Look beyond Caitlyn Jenner: Transgender women of color are fighting for their lives

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From murder to poverty to housing discrimination, these communities face staggering violence

Caitlyn Jenner (Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Last Thursday marked the eighth annual International Transgender Day of Visibility, an occasion aimed at pushing back against the exclusion and isolation this community has been forced to endure.

Indeed there are signs that transgender people — particularly those who are wealthy and white — are gaining visibility in 2017, as illustrated by the global prominence of television personality and Donald Trump supporter Caitlyn Jenner. But this visibility does not, in itself, improve material conditions for the vast majority of transgender people, who are far more likely to face housing discrimination, deep poverty, incarceration and murder, especially if they are people of color. At least seven transgender women have been killed this year already, putting it on track to be the deadliest year ever for the community. Of the women who were slain, six were black and one was Lakota two-spirit.

Meanwhile the Trump administration and state-level lawmakers have advanced a spate of initiatives that directly threaten the public safety and wellness of transgender people, including so-called bathroom bills.

In light of these realities, organizers across the country are calling for social movements to address the conditions that transgender people face, particularly those who are targeted by multiple forms of oppression, from poverty to police violence.

“In this time we are seeing more and more that what it means to fight for transgender people is to do the things that communities, including transgender communities, have long been fighting for,” said Micky Bradford, an Atlanta-based organizer with Southerners on New Ground and the Transgender Law Center. “We need safety and the power to shift material conditions and break the isolation between all of us. We need to be talking about what it takes to stop the killing of Black transgender women and dismantle patriarchy.”

“Safety is a big deal to transgender communities”

The structural violence faced by transgender communities is staggering. According to the news outlet Mic, which is building a database to track murders of transgender people, young, black transgender women have a far greater chance of being murdered, with one in 2,600 killed. This compares to one in 19,000 for the general population.

Violence also takes the form of systematic discrimination. The National Center for Transgender Equality notes that, “One in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated when seeking a home, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes, because of their gender identity.”

This discrimination is putting transgender people on the streets. The Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center concluded last year, based on call tests to 100 homeless shelters, that only a minority of homeless shelters are “willing to properly accommodate transgender women.” The study notes, “There was a discrepancy between the positive information given to the advance caller and the negative information given to the test caller. One shelter, for example, hung up on the tester immediately after she revealed she was transgender.”

A separate report released in 2015 by the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress found that transgender people are almost four times as likely to live in deep poverty than the general population.

At the same time, transgender people — especially people of color — are disproportionately targeted by the prison industrial complex. A report released in 2016 by the Center for American Progress found that transgender and gender-nonconforming people are far more likely to be incarcerated. “Sixteen percent of transgender and gender nonconforming respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey indicated that they had been held in jail or prison, with higher rates for transgender women at 21 percent and lower rates for transgender men at 10 percent,” the study notes. “Comparatively, about 5 percent of all American adults will spend time in jail or prison during their lives.”

“Safety is a big deal to transgender communities,” said Bradford, who is in the midst of a listening tour across the southern region. “People are asking how they can make themselves more safe, not just by learning self-defense, but also by learning community defense.”

“Trans survival often depends on how well we can transition, in physical appearance and recognized documents. I’ve seen a huge increase across the South in the need to update identity documents. We’ve responded with teaching people how to organize their own name change clinics,” she continued. “There are also conversations about how you can transition more safely. There are transgender women, particularly Black transgender women, who are pressured to pass as feminine but have a hard time passing because of anti-Black racism. They often have to resort to silicone injections. Now they are organizing fundraising scholarships so that they can transition more safely.”

“Situate yourself in a legacy of resistance”

For those organizing to win safety at the structural level, a priority is protecting transgender communities from state violence. In a recent call for sanctuary spaces, the New Orleans-based, youth-led group BreakOUT proclaimed, “Justice for Black transgender women and gender non-conforming youth of color does not begin or end with the police but is a larger conversation of resources, access to spaces where our bodies and existences are not constantly targeted, and educating community members. We need alternative strategies for safety that don’t rely on state systems.”

This task takes on new urgency under the administration of Donald Trump. A report recently released by Mijente, in collaboration with Black Youth Project 100, the Transgender Law Center and the Chicago Immigration Working Group, underscores that there is a need to expand sanctuary to defend all vulnerable communities, including Black, brown, Muslim, LGBTQ, undocumented and poor people.

“Limiting whether police actively investigate someone’s immigration status, or if immigration authorities have access to jails to do the same, represents the minimum today; not the standard,” writes the report’s author, Tania Unzueta. “In addition to local governments finding real ways to limit the federal reach into immigrants’ homes, and putting effective resources into defending and protecting immigrant communities, sanctuary under President Trump requires cities to dismantle the current policing apparatus that acts as a funnel to mass incarceration and the deportation machine.”

Meanwhile, growing numbers are calling for greater visibility not just for the Caitlyn Jenners of the world, but for the ordinary transgender and gender-nonconforming people on the frontlines of social movements.

On March 15, groups across the country staged a national day of action to “celebrate the lives of black trans women and protect all trans women and femmes.” More than 30 organizations, including Get Equal, SONG, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, released a statement which declared: “Any resistance movement that is dynamic and powerful enough to overcome white supremacists and religious extremists who hold power in our government must also be bold enough to stand up and fight back against transphobic, racist, anti-woman, anti-femme forces in our ranks and in our neighborhoods.”

Bradford says she finds inspiration in under-recognized heroes like Frances Thompson, a former slave and transgender woman who testified before a congressional committee about being raped during the 1866 white riots in Memphis Tennessee.

Bradford told AlterNet it is important to hear these stories. “The visibility piece is important, because it’s important for folks to see each other and break through isolation,” she said. “But what is really transformative is to situate yourself in a legacy of resistance.”