Nationwide there have been 48 violent transgender deaths reported so far in 2021; that number surpasses the record high of 43 in 2020. The death toll is expected to continue rising. On November 18, a virtual gathering, Trans Day of Remembrance 2021, was held via NYC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center to honor those now dead and those still at risk.
“We’ve had four years of the Trump Administration, which was anti-trans. The overall message was that transgender individuals are disposable,” Trevon Mayers, the Center’s senior director of advocacy and community engagement, tells the Voice. He underscores that “when you have so much fear, misunderstanding, and misinformation about trans people, it’s easy to see why they find themselves in harm’s way.”
Sometimes that harm comes from within the larger queer civil rights movement.
“Transgender women are often murdered by people they know and are intimate with, or who wish to be intimate with us,” Elisa Crespo, executive director of the New Pride Agenda, tells the Voice.” She notes, “Society and transphobia have made it so that men who like trans women are deathly afraid of people knowing they like us.”
Both Mayers and Crespo believe that the queer civil rights movement is at a turning point and is now willing to examine its own history regarding trans issues. “We must look at our history from Stonewall forward and correct the record around trans issues, and advance legislation that protects trans and non-binary people,” Crespo says. To that end, the LGBT Community Center has established a legislative agenda known as the RiseOut People’s Platform, created with help from dozens of LGBTQ community leaders across New York State. “There’s lots of work to do. That’s why the Center’s work is intentional,” Mayers explains. “Violence against trans individuals, their erasure, has been built up over many years.”
Crespo points to the large number of trans individuals increasing their visibility: “We didn’t think we had such high numbers of trans and non-binary people and allies willing to support us.” The New Pride Agenda has already made introductory visits to Rochester, Buffalo, and Albany to introduce their plans, hear local perspectives on LGBTQ priorities, and recruit local board members, especially trans and non-binary people.
Sue Kerr also contributes to the renewed momentum around talking about trans violence. A founding editor of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and a 2019 GLAAD Media Award winner for her blog tracking trans deaths, she documents the trail of violence against trans individuals nationwide, including NYC. “It’s vital that we learn something about the life and the circumstances of each trans death,” Kerr tells us in an email. She sees it as her job “to share these deaths with my cis, gay male, and lesbian readers and allies, to help them understand that it is not okay to ignore a campaign of terror targeting our community just because we aren’t the main focus.”
Kerr’s work is a street-level version of the work performed by the New York City Anti-Violence Project. The nationally known program works specifically to elevate the experiences of transgender and non-binary people by coordinating a national coalition of anti-violence programs and an intimate partner violence network within New York State. “This is ultimately a problem of transphobia in our society, a problem that has taken many decades to develop,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project, tells the Voice. “We need to realize that a segment of the queer community is living daily in a chronic state of violence.” Tillery notes that over the past two years, “We’ve seen a large number of trans and non-binary individuals assume leadership roles in organizations within and outside queer settings. This will make a distinct difference. Finally, the people who are on the receiving end of so much hate and violence have opportunities to affect their future.”
Visibility is key to making change.
Although there are currently close to 1,000 queer elected officials in the U.S., as of the last general election only 42 are transgender, with eight serving in state legislatures, 32 in local offices, and two in the judiciary. Within that group, 35 are white, two are Native American/Alaskan Native, one is multiracial, three are Black, and one is Latinx-Hispanic. Every state but Mississippi now has at least one queer elected official; most are Democrats fueled by anti-Trump fervor. Overall, the number of queer elected officials has surged by 17% in the past year. The record number of queer candidates who ran in last November’s general election was at an all-time high, perhaps signaling a sea change. The LGBTQ Victory Fund reports that more than 400 LGBTQ candidates ran for office in 2021, a 7% increase over the last off-year election, in 2019.
Serena Sonoma, GLAAD’s communications coordinator, tells the Voice, “Violence is being fueled by dangerous and inaccurate rhetoric, misinformation spread by public figures, including lawmakers, who should be doing everything in their power to protect vulnerable people, not target them.” As more transgender and gender-nonconforming people come out, she notes, more people are getting to know them as friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and family.
The 2021 Accelerating Acceptance Report, conducted by GLAAD, found that 43% of non-LGBTQ people think gender is not exclusively male or female, up five points in one year; 81% expect that non-binary and transgender people will become as familiar as gay and lesbian people are now. But as visibility grows, the risk can also increase, especially as those who don’t accept them spread lies about who they are.
Factoring into this equation, Sonoma says, are “media perceptions of the trans community.” According to Media Matters, broadcast and cable TV news spent only 54 minutes covering anti-trans violence in the past year. “Media can do their part by including transgender voices in news stories and entertainment programming, to increase familiarity over the lies spread by people who don’t know or accept them,” she explains.
Former Houston mayor and current LGBTQ Victory Fund president and CEO Annise Parker says of the current cultural climate: “With LGBTQ lives increasingly used as a political weapon in school boards, city councils, and state legislatures across America, LGBTQ people are motivated and stepping up to run in historic numbers.” In New York State’s last general election, 18 queer candidates ran, with 13 winning office.
But even with these gains, the Human Rights Campaign’s deputy director of communications, Laurel Powell, in a conversation with the Voice, predicted that the year will not end well. “We expect that 2021 will become the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender-nonconforming people,” she says. “This senseless violence has been driven by bigotry and transphobia and stoked by people who hate and fear transgender people and the richness of our experience. This violence must stop.”
At the November 12 daily press briefing, Washington Blade White House Correspondent Chris Johnson asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki if President Biden had been briefed on the growing number of transgender deaths. Psaki indicated that she was not sure, but that she would ask Biden and the Domestic Policy Council. She then said, “That’s devastating, and that’s terrible and heartbreaking to hear.”
“Every life has value,” concludes Powell. “The fight for lived equality is long, but it’s a fight we must win.” ❖