The FBI tracked at least 2,871 reported race-based acts of violence targeting Black or African Americans in the U.S. in 2020, a nearly 49% increase from 2019 (FBI, 2021). While it is unclear what percentage of the reported incidents targeted Transgender individuals specifically, data by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP, 2017) estimated that over the last decade, at least two people per month have died due to anti-transgender violence. Whereas many critics blame this spike on the prejudice, discrimination, and blatant racism championed by the previous incumbents of the White House, as a descendant of the African diaspora, we know that this “rise” is nothing new. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in his acclaimed work, Between the World and Me, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body – it is heritage” (p. 103). Although Coates focused primarily on the vulnerability of the Black male body, Black women, more specifically Black Transgender women are vulnerable too and are forced to contend with what it means to live in a body that is simultaneously feared, admired, and misunderstood.
Transgender, in an umbrella term, encompasses people whose gender identity and expressions differ from their assigned birth gender. Cisgender, by contrast, refers to people whose sense of gender identity and expression aligns with their assigned birth gender. Transgender women are more than twice as likely to be victims of discrimination and other violent acts compared to cisgender women (NCAVP, 2017). Further, Transgender women experience disproportionately high rates of gender-based violence (i.e., intentional acts or threats intended to inflict sexual, emotional, or physical pain on women) both domestic and abroad (James et al., 2016; Sherman et al., 2021). While all Transgender people are at risk for violence, Black Transgender women (BTW) existing at the margins of the margins, are particularly vulnerable. Transmisogynoir describes BTW’s experiences, occurring at the intersection of anti-Blackness, cissexism, and misogyny. This is a particular brand of oppression reserved specifically for Black Transgender women (Bailey & Bailey, 2018).
Each year on November 20th, Transgender people and their allies around the country gather to raise Transgender visibility by celebrating Transgender communities and bringing attention to the structural issues around discrimination and violence that Transgender people of all walks of life continue to face daily. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) was established by Gwendolyn A. Smith, to celebrate Rita Hester, a Black Transgender woman brutally murdered in Boston, MA in 1998. Hester was just two days shy of her 35th birthday. Today, TDoR is observed to memorialize Transgender people whose lives were taken by acts of anti-transgender violence and advancing advocacy to enhance the lives of Transgender communities.
Sadly, in 2022, the Human Rights Campaign tracked at least 32 counts of fatal violent acts against Transgender and gender non-conforming people (HRC, 2022). Last year, the HRC tracked a record number of at least 50 reported fatalities, as is the trend in previous years, the majority of victims were Black Transgender women, under the age of 35, and resided in southern states (HRC, 2021). The victims were daughters, siblings, friends, and family members. While some were students, business owners, and activists, they were all REAL people. Like Beyoncé eloquently echoed in “Bigger” (from The Lion King soundtrack), “Life is our birthright. They hid that in the fine print.” Black Transgender women have every right to be and live-openly and freely, just like you and I. Borrowing from the work of the late Monica Roberts (aka “TransGriot”), a Transgender advocate, and to honor the Black Transgender women who were murdered within the last year, this section highlights four Black Transgender women whose light and life was stolen from them.
These victims were killed by both people known and unknown to them including acquaintances, romantic partners, and strangers. Some of the killers have been arrested and charged, however, the vast majority of those guilty of taking trans live, including those involved in Rita Hester’s murder, remain unidentified. The death of Black Transgender women contribute to the alarming trend of anti-transgender violence domestically and abroad.
More than two decades after Rita Hester’s death, the U.S. continues to face an epidemic of transmisogynoir violence. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in transgender visibility in media, government, and medicine. However, visibility is not merely enough to protect transgender people, especially BTW who are at increased risks for victimization (LaMartine et al., in-press). We need to go beyond compassion and humility. We need to reconstruct our limited and binary comprehension of Black Transgender identities through an intersectional lens. Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), describes the interaction between social identities intersecting with each other and the outcomes they produce. For example, BTW experiences are influenced by not only their race and/or gender but by all of their social identities (e.g., class, education, sexual orientation, income status, etc.). We must protect Black Transgender women. Hate has no place in our society and we must all do our part to care for each other and ourselves. Like Assata Shakur cried, ”It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
To all the BTW reading this, my only advice to you as a privileged, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class Black woman is this: Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde