For decades, every year she’s been active in the transgender community, Isa Noyola has attended a funeral for a friend.
As deputy director at the Transgender Law Center based in Oakland, California, she has met many community members who have the same experience. “Death, profound loss, the violence that surrounds us, it’s constant. It’s a significant part of my transgender experience.”
Despite an all-time high in trans-visibility, with celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox now mainstream media stars, violence against the community is getting worse, community advocates say.
“You have this incredible pivotal moment of media visibility with pop culture, but it comes without education and deeper learning about the transgender community,” Noyola said. “Too many places remain unsafe.”
More than two dozen transgender people were killed last year, according to information gathered by CNN, the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group.
It’s impossible to know an exact count. Federal statistics are limited. There’s also “serious under-reporting,” according to the Williams Institute, a public policy think tank focused on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Another issue is that police, media and even family members will often misgender the victims, describing the person using the name and gender with which they did not identify. Of the 28 victims CNN found, the majority were misgendered initially, and in some cases, police and media continue to do so.
It was the second year in a row that more than two dozen members of the trans community were known to have been killed; 2017 was the deadliest on record. At least 29 transgender people were killed in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign. By the group’s calculations, there have been 128 killings of trans people in 87 cities across 32 states since 2013, of whom 80% were people of color.
All but one of the victims in 2018 were trans women, and all but one were people of color. That trend has been consistent for years.
“Transgender people, unfortunately, are at risk of violence everywhere,” said Beverly Tillery, program executive director with the New York City Anti-Violence Project whose National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has been tracking violence against the LGBTQ community since 1996.
The LGBTQ community is much more likely to be violently attacked than any other marginalized group in the United States, says the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that specializes in civil rights and public interest litigation. The transgender community appears especially vulnerable.
“When there is a mix of misogyny, transphobia and racism, people who live in the intersection of multiple identities, the violence they face can be inflamed by the multiplying prejudices,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and author of “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality.”
“While there certainly are examples of individuals killed by people they know, including partners, many of the transgender people who have been killed are murdered by almost complete strangers,” McBride said. “More people need to understand this epidemic of violence targeting marginalized people in this country, including transgender people, is hate-based and a byproduct of existing prejudice inflamed by politicians all too eager to appeal to the darker undercurrent of society.”
Eighteen of these known victims were shot. Four were stabbed. The homes of two victims were set on fire while they were still in them. Four were beaten to death.
Eighteen of the cases remain unsolved.
The victims range in age from 18 to 54. Eleven of the 28 victims were under the age of 30. Police found the youngest, Vontashia Bell, 18, lying in the street in Shreveport, Louisiana, in August, shot in the chest and wrist. She loved video games and was a self-described geek, according to her social media profile. Her case remains unsolved.
The oldest victim, Keisha Wells, 54, was shot in the stomach in June. She had a reputation for making everyone laugh and for spoiling her nieces and nephews. She was the second trans woman killed in Cleveland in 2018, and her case remains open.
On September 5, police found Shantee Tucker shot in the back along Old York Road in Philadelphia. According her Facebook memory page, she had just celebrated her 30th birthday. Months after she died, friends continue to post photos and messages of grief. The images show a joyful woman dancing and posing with friends. Her case remains open.