Last year marked the deadliest on record for transgender people, with 27 reported homicides. Most of the victims were transgender women of color. In the first three months of 2017, eight murders have been recorded — all of the victims were transgender women of color.
These numbers may be much higher, since homicides are sometimes falsely ruled as suicides, and victims are often misgendered or not recognized as transgender in police and media reports.
Heather Newman, a transgender woman who is an active advocate for the transgender community in Flagstaff, spoke to PFLAG Sedona March 13 on the roots of violence against transgender people and tell the story of her own journey.
PFLAG stands for Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, but has also come to include bisexual, queer and transgender people over the years. The organization was founded in 1972, operates on a national level to provide support, education and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, and has 400 local chapters all across the country.
Newman started off by explaining some basic terminology. She stressed that transgender is used as an adjective and never stands alone. A transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex marked on their birth certificate. The term stands in opposition to cisgender — “trans-” meaning “across” in Latin, and “cis-” meaning “on the same side.” Transgender is an umbrella term that also includes people who cross-dress or identify as “gender fluid” or “gender non-binary.”
“I was always a little different,” Newman said about her childhood. She remembers wanting to try out for a female role in the school play and being told that she would not be able to because she would have to wear a dress — a reasoning she never quite understood. She also recalls playing dress-up with a friend and getting in trouble for it.
Newman said she thinks of her childhood as a relatively good one, but pointed out that not everybody is that lucky. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 8 percent of transgender youth have been kicked out of the house by their family because of their gender identity, and 30 percent of transgender people have experienced homelessness at least once in their lifetime.
Newman talked about the connections between violence, homelessness and substance abuse — all too common experiences for transgender people.
Fifty-four percent of transgender youth have reported verbal harassment at school, 24 percent reported physical attacks, and 13 percent reported sexual assault due to their gender identity. Newman said that this violence reinforces a hiding behavior, which may lead to students to drop out of school and feeds into the chain reaction that results in homelessness. Drugs and alcohol are then often used to cope with the effects.
As a last result, many consider suicide. According to the survey, 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime.
Usually, there is more than one factor involved in violence against transgender people. Newman said that marginalized communities are at a heightened risk for violence because they do not have certain privileges other groups do have. When multiple social identities — such as race, class, gender, sexuality or disability — intersect, they can create multiple layers of discrimination.
Newman brought up the example of a transgender woman of color, who will not only experience violence due to transphobia, but also due to misogyny and racism. In fact, transgender women
of color are at the highest risk of experiencing violence and have an average life expectancy of only 35 years.
“Hate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it develops side by side with misogyny, homophobia and racism,” Newman said.
While transitioning has definitely improved her life, Newman said, she added that it was not always smooth sailing. Public bathrooms can become a big problem for transgender people. Newman recounts that during her transition, she did not wear wigs or padding. “I was tired of hiding who I really was,” she said.
Due to her appearance and the outrage that it might provoke when she entered a public bathroom, she was confined to using single-stall restrooms. This made even simple tasks such as running errands around town a burden. In unfamiliar places, planning out routes according to the availability of single-stall bathrooms became difficult to impossible. Newman said that many people even refrain from eating and drinking to avoid having to use a public restroom.
According to Newman, the stress and fear that can come with public bathrooms is amplified by so-called transgender bathroom bills. These bills have recently been introduced to a number of state legislatures — and have even been passed, such as in the case of the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act in North Carolina in March 2016. This law dictates the use of the public bathroom that corresponds with the biological sex indicated on one’s birth certificate.
“These bills are designed to protect, but what they really do is deny transgender people the right to exist in a public space,” Newman said.
She recalled a recent occurrence in which she was carded when exiting the bathroom at a local business. Since her ID lists her as female, she did not get into trouble, but the incident was still devastating to her. “I thought that I passed,” she said.
“Passing” is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of a different group, which gives the passing person that group’s privileges.
The idea of passing is heavily debated in the transgender community. On the one hand, Newman asked, “Why is my worth as a human being dependent on how well I adhere to cis beauty standards?” On the other hand, passing can be a simple issue of safety. “I want the privilege not to be murdered,” Newman said.
However, most transgender people are never able to fully pass, which can be frustrating, according to Newman. “We’re held to a standard that we can never exactly achieve,” she said.
At the end of her presentation, Newman encouraged the audience to contact their elected representatives and express discontent with any bills that would negatively impact the transgender community. The National Center for Transgender Equality has regular updates about such bills and offers form letters to send to officials. Visit transequality.org for more information.
She also pointed out that citizens can urge representatives to support the Equality Act, which would add gender and sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Religious freedom bills, such as the First Amendment Defense Act currently reviewed by Congress, should also be opposed, as they allow discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community on the basis of religious beliefs, Newman said.
She stressed that “discrimination leads to marginalization, which leads to violence. If there’s one thing I want you to remember from tonight is that discrimination leads to violence.”
|Heather Newman put together a list of questions that are inappropriate to ask a transgender person as well as their reasoning.
“Have you had surgery?” This question essentially reduces a person to their genitals, which objectifies and dehumanizes them.
“How do you have sex?” This is a sneaky way of asking about genitals, and is a personal question that one would probably not ask a cisgender person.
“Are you sure you’re not just gay?” This question confuses gender and sexuality. The American Psychological Association defines gender as the “psychological, behavioral, social and cultural aspects of being male or female,” while sexuality refers to whom a person feels sexually attracted.
“What did your name used to be?” or “Can I see a picture of you before you transitioned?” Newman stressed that this information is simply nobody’s business.
“How does transition work?” Transition is a long, expensive and often painful process, which many transgender people do not like to be reminded of. Also, it is a medical procedure, and normally, nobody would ask a person about the details of their medical procedures.
“Do you know my friend who is transgender?”
PFLAG meetings are always confidential. The presence of a Larson Newspapers reporter was an exception due to informing and educating the larger community about violence against transgender people. This report ensued under the agreement that no photos be taken of the meeting and no quotes from audience members be used.