Racism, Sexism, and Cis-Sexism are Killing Transgender Women of Color

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A while back, I wrote about the “F-ing Travesty” that is the alarming number of murders of trans women of color (see the link at the bottom of this piece), and that very little seems to be done about it. Tomorrow (November 20, 2019) is Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we remember the deaths of those this year who were killed for being trans.

But why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

Racism, Sexism, Cis-Sexism

The answer to the first question is complex but amounts to the following: our society has huge problems with racism and sexism. Following on from the sexism is cis-sexism. We live in a world that values non-trans lives over trans lives (and often does not even acknowledge the existence of those trans lives). This can lead to homophobia and transphobia.

Simply put, our society is structured to benefit people of a particular race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. A lot of people are on the wrong side of one or two of those (queer trans woman raising her hand here!), but trans women of color often check all those boxes.

Worldwide Racism, Misogyny, and Blaming the Victim

And this is not just in the U.S. but worldwide. A recent Forbes article reports over 300 transgender murders worldwide. Most are in Brazil, which continues to be a dangerous place to be poor, trans, and a woman of color. The U.S. is at 30, though, which is plenty, thank you very much.

This article brings up something else that has been discussed in regard to my earlier pieces. 61% of the trans people murdered were sex workers. I have seen commenters dismiss the high number of murders because many of them were sex workers, as if that excuses it somehow. This classic case of blaming the victim, however, that only demonstrates how dire the situation is.

People don’t usually resort to sex work — especially the kind that makes them most vulnerable, such as street prostitution — if they have other means. Trans women, especially trans women of color, often have fewer employment opportunities and are stuck working for survival in a situation that makes them more vulnerable. This situation is exacerbated by the number of young trans people who are kicked out of their homes and have no other way to support themselves.

It is also true that, because of the preponderance of trans women of color who do need to support themselves with sex work, trans women of color who aren’t sex workers often get labeled as such.

This is an example of racial and gender profiling that occurs almost exclusively in the trans community, especially with trans women of color. Trans women of color often get stopped by police just for walking down the street, despite how they are dressed or even what neighborhood they are in.

The community has a name for this: “Walking While Trans.” In a Mic article of the same name, serena Daniari relates one of the more infamous cases of this:

In May 2013, Monica Jones, a black transgender woman and prominent activist for sex-worker rights, was heading to a neighborhood bar in Phoenix when she was approached by two men offering to give her a ride. After entering the car, Jones, a student at Arizona State University at the time, was repeatedly asked about prices and services — despite her assertions that she was not engaging in sex work. The two men, actually undercover police officers performing a sting operation, arrested Jones. She spent 15 days in jail. In April 2014, she was found guilty of “manifesting prostitution.”

The Role of Race and Racism

According to a recent ABC article, Human Rights Campaign reports:

In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 U.S. murders involving transgender victims, with black trans women representing an overwhelming majority.

Race in particular plays an enormous role. Whether we want to admit it or not, we live in a society primarily set up to benefit white people. It doesn’t matter how individual white people think or act; it is a matter of structural racism. The system is rigged and the house always wins. Can we do something to change this? Yes. I absolutely believe that or I wouldn’t be writing about this. More on that later.

Sexism and Cis-sexism

In the figures I’ve referenced, you will find that a disproportionately large number of the trans people killed each year are trans women. There are probably many reasons for this. One is that trans women often stick out. In the early part of transition — and often later — a trans woman may not look a lot like a typical cisgender woman might, making her more of a target to those who have a problem with trans people.

The case that always comes to mind when I bring this up is that of Islan Nettles. She was walking down a street in Harlem when a man started flirting with her. When he and his friends noticed she was trans, he killed her.

The Nettles case is an example of the anti-trans hate that still exists and drives many of these murders. Notice that Islan had not flirted back, that this was entirely driven by male ego.

Which brings us to the sexism part. Whether trans or cis, women are far too often treated as property or sexual objects. Islan Nettles hadn’t asked to be treated as a potential sex partner. The fact she was seen as such by her attacker is a big part of why she died.

So the patriarchy affects trans women as much as it affects cis women. In the case of far too many trans women of color, the proximate effect is death.

What Can We Do About This?

As I said, I wouldn’t be talking about this if I didn’t believe there were things we could do.

The situation reflects a confluence of many forces at work. Sexism, cis-sexism, racism, classism.

The first solution I can think of would address the cis-sexism and the sexism. That would be to promote the idea that trans women are women and that they deserve the same respect and dignity as any other human beings. In many states, transgender people can be legally discriminated against, and crimes perpetuated against them only because they are trans are not considered hate crimes.

Once we can treat the most vulnerable members of our society with the same regard as others, then we will, at last, be getting somewhere.

As I pointed out, this is a sexism problem, too. Any attempts to dismantle patriarchy, to neutralize the effects of sexism will benefit these women, just as it does any other kinds of women.

The racial aspect of this is, perhaps the hardest to address. As a white woman, I have white privilege. I choose to use that privilege to call out instances of institutional racism. This would indeed be one of those instances.

Beyond using my voice, though, I think it is important to bring in voices of color. Trans women, non-binary people, and trans men of color all have spoken and written about this and their voices need to be lifted up.

Who are these people we should listen to? Here are but a few:

Trans-feminine: Laverne Cox; Angelica Ross; Janet Mock, Miss Major Griffin Gracy, Ruby Corrado, CeCe MacDonald, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Bamby Salcedo.

Non-binary: Charlie Bartlett (Medium’s own, and someone I follow); Indya Moore; everyone on this list of gender-queer and Non-binary people in the arts (as well as the author); Laurence Philomène; Jackson Akitt.

Trans men: Medium’s own (and someone else I follow) BFoundAPen; Kye Allums; Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson; Kylar Broadus; Kai M. Green; Kortney Ryan Ziegler; J Mase III.

Part of a Bigger Problem

Finally, it is important to note that this is part of a bigger problem. More to the point, it is part of a larger set of problems. These folx aren’t the only people of color caught up in a racist system. Trans people of color are not the only gender or sexual minorities to find themselves on the wrong side of hate and bigotry. Trans women of color are not the only women to find themselves on the wrong side of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

They are, unfortunately, people who find themselves at the intersection of all of these deadly forces.

Please join me in fighting these forces and making the world safer for everyone.

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