It’s not spoken of much, and gets an obscenely light, uncaring treatment in straight or GLBT press, much less being acknowledged by political leaders or law enforcement. But there’s a war going on out there, and black transgender women are the target. I’m not saying that it’s only black trans women facing frequent anti-trans – there are large number of latina transwomen as well – nor is it to say that trans men of color aren’t facing the same threats. But the reported killings compiled against all transgenders are showing a very notable disproportion of black trans women being the prime target of murder, especially in the U.S.
The Taysia Elzy incident in north Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple neighborhood is just the latest incident in a litany of deaths in the African-American trans community these past years. Any year is dangerous for anyone who is trans, and especially so for trans people of color. Yet this year has been especially brutal, and in virtually every incident reported also maddeningly brushed off as “probably not a hate crime” by law enforcement.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t trans-women, especially people of color, who aren’t doing sex-work for survival because there are zero employment opportunities available to them. As a friend of mine, Monica Roberts, used to say, it’s the curse of “a triple minority – being woman, black and transgender.”
That said, it is also wholly inaccurate – as both the Indianapolis media and spokespeople for law enforcement have done – to paint every transwoman of color, especially black transwomen, as being “hookers” and then simply writing off their murders to “mitigating circumstances” of living “a dangerous lifestyle,” what with all the sex work, transgenderism and the seedy environs that “oldest profession” inhabits. This particular case treated the victim and her boyfriend as the seedy inhabitants, even though the two lived in a rather normal lifestyle with jobs and a home in a middle class neighborhood.
“We have lives, feelings and blood just like every other human being.” — trans activist and Stonewall Veteran, Sylvia Rivera after the death of Amanda Milan
Law enforcement, and oftentimes an ignorant media, has a very bad habit of writing off transwomen who work the streets as almost deserving of their murders due to the sex trade in general. It’s something they tend to do with any prostitute murders. However, many trans women of color tend to be conveniently swept into that presumption automatically – and quite inaccurately. The signs of this are plastered all over Taysia Elzy’s case and its media coverage.
Monica Roberts’ Transgriot Blog had this to say about the news coming from Elzy’s murder:
I'm sick of the Indy media using mug shots when there are photos of Taysia and Michael as a couple. … What Taysia's birth name was prior to the killing or whether she's had SRS or not is not germane to the fact that she and her boyfriend are now dead. Oh yeah … just because a bioman is dating a pre-op, post op (or ANY) transwoman, it doesn't make him gay.
Once again media peeps, and try to focus here. this is what your journalistic Bible, the AP Stylebook has to say about covering transgender people:
Transgender-Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
The other thing that's pissing me off is the nasty, racist and transphobic comments being posted by some peeps on the Indy Star comment threads covering the killings.
It didn't help that the Indy media posted the couple's mug shots early on in the coverage and some of them are still doing so despite having other photos available.
But I guess when you wish to paint the transsistah and African-Americans in the worst possible light, even in death, other photos don't matter.
Neither the police nor the media in Indianapolis can get beyond using Elzy’s male birth name, nor salaciously pointing out that “Avery” was living an “alternative lifestyle” – while posting arrest mug shots on TV. They can’t get beyond the controversy of the victims’ personal lives, and by their own inadvertent assistance, help create a default sympathy (or at least understanding the mindset) of the murderer!
This sends a distinct message to the transgender community about how the authorities and media view us, jading us towards any dealings with them. Worse, there is another more sublime message communicated to the community who views or reads these reports: these victims aren’t to be respected, their memories don’t need to be honored and they aren’t really as human nor their deaths as important as if it were a straight, white murder victim. This ham-handed treatment becomes indirectly complicit in ripping the humanity from the victims and in the process validating these acts by these murderers motivated by hate.
Taysia Elzy’s murder is just a current catalyst, but this is only the surface of the tip of the iceberg which runs very deep. Black transwomen have been the bulk of the hate crimes populating America’s list on the Remembering Our Dead website and the annual Day Of Remembrances held every year on November 20, memorializing the transgendered victims of hate-based murders. Now as the global economy sinks, more of the spontaneous, senseless violence will be acted out upon categories that are (to the perpetrators) convenient categories for their personal frustration and aggression. We’re staring at a perfect storm, a bloodbath that will especially hit transwomen of color.
“Their treatment of us strips us of our humanity! Animals receive better treatment than Amanda Milan got!” — Vanessa Edwards Foster speaking at the Amanda Milan vigil in May, 2001
Back in the 80’s, over a decade before my own transition, I hung out with my crew back in Corpus Christi. We were the Skunks, or the Skunk Pack officially, and would hang out on The Slab: the epicenter of the old Leathers Projects in what was affectionately known as The Cut – Corpus’ version of Harlem or Watts or the Fifth Ward or Ninth Ward. Essentially it was the roughest of the rough. One of the things that both shocked and impressed me was one African American trans girl who would walk up Nueces Street, right through The Slab on her way up to “the streets” to “work” up in The Cut. She was not at all clandestine about it – quite open! Broad daylight, in the middle of the night while all of us were hanging out: nothing fazed her. She would walk right through to the cat-calls and yelled commentary from all the “street dawgs.”
To me, she was astonishing: first by knowing that that type of thing could not occur in any other side of town – the physical violence would’ve been immediate and serious (I’d have been killed doing that on North Beach!). Secondly was the incredible courage to even attempt that, much less muster up the chutzpah to do it, and to do so in one of the most dangerous areas of the city! That was brave beyond belief – or temerity in the face of terror, one of the two!
Of course the commentary would fly! Potts, our unofficial “lead dawg” (who resembled Mr. T without the gold chains or haircut and with more of a beer belly), would shout out, “Awright Miss Shawn!” (seemingly progressive, though it was uttered in attempt to get under her skin – not to acknowledge that she was female). There were other yelled comments from Potts and the others about “eating dat cum, ” “let me base in yo’ face” as well as the obligatory “faggot” comments. But they were always laughing and smiling, no one taking anything seriously, much less physical violence. Each of them were just trying to ruffle “Shawn’s” feathers, and she gamely tossing some zinging comebacks.
Folks in The Cut knew Shawn from growing up, and they all took it with a grain of salt. It left me, at that time, with an inaccurate sense that being trans was openly more easily accepted in the African-American community. After everything I’ve witnessed since transition, though, I’ve been disabused of that misimpression.
Trans women of color face some of the most aggressive violence from their own, most especially today. It almost seems there’s a more conservative push (maybe from religion?) in the African American community these days. While there is a commensurate segment of the African American community that is on “the down low” even though they eschew any connection to being gay, transwomen don’t have that surreptitious luxury. They’re more known, and tend to be the highly visible and most easily targeted receivers of all the aggression towards “gay” (as a concept) in the black community. So for officers-on-the-beat looking to clear items out of their “in-box,” writing cases off as “hookers with pissed off johns” conveniently clears their dockets, and require little to any investigation. Tag their toes, move ‘em down the processing line – next!
Meanwhile, nothing is done about the root cause of this violence.
We finally have a man of color coming to the White House this session, and hopefully an opportunity to address and pass a fully comprehensive Hate Crimes Act that also finally adds and monitors statistics on anti-transgender murders. If we could only dream, maybe we can encourage President Obama to use his bully pulpit to go further and address the mitigating issue – lack of employment opportunities – that leads so many transwomen into the sex trade and into danger.
But will our political leaders use this opportunity for change?
“In real life, you can't get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life... Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do, are usually straight.” — Dorian Corey, from the movie “Paris Is Burning.”
This past fall at Fantasia Fair, a friend expressed concerns that were eating at her. She’s a crossdresser who works at a national electronics retailer, and was privy to discussions of her African-American co-workers who were monitoring and expressing their opinions on “America’s Top Model” – and specifically the transsexual model, Isis, who was a prominent character on the show.
My friend “Michelle” noted the conversations surrounding Isis as harrowing. The co-workers, all African-American in this incident, noted “his” (Isis’) “deceptive” looks – a bit too passable (perhaps attractive?). Michelle also noted how they mused about the best way to “take care” of this: a few more of these [Amanda Milan] type of incidents to “send a message to the rest of” the community (trans, and presumably the ‘down low’ community) about “what happens” when they do this in a “public” fashion. To these potential perpetrators, it’s about image, it’s about racial pride, and it’s about paranoia of anything that undermines this in their estimation. It’s possible it could even about questioning their own selves.
Per Michelle’s retelling they swore that, “Once we have enough of these [hate-based incidents] happening, they’ll get the message. We won’t have this … anymore.”
Well, we’ve heard the message. That message sucks. It’s especially infuriating coming from others who have also suffered at the hands of prejudice and violence to then turn around and have no problem thinking in that same mindset. Men in all communities, African-American and otherwise, need to begin a dialogue about getting beyond their phobias and the paranoid reactions they have on people do not pose a threat – especially a physical threat. Homophobia and transphobia of all types needs to cease immediately – even if we have to throw the book at those who commit these acts.
This war will not stand!
“We will never tolerate the hatred that other communities direct toward us.” — trans activist and Stonewall Veteran, Sylvia Rivera