Dana Martin, Jazzaline Ware, Ashanti Carmon, Claire Legato, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, Paris Cameron, Chynal Lindsey, Chanel Scurlock and Zoe Spears. These are the names of the black trans womxn murdered in 2019.
Ten murders in the span of approximately six months. In addition, Johana “Joa” Medina and Layleen Polanco, both trans Latinx womxn, have died this year after being held in custody by the U.S. government. Medina perished shortly after being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, and Polanco was found dead in her cell in New York’s Rikers Island Jail.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2018, at least 26 trans womxn were killed in America, and the majority were black.
This high death rate is not new, and shouldn’t be surprising. It is clear there is erasure happening here. The question is, are we willing to be intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that fact?
I am a black individual who was assigned female at birth and who now identifies as nonbinary — I don’t identify as either male or female. I am no stranger to intersectionality, or the points of my identity that breed unique social, political and economic adversity. And I know that, due to a lack of representation in most situations, a person like me may be forced to choose which parts of their identity they will be loyal to at any given time.
The murders of the aforementioned womxn are glaring examples of these intersections of identity. Layleen Polanco died in solitary confinement just two months after being arrested. She was unable to pay a $500 bond. Incarceration is experienced at a disproportionately high rate in communities of color, which are also more likely to experience poverty. And those two factors create a toxic stew — a person without a job, or with a low-paying job, is less likely to be able to pay a bond or afford a lawyer.
A trans person is also more likely to be a victim of violence in the prison system, especially considering the fact that trans womxn are routinely housed in male facilities.
According to a 2018 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, federal data shows that “transgender people are nearly 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population.”
All of these factors become a breeding ground for tragic circumstances.
The 10 black trans womxn murdered so far this year all starkly reflect the same intersections as Polanco, however their killings took place outside of government institutions. In at least seven of the 10 cases, the womxn were shot. Many were found in ditches or parked cars.
Following a traffic accident, Muhlaysia Booker was violently assaulted by a 29-year-old man who, along with a group of others, was apparently offered $200 to beat her. The brutal attack was captured on camera and widely shared. One month later, Booker was murdered.
It is not a coincidence that a majority of these cases go unsolved, or that the victims’ names often appear in quotation marks in news articles, or that investigators often insist on using victims’ former names — “deadnaming” them.
In many cases, the assailants are members of their victim’s community. In Booker’s case, Kendrell Lavar Lyles, a cisgender black man from her neighborhood, has been arrested and charged with her murder and is a person of interest in the murder of Chynal Lindsey.
Repeat demonstrations of violence from the black community often contribute to the false narrative that black liberation does not include transness.
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found 29 percent of transgender people live in poverty and 15 percent are unemployed — that last figure rises to 26 percent for trans people of color, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force. GLAAD reports that the average lifespan for an American trans woman of color is 35. All of this data is connected by one theme: the erasure of humanity — a failure to see those who wish only to be seen as the fully realized human beings they are. And this failure casts an insurmountable shadow over the light of each of these womxn’s possibilities.
Something must be done to help trans womxn of color. The conversation needs to shift to the origins of the systemic adversities faced by these womxn. The media must tell these womxn’s stories with a voice of genuine concern and dignity.
The days of casting aspersion due to lack of understanding are gone. Ignorance no longer is an excuse. This is urgent — a crisis, if the definition holds true.
Black Trans Lives Matter.
Stoney Bertz lives and works in Denver. They enjoy making music and studying history at Metro State University of Denver.