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A rise in transgender murders? There is for one particular minority group

A rise in transgender murders? There is for one particular minority group

Picture of Keren Landman
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Demonstrators at a rally for transgender rights in Chicago last year held a candlelight vigil to remember transgender friends lost to murder and suicide. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On July 31, 2017, TeeTee Dangerfield was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds in front of her College Park apartment complex, just outside Atlanta, Georgia.

According to news reports, she had been a natural leader, shop steward of her union's local, and beloved among friends for her nurturing ways. And as the reports mentioned, she was the 16th transgender person murdered in 2017, part of a rising wave of brutality targeting sexual minorities. 

In August 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) published a report detailing anti-LGBTQ hate violence that was notable for its mid-year timing: "[We] decided to issue this report early," the report states, "in hopes that it will raise awareness of the crisis."

That crisis, according to the report, was driven in part by the recent wave of murders of people of color who were transfeminine, a term for those who are assigned male at birth but identify and often present on the female side of the gender spectrum. At the time of the report's publication, the group had identified 16 hate-violence homicides within this population, one less than had been reported in all of 2016.

Alexis Dinno, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health in Portland, Oregon, hoped to turn a more scientific lens on media reports of transgender homicides. In a study published last year, she found that homicide rates among young transgender people as a whole were lower than those for young people who are not transgender. But there was an important exception: young black and Latina transfeminine people were at an increased risk for homicide compared with their non-transgender peers.

Tori Cooper, an Atlanta-based HIV health educator, transgender activist and a black transgender woman, has sensed that disproportionate risk acutely — and she suspects its causes are no different from those playing out in communities of color at large.

"Every aspect of our culture now is being inundated with images of violence and misogyny and disrespect," she said, as well as messages justifying violence against people we deem lesser than ourselves. She paints an image of identities and experiences stacked on a totem pole, with wealthy white men at the top. From an aggressor's perspective, she says, a person who is already lower on the totem pole by virtue of their skin color drops even lower for having a transgender identity — and lower still for being transfeminine, because they may be seen to have chosen to be female rather than a more-powerful male.

According to the NCAVP report, over 70 percent of all LGBTQ murders between January and August 2017 were perpetrated by offenders known to the victim, often a current or potential intimate partner. Internalized self-hatred related to sexual attraction may contribute to violence against a transgender partner, Cooper said.

While murders of transgender people are deeply concerning, said the researcher Dinno, it is not clear the rise in recent reports of such events represents a true increase in incidence. It could be that more murder victims are being identified as transgender. Transgender deaths have likely been historically undercounted due to problems identifying and documenting the transgender status of deceased individuals. 

And while social media has enabled media and law enforcement officials to crowdsource demographic details about victims of homicide, Cooper thinks the rise of social media has also encouraged violence against transgender people by spreading and normalizing transphobic rhetoric. Halting that violence, she said, will require broad efforts to educate the public about transgender people.

"It is everyone's responsibility to ensure Mr. and Ms. Jane Doe … know that trans people are just like you and me," she said, "and that there are probably some in your neighborhood you just don't know yet. And that you don't have a right to treat them differently because of who they are."

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