In November 28, 1998, Rita Hester, a trans woman, was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later the crime remains unsolved, but her death — and the deaths of countless other transgender and non-conforming gender folks — continue to be commemorated on November 20: the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Rita Hester’s murder prompted Gwendolyn Ann Smith to start the “Remembering Our Dead” web project, along with a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Since then, commemorative vigils and memorials have taken place across North American cities and around the world. The annual event not only serves to publicly mourn and honour the lives of all who have died because of anti-transgender hatred, but also to draw attention to an issue that the media rarely covers.
While there has been increased media pressure to prosecute hate crimes based on race and sexuality, there is comparably little education and awareness of trans issues. The individuals assaulted or murdered because of transphobia are often not provided the justice they deserve.
In fact, Rita Hester’s murder occurred just over a month after the murder of Matthew Shepard, whose much-publicized story led to such a large response from gay rights activists that it eventually brought about the The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, a criminal justice legislation signed by President Obama which imposes harsher penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes. If this took 11 years to implement, what kind of timeline can we expect to bring justice for transgender and gender non-conforming folk?
In 2009, the brutal murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was reported as that of a “gay teen,” and the reports used male pronouns. At the time, murder suspect Juan Antonio Martinez Matos’ statement outlined how he had thought Lopez Mercado was female but then “realized that the teenager was actually male.” The media for the most part has neglected to respect the fact that, at the time of her murder, Lopez Mercado self-identified as female.
These facts stand alone to show, first off, that many of these murders occur because the victim in some way does not conform to the perpetrator’s strict understanding of gender. They illustrate a trend wherein the hatred that led to the attack was sparked by an inability to understand identities or lifestyles that don’t conform to the strict rules of gender binary which many internalize.
Individuals assaulted or murdered because of transphobia are often not provided the justice they deserve.
The Trans Murder Monitoring project — in cooperation with Transgender Europe (TGEU), a network of trans rights NGOs across the continent — was initiated in April 2009 to collect, monitor and analyze reports of homicides of trans people worldwide. Today, the project functions in 36 countries. That same year, the update presented information about over 160 people killed because of other people’s violent reactions to their trans presentation or identity — but these numbers fail to tell the whole story.
The media often fails to accurately identify trans folks in their reporting. Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, is a recent example. Despite publicly identifying as a woman following her incarceration, Manning has been referred to via male pronouns by many prominent media outlets, including The Washington Times, The New York Times, USA Today and NPR.
This leads to many trans folks feeling that their identities and lived experiences are not being recognized. Apart from the insult of using outdated names and pronouns to define trans people, refusing to identify a victim of a violent crime as transgender or gender non-conforming delegitimizes a case’s status as a hate crime and a trans issue — something that is essential in drawing the public’s attention to the severity and rampancy of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming folks.
TGEU recently published its newest findings, and they are shocking: between January 1 and April 30 of this year, 78 trans people were murdered in 13 countries. Since January 2008, there have been 1,233 reported murders of trans people in 59 countries worldwide.
The report also specifies that these murders tend to be particularly gruesome and violent, often including mutilation and other forms of torture. These were preliminary results, and will probably have grown by the time of this article’s publication. Furthermore, these numbers only include murders that are reported as victimizing trans and gender non-conforming folks. Often trans identities — and even murders themselves — go unreported.
Seventy-eight per cent of the globally reported murders of transgender folks (958 murders) were located in Central and South America, with Brazil alone reporting a whopping 468 murders. The highest numbers are reported in countries with strong trans and LGBTQ advocacy organizations, most of which keep careful track of numbers, meaning that the problem worldwide is surely much greater than these numbers express. In nations with less pronounced trans rights organizations, many murders go undocumented and undiscussed.
Based on the information thus reported, there have been clear patterns that show intersections of oppression that increase the likelihood of transgender individuals being targeted for violent crimes. There is a level of traditional sexism which plays into the murders: most of the reported names are people with a feminine gender presentation. Socioeconomic status, education levels, and race are all factors that further marginalize transgender and gender non-conforming folks.
A large risk factor is involvement in sex work. In Canada, sex workers have been fighting for legislation to bring about better safety and protection on the job; trans sex workers in particular are at a higher risk for violent victimization. Also, unsurprisingly, the lack of a solid support system for trans and gender-nonconforming people increases their marginalization in society. Many of the individuals in these reports having been rejected by friends, family and employers because of their gender identity and presentation.
However, these problems don’t lie exclusively in lack of public awareness and legislation. Law enforcement officers often display insensitivity or, at the very least, lack of education towards trans rights issues. For example, just over a year ago, 26-year-old January Marie Lapuz was fatally stabbed in her New Westminster home. In a press release, police first identified Lapuz by her male birth name, later noting her legal name change to January Marie.
Refusing to identify a victim of a violent crime as transgender delegitimizes a case’s status as a trans issue.
Many of these murders are not investigated properly or are not presented to the public and the media properly, leaving a large number of cases unsolved and leaving entire communities with no sense of justice or closure.
This year marks the 14th Transgender Day of Remembrance. There are more than 120 scheduled vigils and events around the world, in honour of the countless lives that have been lost as a result of transphobia. In an article for the Huffington Post, founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith argued that the Transgender Day of Remembrance “is not a quick and easy one-day way for organizations to get credit for their support of the transgender community. It’s not something to trot out on the 20th of November and forget about. We should be working every day for all of us, living and dead […] We remember for hundreds of others killed around the world in anti-transgender murders.”
By raising awareness that violence against transgender folk is not only present but very rampant, the Day of Remembrance also opens the floor for non-transgender allies to come forward with their support. At SFU, our opportunity comes this week: from November 18 to 20, Out on Campus will set up a display and vigil on campus. Students and faculty are encouraged to come and pay their respects for those trans people who have been murdered and harassed, and to open a forum on the possible actions the school can take in order to minimize the victimization of its trans community.
For Out on Campus, however, these issues are not limited to a single day: the organization is committed to promoting trans rights all year long, and have made efforts to make SFU a safe space for any and all gender identities and presentations. There are several exciting projects that are happening on our campus, in the hopes that education and awareness can contribute to an improvement in the quality of life and rights for folks of all gender identities.
The Trans* & Gender Diversity Project aims to create a resource guide for trans* and gender diverse folks at SFU by collecting personal accounts.
The SFU Queer History Project is working to archive and thus preserve over 40 years of queer organizing and activism at our very own campus. If you have any pertinent information, please contact Out on Campus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Positive Space Network aims to transform our campus into a safe space for all by reducing homophobia and transphobia through an educational program. It is also working to create a network of resource people and safe spaces on campus.
Despite increased legislation and awareness of trans issues since the death of Rita Hester 15 years ago, transphobic murders and assaults still occur with striking frequency in our society. We recognize the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20 in order to ensure that all of us at SFU are doing our part to ensure that our campus becomes a safe space for trans and gender-nonconforming students, staff and faculty. Take a moment to reflect on what you can do in order to make your school a positive force in the fight for trans rights.