Last night I gave this speech at Day of Remembrance, addressing the way trans identity, race, gender, immigration, sex work, and police brutality have all become major factors in anti-trans killings.
Every year we take this time to review the losses our community has faced. And each year it feels like a slam in the gut. In an attempt to make sense out of it all, we try to put the pieces together. It seems so senseless, but part of why it is so prevalent is that to many people, trans people are the most sensible victims to choose. We are looking at the result of a society that treats certain people as disposable.
Don't fool yourself, it's not just trans people that we are talking about. We're talking about undocumented immigrants, the homeless, sex workers, people of color, women. And this year as with every year, the trans people on this list are many if not most or all of the above.
The fact is, if you're going to kill someone and want to get away with it, a trans woman of color doing sex work is your best bet. I can only imagine that's what Terron Oates was thinking two years ago the night he brought an illegally owned gun along with him to a strip club and cruised the streets known as an area to pick up trans sex workers.
He later claimed that he didn't know that Alexis King was trans, that she grabbed his hand and placed it on her genitals, and that in a panic, he shot her. Despite the facts in disagreement - she was shot from behind, not the front, and paramedics testified that her genitals were firmly tucked away - this year he was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter.
It's a common enough story. When Angie Zapata was killed this year, her killer Allen Ray Andrade claimed that she never told him that she was trans when they met on a date. According to his story, when he became suspicious of her body, he grabbed her crotch - an action generally considered sexual assault when the woman isn't trans - then went into a rage. He later told his girlfriend that "gay things had to die," and that he "killed it." However, we later found out from Angie's sisters that she was very careful to always disclose her trans status to dates. It seems Andrade's story is a lie.
All of us need to learn - and truly internalize - that the reason we hear so many cases like this is not because trans women are such bad judges of character, nor is it that calm and reasonable people generally respond to someone's disclosure of trans status with murderous rage. We hear these stories so often for one simple reason, because these killers are very aware that telling stories like these are likely to significantly reduce their sentences.
Whenever people don't understand a crime, there is a tendency to simply call it horrid and set it aside. It's unthinkable, so don't think about it. But we'd be doing a disservice to the dead if we simply cast aside the monsters and ignored the circumstances that allowed them to act.
Earlier this summer, Duanna Johnson was beaten by the police while in custody. One officer James Swain held her down while officer Bridges McRae maced her then beat her with handcuffs wrapped around his fist. Other jail employees witnessed the event but did nothing to intervene. It sent a clear message. She's black, trans, probably arrested for suspicion of sex work, and all that put together meant that she was obviously disposable.
When she complained, at first the police force refused to do anything about it. It was only when video footage of the beating was leaked to the internet that they took action and fired the two officers. And it was only yesterday, months after the fact, that charges were filed.
Duanna filed a lawsuit against the city, and with the surveillance video footage, she had a good case. That is, until she was killed, execution style, by three unknown people. Just 11 days ago. She was the third black trans woman killed in Memphis in as many years.
The police have claimed that they have no suspects and no motive, but I think the reality is that they have no interest in solving the case. They didn't respond to the assault until the video was made public. They didn't arrest McRae until after she was killed. What reason should we have that they will act now? Considering that Duanna Johnson's death just saved the Memphis Police Department $1.3 million dollars, it's not too hard to see how they might have a conflict of interests.
It's no wonder that the police aren't exactly trusted by the trans community. We shouldn't forget Aimee Wilcoxson who isn't on this list but died last Thursday. Her friends, including the person who found her, have reason to believe it was murder. However, the police are insisting that it was a suicide with a flimsy story that contradicts evidence her friends have collected.
I could go on and on. There are dozens of stories here - where police have excused these murderers, where police have refused to investigate these crimes, and where the trans community suspects the police were involved in committing the murders themselves. In fact, law enforcement agents themselves make up one of the largest sources of anti-trans harassment and violence. Consider the case of Elly Susanna who, while doing outreach to promote the Day of Remembrance last year, was arrested by Indonesian police who then gang-raped her and drowned her. Or Ali and two others, who earlier this year were arrested, humiliated, and executed by US-backed Iraqi police just for being trans. And if you think that's just something that happens elsewhere, Amnesty International put together a report about all the human rights abuses of trans people by U.S. law enforcement agents.
Unfortunately, the attention the issue of violence against trans people gets is minimal. Even in LGBT organizations, trans issues are consistently overshadowed by "more important" issues.
When our organizations do address anti-trans violence, the only action offered is the passage of hate crimes legislation. However, hate crimes sentencing enhancements only gives more power to a system we already know has anti-trans and racist leanings.
Sentencing enhancements won't get police to investigate crimes they don't take seriously to begin with. They won't stop police from harassing trans women on the street because they assume all trans women are sex workers. They won't have any effect against police officers who believe they won't be held accountable. They won't sway the minds of jurors who think "I killed her because she was trans" is an adequate excuse.
Sentencing enhancements will allow them to dole out harsher punishments against the people who they think are more deserving. And we already know that the legal system sees people of color, women, sex workers, immigrants, and the homeless as more deserving of punishment. Because, of course, they are the disposable people.
There are other options out there that could be a lot more effective, like San Francisco's Proposition K. Prop K would have decriminalized prostitution, prohibiting local authorities from investigating, arresting, or prosecuting anyone solely for selling sex. For a population that traditionally has been unable to go to police for help, passage would make it easier to report violence without fear of arrest and increase safety for sex workers. Not to mention that it would put an end to police profiling and harassment of trans women as possible sex workers.
Despite his status as a hero among gays and lesbians due to his stance on marriage, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spent the last week before the election holding a press conference not to campaign against the marriage ban, but to campaign against this proposition for sex workers safety. We shouldn't forget that he also opposed a homeless shelter for queer and trans youth on the basis that it might reduce property values. Apparently he's supportive of queer rights as long as we're talking about queer people who are white, cisgender, middleclass. Remember, it's only after the disposable people have been disposed of and the city is "cleaned up" that property values rise.
Tonight is about remembering the pain of those we've lost, but it's also about taking action. Call the DA, Police Director, and Sheriff in Memphis and demand justice for Duanna Johnson. Support organizations like the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP). Refuse to support the Human Rights Campaign until they stop advocating for a trans exclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Demand that your LGBT organizations begin prioritizing issues that matter to the trans community. Together we can make a difference. But change won't begin until we stop fighting for our own rights and start fighting for everyone's. We must be clear that no one is expendable and we will not leave behind or forget the members of our community who would otherwise be considered disposable.
For information about how to advocate for Duanna Johnson's case, follow this link.
If you appreciated this analysis and want to see a more in depth version, my DOR speech from 2007 was about three times longer and was able to do a better job flushing out the connections between these different identity issues.