Proposing a “comprehensive look” at transgender homicides since 2010, Mic’s Meredith Talusan investigated in December 2016 “how and why trans lives are not counted and what we can do to end the violence.” The Mic report began with a revealing comparison of homicide figures: Among the general US population, one in 19,000 persons is murdered every year; for young adults, aged 15–34, the figure is one in 12,000. For black trans women in the same age range, the rate is one in 2,600. In 2015 FBI homicide data documented 15,696 murders. As Mic reported, “If in 2015 all Americans had the same risk of murder as young black trans women, there would have been 120,087 murders.” Put another way, although the total number of transgender homicides per year may seem small, it “represents a rate of violence that far exceeds that of the general population.”
And, in fact, as Talusan’s report went on to document, due to underreporting and misidentification (many trans murder victims are “misgendered” by officials and news reports, and even by immediate family members who sometimes reject a relative’s trans identity), the actual trans murder rate is likely “much higher.” The result of the Mic investigation is what Talusan described as a “comprehensive database” of transgender Americans who have died by homicide since 2010. 2010 was the first year that the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), an organization that tracks homicides in the transgender community, began its formal count.
As of late June 2017, GLAAD had documented fourteen transgender people killed in 2017, all of whom, its website noted, were transgender women of color. (See Alex Schmider, “GLAAD Calls for Increased and Accurate Media Coverage of Transgender Murders,” GLAAD, July 26, 2016, updated June 28, 2017; for previous Project Censored coverage on the media invisibility of trans homicides, see Caitlin McCoy and Susan Rahman, “Zero Media Coverage for Transgendered Murder Victims,” Project Censored, April 1, 2015.)
Between 2010 and 2016, Talusan summarized, at least 111 transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans were murdered “because of their gender identity.” Under the LGBTQ umbrella, she elaborated, no group “faces more violence” than transgender people, who accounted for 67 percent of the hate-related homicides against queer people in 2015, according to the NCAVP. The US Census does not track transgender people; and, although the FBI added gender identity to its records of hate crimes in 2014, it does not track gender identity along with its homicide statistics.
“At every stage,” Shannon Minter, a transgender attorney and legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told Mic, “there are bias-based obstacles” that diminish the chances that a trans person’s death by murder will be accounted for publicly, “and those levels reinforce each other.” People hesitate to even go to the police in some cases. Official records—from police reports and hospital records, to death certificates and obituaries—typically lack the means to represent transgender people. And even when police or coroners correctly identify a murder victim as transgender, law enforcement defer to families on releasing that information. A sergeant for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, DC, who is a transgender woman and the MPD’s LGBT liaison, told Mic, “I would never out anyone as trans during life or in their deaths, not coming from a police department.” Media reporting on transgender homicides is improving, said the NCAVP’s communications director, Sue Yacka, but “local press still has a long way to go.” Yacka routinely contacts news organizations to attempt to get them to use transgender victims’ names and genders. Similarly, in its report, GLAAD called on news media to “report on the brutal violence perpetrated against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color” and to “respect and use the lived identity, name, and pronoun of the victim.” But fundamentally, Talusan wrote, tracking transgender homicides is problematic because “gender identity can be difficult to pin down . . . Trans people don’t look or act just one way.”
Cases of homicide of transgender people are not only undercounted, they are also less likely to be solved and prosecuted. Mic reported that there have been “no arrests” in connection with 39 percent of transgender murders from 2010 to 2015. Furthermore, when perpetrators are found, the legal outcomes of those cases show “clear disparities” between victims who are black trans women and those who are not. People who kill black trans women and femmes are usually convicted of lesser charges—such as manslaughter or assault—than those who kill people of other trans identities, Mic found. In the time span studied, no case of trans homicide had resulted in a hate crime conviction, according to the report.
Despite these bleak circumstances, Talusan reported that recent activism focused on transgender murders might be having a positive effect. Juries are still hesitant to convict suspects of first-degree murder for killing a transgender person, but since 2010 just one case has resulted in a jury returning a not-guilty verdict. This, Talusan wrote, may encourage future prosecutors “to be more aggressive in pursuing murder convictions rather than settling for plea bargains.” Similarly, due to public pressure, police departments are responding to transgender-related violence with “greater awareness.” Perhaps most significantly, improved economic conditions, which would keep transgender people from being “forced to make choices that could endanger their lives,” will be fundamental to protecting them in the future. As Talusan reported, “a startling 34% of black trans people live in extreme poverty.”
Alex Schmider, “GLAAD Calls for Increased and Accurate Media Coverage of Transgender Murders,” GLAAD, July 26, 2016, updated June 28, 2017, http://www.glaad.org/blog/glaad-calls-increased-and-accurate-media-coverage-transgender-murders.
Meredith Talusan, “Documenting Trans Homicides,” Mic, December 8, 2016, https://mic.com/unerased.
Sandy E. James, Jody L. Herman, Susan Rankin, et al., “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey,” National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2016, http://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS Full Report – FINAL 1.6.17.pdf.
Trudy Ring, “Virginia Woman is 27th Trans Person Murdered in 2016,” Advocate, January 6, 2017, http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2017/1/06/virginia-woman-27th-trans-person-murdered-2016.
Student Researcher: Keira Andrews (Syracuse University)
Faculty Evaluator: Jeff Simmons (Syracuse University)