Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
His words are as relevant today as they were when King wrote them. We live in a time of advanced technology, when word can be spread around the globe in mere seconds, when terrorists are targeted by an overhead drone controlled by a military operator half a world away and when breakthroughs in medical science point to the inevitable end of horrible diseases.
Yet even in this advanced age, when humanity should have evolved beyond primitive rage to a point of reason in all matters concerning human rights and dignity, the transgender community still faces incomparable sacrifice, suffering, and struggle on a daily basis. Although dedicated individuals are fighting very hard to bring this injustice to an end, the slow pace of progress can be measured by the violence and murder against trans people.
October marked the 10th anniversary of the murder in California of a 17-year-old pre-operative trans woman, Gwen Araujo. Gwen dreamed of becoming a Hollywood make-up artist. She never had a chance to fulfill her dreams. Instead she was brutally murdered by four men and buried in a shallow grave by the side of the road. Her attackers were extremely vicious, as is the case with most murders of trans women, and the details of her beating and burial tell a tale of terror and hatred. Two of the men were convicted of second-degree murder, but not convicted on the requested enhancement of a hate crime. The third man pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and the fourth pleaded no contest to the same charge.
Gwen’s murder was the first time that the “trans panic defense” was used by a defendant, essentially a blame-the-victim excuse that says that regardless of the fact that you enjoyed someone’s company, even possibly enjoyed intimacy with that person, it is somehow OK to fly into a rage and murder them when you find out their identity is transgender. It implies that being transgender is an intentional deception, not on an equal footing with born males or females, and that having a relationship with such a “thing” is justification for slaughtering them as if they weren’t human at all.
Gwen was a human being. She was a beautiful young trans woman full of dreams for a bright future, with a family and friends who loved and cared for her deeply. She is missed. After the trial of Gwen’s murderers, her mother became a crusader to strengthen hate-crime statutes and to eliminate the trans panic defense, and she has been successful to some degree, but much work remains.
December will mark another sad anniversary, one that hits the Kansas City transgender community particularly hard. On Christmas Eve 2011, a time when Christmas music played in homes in every neighborhood, sharing good tidings for all, trans woman Dee Dee Pearson was brutally murdered. Her attacker killed her after obtaining a gun, searching for her for several hours, then chasing her three blocks to her apartment, where he shot her multiple times at her front door. Like Gwen, Dee Dee had a family and friends who loved her. She was a human being, savagely gunned down because the label “transgender” carried more significance for her attacker than “human being.”
As in Gwen’s court case, the defense used the trans panic defense to argue that the client’s rage was justified because the victim was transgender, a mere trickster out to deceive innocent people, therefore bringing the circumstances of her unfortunate end upon herself. However, last month, the judge rejected this victim-blaming defense and sentenced Dee Dee’s murderer to 30 years in prison for first-degree murder, five years more than the prosecutor’s recommendation of 25 years, and added 10 years to his sentence for armed criminal action. Thanks to advocacy efforts by Gwen’s mother and many others around the country, the trans panic defense is beginning to lose ground.
Sandwiched between the anniversaries of Gwen’s murder and Dee Dee Pearson’s murder is the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20. TDOR is a very important and solemn occasion when transgender communities around the world remember and honor those who have been murdered.
Each victim had a name and a family or friends who loved them. Each victim had dreams and hopes, regardless of their situation in life, and those dreams and hopes were violently taken away from them for no other reason than the fact that they were who they were — transgender.
In some communities, candlelight vigils will take place and the names of the victims will be read aloud. Regardless of whether they are able to attend a local TDOR event, trans people everywhere will reflect on the senseless loss, shedding tears for the lost dreams of so many, and wonder how such unjustified hatred can exist in this world.
Trans people are often wary of police agencies, court systems, media outlets, and the health-care system. In many cases, transgender survivors of violence choose not to report the attack in order to avoid being “outed” or out of fear of being mocked in media reports. According to the Hate Violence Report in 2010 from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), transgender women were the least likely to report to police: 25.4 percent of transgender women did not make a report, compared to 19.1 percent of non-transgender women and 20.9 percent of non-transgender men. Sometimes the violence is misreported as gay or lesbian violence, instead of transgender violence, by the media or police. Because of these factors, we know that anti-trans violence is widely underreported.
According to the Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project, which gathers worldwide statistics on the murder cases that are actually reported and published, there were 221 transgender murder victims in 2011. According to the 2011 Hate Violence Report from NCAVP, 40 percent of all hate-violence murder victims were transgender women. In addition, transgender women represented only 10 percent of all survivors of hate-crime violence, indicating that they were disproportionately murdered.
Especially hard hit are trans women of color, who suffer the highest rate of unemployment, homelessness, and violence.
As 2012 slowly comes to a close and we mourn the senseless loss of Gwen, Dee Dee, and many other transgender or gender non-conforming people, we should all ask ourselves what we are each individually doing to end the anti-trans hate and violence.
Another one of Martin Luther King’s quotes that I think of often is: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I think of this quote because I know the pace of our progress in eliminating intolerance would be greatly accelerated if everyone who believed that hatred and violence has no place in our society would get involved instead of reading about it. While you are silent, the cacophony of the social conservatives that fuel the intolerance gets louder.
It is time to grow the small number of people who fight for equality and justice into a large army to drown out this poisonous message coming from the right. It is time to stop sitting idly by while the voices of intolerance enjoy control of the airwaves, their hateful message lending justification and courage to those who would kill a transgender person simply for being transgender. It is time to stop sitting idly by while gay and trans people are beaten and murdered and our LGBT children are bullied to death.
Help put an end to this injustice. You don’t have to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer-identified to know that hate and intolerance are wrong and want to do something about it. Straight allies are sometimes the most potent voices in the struggle for justice.
When someone tells an offensive anti-gay or anti-trans joke, let them know that kind of speech has no place. When you see hateful letters in the newspaper or hear hateful speech on the radio, write a letter of your own, or call the radio station and add your voice to the airwaves. When a harmful bill is being debated by your legislators, call or write them and let them know that you do not support it. Join or donate to an organization such as Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, PROMO, KCAVP or Kansas Equality Coalition.
Together we can drown out the shrill hate speech that says my life isn’t worth the same as everybody else’s just because I’m transgender. Take a moment to remember our victims. Then get involved. Today.
Sandra Meade is the chair of the Kansas Equality Coalition, Metro Kansas City Chapter.