The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Transgender People Face Violence, Obstacles

by Megan Tady

Cast to the margins of society, gender-nonconformists have always lived under the threat of harassment and brutality, but a new report and vigilant voices of resistance aim to expose and challenge prevailing social stigmas.

Jan. 15, 2007 – From an early age, Margaux Ayn Schaffer – who was born male – identified as a girl. And from an early age, she was threatened for not conforming to her socially assigned gender.

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Schaffer recalls that in the eighth grade, she was beaten up by her peers at school, and that once, later in life, a group chased her from a train station.

"When I went to the security, they just said, ‘You should learn how to fight,’ and they were laughing at me," Schaffer said. Now 48, Schaffer is a male-to-female transsexual.

Living the way that makes Schaffer most comfortable, however, draws a stiff penalty from society. "There are harsh social sanctions for not following the gender lines," she said.

From schoolyard bullying to street harassment to brutal murders, violence is often a part of the transgender experience. The term transgender refers to anyone who transgresses traditional gender boundaries and includes cross-dressers and transsexuals.

"Most folks who... have a gender presentation that is somewhat non-conforming or different from the gender they were assigned at birth have had some experience with isolation, discrimination and violence," said Avy Skolnik, a coordinator with the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, who is transgender himself.

According to a 2005 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which analyzed incidents targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) in fifteen US cities and regions, 213 transgender people suffered anti-transgender offenses in 2004. The incidents included assaults, harassment and vandalism.

“Most folks who… have a gender presentation that is somewhat non-conforming or different from the gender they were assigned at birth have had some experience with isolation, discrimination and violence.”

In another report released last month, the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GPAC) detailed the deaths of 51 people under the age of 30 who may have been murdered because of their gender non-conformity.

The Coalition drew on hate crimes reports, newspaper accounts, websites and online databases to complete the report, which covers a decade. The group characterized the 51 murders as "definitely or probably" motivated by gender nonconformity, but warned that, "unless an assailant made a direct public statement – during the assault in front of surviving witnesses, in confiding to a friend, or at a trial afterwards – it was often impossible to determine with complete confidence whether gender was a factor in the crime."

The GPAC report included descriptions of each of the victims’ deaths. For instance, in 2002, Alejandro Lucero, a 25-year-old Hopi transgender woman, was strangled and beaten to death in Phoenix, Arizona. Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old black lesbian whose mother described her as "dress[ing] like a boy," was stabbed to death while waiting at a bus top in New Jersey in 2003. In 2005, Delilah Corrales, a 23-year-old transgender Latina woman, was stabbed, beaten and drowned in the Colorado River.

“Trans people generally don’t get stabbed once; they get stabbed 20 times, shot, burned and thrown into a dumpster.”

The website "Remembering our Dead" memorializes over 300 transgender people who have been murdered in the US and abroad over the last several decades.

A community on the margins

When a transgender person is murdered, the entire transgender community feels targeted, said Mara Keisling, who is transgender and the director of the DC-based National Center for Transgender Equality.

"Even though it appears that there’s not someone out there saying, ‘Let’s kill all the trans people,’ it does feel that way," Keisling told The NewStandard. In the past decade, seven transgender people under the age of 30 have been killed in Washington, DC, according to the GPAC report.

"Besides the fact that so many people lost someone they loved, it takes an emotional toll when you live in a place where you know you could get killed. Those are all horrible things to have to live with," she said.

It is not just through violence that the transgender community can feel targeted.

Often, just carrying a government-issued ID may expose a transgender person to an uncomfortable, humiliating or potentially threatening situation, if it displays a former name or gender presentation. But Skolnik said obtaining documentation that properly reflects a transgender person’s chosen identity and gender is costly and time-consuming, and often a class-based option.

Keisling said anti-transgender violence is part of a cycle of institutional barriers and economic disparities. She said that because of discrimination, many transgender people have fragile employment and housing situations, which in turn can leave transgender people more vulnerable to violence.

Schaffer said something as simple as not having a car can leave a transgender person vulnerable "if they’re having to use public transportation, or if they’re walking along the road."

“When your whole worldview is a dichotomy between white-black, bad-good, straight-gay, and suddenly you see there’s a whole continuum between them and everyone can move around -- well this is terrifying to most people.”

Patterns of age, race, class and original sex in anti-transgender violence weave intersections between marginalized groups in society.

According to the Gender Public Advocacy Campaign’s (GPAC) report detailing the murders of young people who transgressed gender boundaries, a majority of the victims – 91 percent of those for whom race was known – were young people of color.

Additionally, the report discovered that 92 percent of the victims were biologically male but presented varying degrees of femininity.

Taneika Taylor, director of communications for GPAC and co-author of the report, said young people and youth of color are particularly vulnerable to violence because they lack "sufficient financial and social capital to ensure their own safety."

Extreme violence

Beyond demographics, murders with suspected gender-based motivations typically share another characteristic: brutality.

"Trans people generally don’t get stabbed once; they get stabbed 20 times, shot, burned and thrown into a dumpster," Keisling said. For example, in 2002, seventeen-year-old Gwen Araujo, a Latina transgender teen, was beaten with a skillet and strangled to death while she was at a party with her peers, according to the GPAC report.

GPAC found that a majority of the victims were killed with violence "beyond that necessary to terminate life." In some cases, assailants continued to bludgeon, stab or shoot the victims even after death.

Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and author of books about men and masculinity, said gender-based violence can sometimes be sexualized.

"It’s because it’s about a kind of rejection of that sexuality," Kimmel told TNS. "It’s kind of like purging – not just by murdering something – but by annihilating it; by making it as if it never existed."

Strict gender lines

The rage against gender nonconformists, advocates say, is rooted in how people see and enforce gender roles.

Kimmel said transgender people disrupt a prevailing social concept that everyone can be classified in distinct categories, such as male and female, or gay and straight. Transgender identity, he said, "shows us something that we absolutely, desperately do not want to see: that [gender is] artificial."

"When your whole worldview is a dichotomy between white-black, bad-good, straight-gay," Kimmel argued, "and suddenly you see there’s a whole continuum between them and everyone can move around – well, this is terrifying to most people."

A society’s response to a transgender person, he said, is confusion and anger: "Are you a boy or are you a girl? What are you? You cannot occupy this space. You must choose. You must be one or the other."

But while some people may struggle to understand a transgender identity, Kimmel said it is usually only men who respond to it with violence. Of the 22 murders in the GPAC report with known assailants, all were committed by males.

"We have a very inflexible idea of what masculinity is," Kimmel said. "The violence is an effort to assert that masculinity."

Reporting anti-transgender violence

Advocates for transgender people say strict gender lines are reinforced by the media when reporting on gender-based violence – when the crimes are reported at all. According to GPAC, the murders of about one in four victims in its report received no media attention.

Keisling said it's difficult not only when the mainstream media does not cover anti-transgender violence, but also when the details of the crimes are wrongly reported. "If I were to get murdered," she said, "[reporters] might say, ‘a man’ or ‘a man in a wig and a dress.’ It’s disrespectful to the victim; it dehumanizes the victim."

Due to a general lack of understanding of transgender people, anti-transgender crimes are often classified as simply anti-gay by both the media and authorities. For instance, the FBI’s 2005 hate-crime statistics sort gender crimes by only homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual.

"If trans people are murdered, the public needs to know about it. Trans people need to know about it," Keisling said. "If that gets whitewashed as just gay people being killed, that wouldn’t [help] people to amply protect themselves."

Some transgender advocates have pushed for laws explicitly classifying anti-transgender violence as a hate crime, arguing that such violence targets not just an individual, but entire communities.

Though some states have enacted hate-crime legislation raising the penalties for crimes targeting people because of their gender expression, similar legislation at the federal level has stalled in Congress.

According to the GPAC report, 72 percent of the 51 attacks documented were not officially classified as hate crimes.

While the FBI reported that 62 percent of all murder cases in 2004 were "closed" or "solved" because of arrests made, only 46 percent of the murders in the GPAC report have been solved. The group said a failure to categorize the murders as hate crimes, a general lack of media attention and the marginalized social status of the victims may have contributed to the unsolved rate of anti-transgender crimes.

"When there’s not an appropriate response from authorities or from the media, it often means that there’s not a space for public outcry," Skolnik said. "It can get swept under the rug and it compounds the damage because it reconfirms the message that the offender was initially sending, which was, ‘Your community is not really important.’"

Positive trends

Despite the continued violence against transgender people, advocates say they are seeing some positive trends in combating the systemic discrimination and violence against gender nonconformists.

Ten states and Washington, DC have passed hate crime laws that extend to gender identity and expression. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Additionally, more than 70 colleges and universities and over 40 K-12 school districts include gender-identity and expression in their non-discrimination or anti-harassment policies.

But in spite of such policies, violence and discrimination against transgender people persists. The National Center for Lesbian Rights reported last January that although California passed a school harassment policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity six years ago, many schools were not in compliance.

Skolnik said that laws targeting gender-based hate crimes would go further in stopping the violence if they included provisions for public-education campaigns to raise awareness about the issue.

"Hate violence is a manifestation of society’s attitudes toward historically oppressed people, including communities of color, women, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, and the list goes on," Skolnik said. "When an incident happens, a significant public outcry and media response and rallying around a group or individual that was targeted not only provides support for the victim, but also sends that larger societal message."

The GPAC report called for mandatory diversity training for law-enforcement personnel on gender identity and expression issues, and for educators to include gender-identity curriculum in schools. The group is also asking for other human- and civil-rights groups to take up the cause of fighting anti-transgender violence.

"We need to see [anti-transgender] rage as a sickness – a cultural sickness – like racism or anti-Semitism or misogyny," Kimmel said. "It’s a cultural illness, so it demands a cultural response."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Megan Tady is a staff journalist.

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