Murders and Other Violence Against Transgender People is on the Rise, Advocates Say
On Oct. 21, a body was found off a county road west of Corpus Christi, Tex., with bullet wounds to the chest, abdomen and shoulders.
The victim was Stephanie Montez, a transgender woman. But because the police misidentified her as a man, it was not until last week that Ms. Montez, 47, was known to be among the more than two dozen transgender Americans killed this year.
Even as transgender people have scored political victories and turned public opinion in favor of more protections, violence has risen, especially against black and Hispanic transgender women. And Ms. Montez’s case shows the difficulties advocates face in tracking killings and other hate crimes.
The full death toll is impossible to determine, but by rights groups’ estimates, each of the past three years has become the deadliest on record.
The Human Rights Campaign has documented the killings of 25 transgender people in the United States so far in 2017, compared with 23 last year and 21 in 2015. Other organizations, like Glaad and the Transgender Law Center, have slightly different tallies, but the trend holds.
Transgender people have been killed this year in Chicago and in Waxahachie, Tex.; in the Ozarks of Missouri and on the sidewalks of Manhattan. They have been shot, stabbed, burned and, in at least one case, pushed into a river. On average, one to two have been killed somewhere in the United States every week.
And experts say these numbers almost certainly understate the problem. Local officials are not required to report such killings to any central database, and because the police sometimes release incorrect names or genders, it can be difficult to know that a homicide victim was transgender. So advocacy groups are left to comb news reports and talk to victims’ friends or family.
Even so, Sarah McBride, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, said the rough numbers strongly indicate that violence against transgender people is increasing.
Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said that since the 2016 presidential election, her organization had recorded “a spike in incidents of hate violence” — both homicides and other crimes — against transgender people as well as members of the broader gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
“There is an increased climate of hate that is, in some cases, being allowed to grow,” Ms. Tillery said.
Advocates say the violence is inseparable from the social climate: that anti-transgender violence and anti-transgender laws — like so-called bathroom bills, which aim to police who may use gender-specific public facilities — are outgrowths of the same prejudice.
Sixteen states have considered bathroom bills this year (though none have passed), and six have considered legislation to invalidate local anti-discrimination protections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates also point to actions by the Trump administration, including the rescinding of federal protections for transgender students, an effort to bar transgender troops and a Justice Department decision to stop applying workplace discrimination protections to transgender people. Yet the administration did help with the successful prosecution of a man accused of killing Kedarie Johnson, a gender-fluid Iowa teenager.
“The same stigma and the same sort of fear that is trying to be embedded in our society are the driving factors of the extreme forms of violence that are taking place,” said Isa Noyola, deputy director of the Transgender Law Center. “A lot of these cases are happening in regions where there are a lack of protections and there’s a lack of understanding and infrastructure for trans folks to live their daily lives.”
In some sense, experts said, the increased awareness that leads to more acceptance also draws the attention of would-be perpetrators.
“There’s no question that transgender people and the trans community have seen an increase in our profile and in our visibility,” Ms. McBride said. “In many cases, that is a good thing. It results in more hearts and minds opening. It allows for progress legally, socially.” But it may also stir up violent opposition, she said.
Almost all the murder victims in the past several years have been nonwhite women. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the annual murder rate for Americans ages 15 to 34 is about one in 12,000. But an investigation by the news organization Mic found that for black transgender women in the same age group, the rate was one in 2,600.
“We know that when transphobia mixes with misogyny and racism, it can often have fatal consequences,” Ms. McBride said.
Yet Ms. Noyola also said the brutality had brought the community together in a powerful way.
“That resilience and that power and that wisdom,” she said, “is also a part of the story.”