ABOVE PHOTO: Randall Jenson, lead advocate of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, shows an altar in Aug. 2015, made by the friends of Tamara Dominguez during a memorial service for her at her home. Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. (Randall Jenson/Kansas City Anti-Violence Project via AP)
By David Crary
For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger, violence and mourning.
While Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox prospered as a popular actress, other transgender women have become homicide victims at an alarming rate. By the count of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there have been 22 killings so far this year of transgender or gender-nonconforming people — including 19 black or Latina transgender women.
The toll compares with 12 last year and 13 in 2013, and is the highest since advocacy groups began such tallies a decade ago.
“Most Americans think it’s been an amazing year for transgender rights,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But for the transgender community, it’s been one of the most traumatic years on record.”
Death by death, the details are horrific. Kiesha Jenkins was beaten and shot dead by a cluster of assailants in Philadelphia. Tamara Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. Police said the most recent victim, Zella Ziona, was fatally shot in Gaithersburg, Maryland, last month by a boyfriend embarrassed that Ziona showed up in the presence of some of his other friends.
“She was just amazing,” a friend, Barbie Johnson, told NBC Washington the day after the killing. “When Zella’s around, there’s not a single frown in the room.”
There’s no question that anti-transgender hatred has fueled many of the killings, yet activists and social-service professionals say there are multiple factors that make transgender women of color vulnerable. They have documented that numerous victims were killed by intimate partners, and many were murdered while engaging in prostitution.
“For many of these women, it’s chronic unemployment or participation in survival sex work,” said Louis Graham, a professor of community health education at the University of Massachusetts who has studied the experiences of black transgender women.
Many are beset by homelessness and economic desperation, sometimes ending out in coercive and violent relationships, Graham said.
Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Rights Project, said that for many perpetrators of the violence, “there’s a sense of transgender people being less than human.”
Philadelphia has experienced two confirmed homicides of transgender people this year — as have Detroit and Kansas City. In May, London Chanel was fatally stabbed by her roommate’s boyfriend inside an abandoned North Philadelphia home; on Oct. 6, Kiesha Jenkins, 22, was attacked and shot to death by a group of men.
Police Capt. James Clark said Jenkins was a prostitute, and described the assault as a robbery, not a hate crime. Police soon arrested a suspect with a prior record of robbery arrests, and the search for other suspects continues.
Nellie Fitzpatrick, a former assistant district attorney who now heads the Philadelphia mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, said some members of the local transgender community harbored long-standing mistrust of the police and were frustrated that Jenkins’ killing was not being investigated as a hate crime, though Pennsylvania does not have a hate-crimes law covering gender identity.
Fitzpatrick, a lesbian who has championed LGBT rights, credited the police department with working to improve relations and gain more cooperation for its investigations of anti-transgender violence.
In late 2013, responding to pressure from activists, the department established formal guidelines for officers’ interactions with transgender people. The guidelines include addressing transgender individuals by the names and pronouns they prefer, even if those are not reflected on the person’s driver’s license or other ID.
Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel acknowledged there has been “a history of conflict and lack of trust” between the department and LGBT Philadelphians. He said the guidelines, as well as LGBT-specific components in training at the police academy, were having a positive impact.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “But we’re moving in the right direction.”
Among those killed in Detroit was Ashton O’Hara, whose body was found in a field in July with stab wounds. O’Hara was described by friends as “gender-fluid,” embracing feminine attributes but also comfortable being addressed with male pronouns.
His mother, Rebecca O’Hara, said she noticed the tendencies while Ashton was still a toddler.
“How could you be against a person for being happy about who they are?” she asked during a telephone interview.
She marveled at Ashton’s skills as a hairdresser and makeup artist, yet worried about potential nastiness from others. As he grew older, her fears deepened.
“For years, I was afraid I was going to get that phone call, telling me he’s hurt or dead,” Rebecca O’Hara said. “He’d say, ‘I’ll be all right. Nothing will happen.’”
Police arrested a 37-year-old man and charged him with Ashton O’Hara’s murder; the case is pending.
The other victim in Detroit this year was 20-year-old Amber Monroe, shot dead in an area frequented by transgender prostitutes. A friend, transgender-rights activist Julisa Abad, said Monroe had twice previously been wounded by gunshots in that area.
“To go back to that same place, life has to feel like you have no other choice,” said Abad, 31, who described Monroe as a funny, outspoken person who “always defended herself. She was very good at living her truth and demanding respect.”
In the wake of Monroe’s slaying, Detroit police held an “LGBT community chat” in an effort to build trust.
“We need information, and we know that the streets talk,” said Police Chief James Craig. “The only way we’re going to get information is if we have a strong relationship.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, police continue to investigate the death of Tamara Dominguez, a 36-year-old who left Mexico in her late 20s to escape the violence she faced as a transgender woman. In her adopted hometown, she had a longtime partner and close-knit group of friends.
At about 3 a.m. on Aug. 15, the driver of a black SUV drove into her, ran over her several times, then fled, according to witnesses. There have been no arrests and no determination of a motive.
“We are still seeking answers and are still pleading with our community to speak out and help us solve this crime,” said a police spokeswoman, Sgt. Kari Thompson.
Randall Jenson of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, who has been in contact with Dominguez’ friends, shared their collective memories of her — a good cook, generous and loving to her friends and her four Maltese dogs.
“She loved making pinatas for her friends,” Jenson said. “She spent a lot of time and money to get her body and spirit to where she wanted to be as a woman.”
Greater attention given to anti-transgender violence
The high death toll this year may stem in part from greater awareness of anti-transgender violence, and more vigorous efforts by activists and police to identify homicide cases in which this was a factor.
“The violence has been going on for a long time,” said Chai Jindasurat of the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “We’re now able to identify and document and report on it better.”
Examples of the heightened attention to the issue:
• On Tuesday, amid a week of nationwide events remembering transgender victims, the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus held the first-ever hearing in Congress on anti-transgender violence. Among those testifying about the specter of violence were two transgender women — LaLa Zannell and Joanna Cifredo.
Zannell said problems for many transgender women begin in school where bullying prompts them to drop out, leading to unemployment that drives them into high-risk “survival economies.”
• Two national advocacy groups — the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition — recently issued a report on “the epidemic of violence” against transgender people, notably black and Latina transgender women. The report called for passage of a federal nondiscrimination act that covers transgender people, as well as initiatives to improve their options regarding health care, emergency housing, employment and education.
According to the report, 15 percent of transgender homicide victims in the past three years were killed by intimate partners, and 34 percent may have been engaged in “survival sex work” at the time of their deaths.
• In October, Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, wrote to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey, urging them to intensify efforts to curtail anti-transgender violence. Franken called for better tracking and tallying of attacks and closer attention to victims’ complaints of disrespectful treatment.
“This is a crisis, and it demands a forceful response,” Franken said. “No person should be forced to live in fear just because of who they are.”
Finding solutions to difficult situations
Asked about solutions to the crisis, activists say there are no easy answers.
“We need multiple strategies, aiming for sweeping cultural change,” said Jindasurat. “The more people understand what it means to be transgender, the more accepting they will be. A piece of it has to be about changing hearts and minds.”
Yet many Americans are uncomfortable with and biased against transgender people, Jindasurat said. He cited the recent referendum in Houston, where opponents of a nondiscrimination ordinance prevailed by stoking fears about transgender people’s access to public restrooms.
In Milwaukee, an organization called FORGE is tackling the problem of intimate partner violence, noting in a recent report that many of the transgender homicide victims were killed by people close to them.
“That means they were likely not victims of a random anti-trans hate crime,” said the report, which urged transgender people to get out of unsafe relationships. It also offered tips on how they can be safer when dating.
“We cannot prevent all violence that may be directed our way,” the report said. “But we can take steps to lower the chances we are harmed by the people we live with or date.”
Attorney Mik Kinkead of the New York-based Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates on behalf of transgender people, said, “It’s often someone we know who hurts us — someone in our community” — and that’s challenging to address.
Transgender prostitution is another harrowing issue.
Stefanie Rivera, now client services director with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, says she engaged in sex work starting as a 12-year-old in the early 1990s in Los Angeles. “The fact that I’m here at 36 — I don’t know how I made it so far. I had so many close calls,” she said, describing an assault by one client that left her bleeding on the pavement.
She attributed some of the violence to men who were physically attracted to transgender women but were ashamed of that attraction.
“They’re people who are struggling within themselves,” Rivera said.
Rivera said two of her transgender friends were killed while engaged in sex work in Los Angeles, one in 1997 and the other in 2004.
The latter was Felicia Moreno; police said she was slain by a Marine who initially did not realize the prostitute was transgender and shot her after discovering that. The Marine was subsequently shot dead by police following a high-speed chase.
When transgender prostitutes are killed, it’s common but wrong to engage in “victim blaming,” said Nellie Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia LGBT Office.
“Just because someone is a sex worker doesn’t mean their life is worth less,” she said. “There is layer upon layer of marginalization and bias that pushes people further away from where they can have safe, happy and fulfilling lives.”
In Detroit, Yvonne Siferd has worked with many transgender women as director of victim services for Equality Michigan, an LGBT-rights group. While impressed by their resilience and mutual support, she’s dismayed by the challenges they face.
“We all grow up with this myth that you can be whatever you want when you grow up,” Siferd said. “When you do grow up and become your authentic self, the fact that you could be targeted for just being you is terrifying.”
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs: http://www.avp.org/about-avp/coalitions-a-collaborations/82-national-coalition-of-anti-violence-programs
Human Rights Campaign-TPOCC report on anti-transgender violence: http://tinyurl.com/olyacra