The Media Aren’t The Only Ones Failing Transgender Women of Color

We all are.

I think we can all agree at this point that the coverage of transgender women in mainstream media is terrible. The handling of trans issues is not exactly positive even at the best of times, and this is despite handy media guides put out by the likes of GLAAD. When it comes to transgender women of colour (TWoC) the coverage gets worse, it spans all the way from disrespectful at one end to abusive lies at the other and recent tragedies have brought this to light in the worst way.

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Certain police, politicians and media have come together to promote the idea that trans women are a danger to cisgender women in restrooms. The reality is the reverse of that; trans women are the ones who get abused in restrooms. Most of the trans women I know are scared of using public restrooms due to abuse we get from cisgender people and the constant threat of violence we face. Statistically 70% of trans people report they’ve been abused in a restroom. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The level of misrepresentation and double speak is contributing to a dangerous environment for trans women in the US and this gross attitude is most prevalent toward TWoC. It’s a shocking statistic but during the first five weeks of 2015 six TWoC have been murdered in the United States. Is the media up in arms about this insanely high murder rate? Two people caught Ebola in the US and the media went into a frenzy that lasted weeks. After six murders of TWoC the media has barely reacted.

Transgender women are killed at a rate that is ten times higher than cisgender people. In 2014 thirteen trans women were murdered in the US, the current rate of murders in 2015 is vastly outstripping that – it’s an epidemic that politicians, police, and the media are failing to tackle. Of all murders in the LGBT spectrum it’s 50% more likely that a trans woman will be murdered than any of the other groups. We’re marginalised and abused as it is, when you add in racism and it all gets so much worse.

These statistics from The National Coalition of Anti-Violence really drive home just how bad the situation was in 2013 and the murder rate has risen since then:

  • 90% of LGBT homicide victims in 2013 were people of color
  • 72% of homicides within the LGBT spectrum were of transgender women
  • 67% of trans women murdered were trans women of color
  • In 2014, twelve out of the fourteen trans women of color murdered in the United States were black

The attitudes of the majority of the police force are highly problematic. Transgender women are 2.9 times more likely than other LGBT people to have violence inflicted on them by the police. For TWoC that goes higher, as they are an additional 1.82 times more likely to have the police be violent towards them than white LGBT people. In 2011 in the US police made up 23% of violent abuse towards the LGBT community.

In 2015, the police reports on the deaths of TWoC are still abusive. The victim tends to be called a man, sometimes referred to as a “man in women’s clothing” or a “man that identifies as a woman,” removing the dignity of the victims identity. TWoC are also usually labelled as a prostitute by the police regardless of if they have any proof for the assertion. The media then pick up on these points and report them as fact. Police abuse towards TWoC and the lack of desire to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against trans women, as well as the lack of accuracy and outrage by politicians and the media, all enhances the idea that trans women are a legitimate and safe target to inflict violence on.

Penny Proud was shot and killed in New Orleans in early February. The media and the police misgendered her and labelled her a prostitute without proof. Other 2015 murders of TWoC include Taja DeJesus in San Francisco, Yazmin Vash Payne in Los Angeles, Ty Underwood in Texas, Lamia Beard in Virginia, and Bri Golec in Ohio. It was widely reported that Lamar Edwards in Kentucky was a trans hate crime but that doesn’t seem to be the case, he is now reported as a gay man. These six murders have garnered almost no national or international news coverage and local coverage is often abusive and disrespectful toward these women.

Lamia Beard was misgendered by the main media outlets which covered her shooting, two of which later corrected their stories to include the fact Lamia was transgender but both still used her birth name. The media also described Lamia as having been “in an area that transgender prostitutes are known to frequent” yet she was a college student on a full scholarship. Unfortunately her family buried her using her birth name. Taja DeJesus was stabbed to death at 9am, she volunteered at a food bank and helped with Trans Thrive, a local trans outreach group. The police initially labelled her a man and have stated that her murder was not a hate crime even though the motive and attacker are unknown at time of writing.

Bri Golec was stabbed to death by her father who was against her gender-fluidity, telling the police that his ‘son was in a cult.’ One media outlet ran with the headline “Akron father-son fought … prior to fatal stabbing (photos),” another with “Man, 52, charged in stabbing death of 22-year-old son.”  Her family are calling her a man but Jacob Nash, who is the head of a local support group for transgender people that Bri regularly attended, confirmed Bri as a transgender woman. Yazmin Vash Payne had the police and media use her birth name (and a wrong name) for a while before it was corrected. She was stabbed to death and her apartment was set on fire by her boyfriend who later turned himself in to police.

Ty Underwood had just been accepted into a nursing program at college. She had been dating someone for less than a month who then shot her after Ty decided to end their relationship. A local news outlet ran with the headline “Suspect in Ty Underwood murder ‘was supposed to get some kind of sexual favor’ from her” even though the two adults were dating; the implication is obvious. Following the established pattern, CBS misgenders her and uses her birth name. This lack of respect for the individuals chosen identity is a common pattern for ABC/CBS and local news sites such as KYTX. Unless the media outlet has trans-aware authors or is part of LGBT culture it seems to be a given that you’ll find the victims birth name – even after the police have made corrections to their reports.

Even in transgender culture TWoC are sadly often ignored or marginalised and this doubles in mainstream feminism. Personally this hurts me the most, I once naïvely thought transgender people supported each other and I approached social media with that attitude. It’s not the case at all, some trans women in particular are vicious in policing each other’s language and other perceived infractions and this can be seen daily on the social media site. I checked with a trans male friend of mine and he’s not experienced the same policing from other trans men. It must be daunting for TWoC to attempt to navigate the trans community. That should be a safe space, if anywhere is. I would love it if trans culture supported trans people more often and it’s something I try and promote.

The epidemic of murders against TWoC can only be addressed at multiple levels. Politicians need to publically condemn the crimes against TWoC in the strongest possible terms and place demands on society to step up and stop the ongoing abuse. The police need to actively investigate and prosecute any and all attacks on TWoC while also educating and promoting both internally and externally that TWoC are deserving of respect. Lastly the media needs to treat the murder of TWoC as a serious crime, report on events accurately and respect the individual’s identity, even if the police or family do not. If the media reported these murders as the tragedy they are, attitudes would start to shift. If all three groups did that we would see genuine progress.

Over decades US politicians, police, and media have fostered an atmosphere where in 2015 TWoC have a life expectancy of just 35 — the same as in 16th century Britain.


(image via Otto Yamamoto on Flickr)

Marcy (@marcyjcook) is an immigrant trans woman and writer. This includes, a website dedicated to informing and helping trans Canadians. She also has a nerd job, too many cats, is a part time volunteer sex educator and has an ongoing sordid love affair with Lego. Those last two are not related… probably.

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