t happen on TV or at an awards ceremony in a fashion show, although these phenomena certainly have their influence.
Media representation is powerful but more lasting forms of acceptance don’t trickle down; they get build from the bottom up. The true tipping point for transgender people will happen when families and friend groups begin staunchly defending the humanity of transgender people like Steele-Knudslien, Gutierrez, Harvey, and Walker.
Indeed, the social change that will help the people most in need of it won’t happen until both society and the government recognize anti-transgender violence as an epidemic and actively try to stop it.
Perhaps most importantly—or, at least, initially we need to stop assuming that anti-transgender violence will just decrease on its own. It won’t.