By TYRICE HESTER
Whenever Katrina Lee is approached by a man on the street, she does anything she can to maneuver herself out of the situation. She believes that as a person who identifies as a black transgender woman, this could save her life.
“As a trans woman you have to be careful who you are dealing with. You can’t control how cis-gender men behave,” said Lee, a 24-year-old Brooklyn resident and biology major Hunter College.
She wants to avoid the fate of Islan Nettles.
In 2013, Nettles, a Harlem resident, and two friends were walking on Frederick Douglass Boulevard when 25-year-old James Dixon approached them with friends. According to a taped confession reviewed in court in April, Dixon began flirting with Nettles, but became enraged when his friends made fun of him for talking to a transgender woman. Before long, Nettles was knocked unconscious by Dixon, battered and sent into a coma. One week later she was removed from life support and died from sustained head injuries. She was 21 years old and a black transgender woman.
“In order to avoid situations like Nettles, who was harassed and murdered for simply replying to a man’s catcall, I have told men that I wasn’t interested, I’ve told them I have a boyfriend, I’ve even told them I’m a lesbian. . . . anything to get them off my heels,” Lee said. “Because of the stigma of being transgender, we aren’t a protected people.”
In 2012 at least 12 transgender women were murdered in the United States. According to the Human Rights Campaign, that number increased to at least 21 in 2015. The vast majority of them were black and younger than 25. Law enforcement agencies believe this number to be underestimated.
According to Advocate.com, the LGBTQ magazine, transgender people, more specifically transgender black women, are “under attack like never before.” It said there were 23 homicides in which transgendered people were the victims last year , and that 17 were black transgender women or black gender non-conforming.
On the evening of Feb. 20, the body of a transgender woman was found in the street of a quiet Philadelphia neighborhood. She had been stabbed. Police officers hurried the victim to the nearby Aria Health Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Maya Young was 25 years old.
Less than 24 hours before, police discovered the body of Veronica Banks Cano in a San Antonio, Texas motel bathtub, fully clothed. Both 43-year-old Cano and Young were identified as transgender black women.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation defines the term transgender as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” It defines gender non-conforming as a term “used to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity.”
In 2015 triumphant strides were made towards better transgender representation in television. The critically acclaimed Sundance film “Tangerine” centered entirely on a transgender cast. Caitlyn Jenner transitioned in the public eye with a celebrity status that garnered national attention. And a star of “Orange is The New Black,” Laverne Cox, was nominated for an Emmy for her role as a transgender inmate.
Yet these symbols of progress do not entirely represent underlying issues the community faces at large. Last year, more transgender women were murdered in the United States than ever before. Violence against this particular group of people has risen sharply since 2013.
Over the span of three years, six black transgender women were killed In Detroit. Studies show that transgender people experience higher levels of discrimination than their LGBQ peers. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted a study in 2011 that revealed, “In every area of life (transgender people) have higher levers of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, negative interactions with police, incarceration and violent victimization.” This disparity has contributed to the rise in deaths.
Within the last four years the Human Rights Campaign reported some 44 bills implemented towards putting restrictions on transgender people, one of which has made national headlines across the country. North Carolina has been at the center of controversy after Gov. Pat McCrory introduced and passed the House Bill 2 in one day.
The bill prohibits transgender people from using the bathroom of the sex that they identify with, instead opting for the one recorded on their birth certificate. Representatives for the state have said the bill does not do away any preexisting protections for LGBTQ people. The transgender community and many others have disagreed strongly.
“Being made out to seem like transgendered people have the behavior of pedophiles is dehumanizing,” says Taliyah Robinson, 26, an educational specialist of transgender youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute. “I feel like we’re in a time where transgender people are gaining more visibility, which is a good thing but people are scared of things they don’t understand. That absence of understanding causes intolerance and a lack of respect. You can’t tell me I’m not the person that I am, because of how you feel about it.”
In the first five months of 2016, 10 transgender women were reported to have been murdered in the United States.
“Protecting people against violence is something our government should be able to do,” said Christian Omneros, a queer activist with the TheColorofChange.com. “The government has to offer incentives on how to combat hate crimes. At the very least they should be able to better track statistics. That way when the numbers show the reality, they will realize that this is a huge issue. North Carolina has gone out of its way to prosecute a vulnerable population of people and we’re going to fight them until they realize it.”
Photo: Memorial for slain transgender black women in a Crown Heights, Brooklyn apartment. Photo by Brendan Logan Smith. Sketches by Micah Bazant.