Four Years to Live: On Violence Against Trans Women of Color

QUEZON CITY, PHILIPPINES - 2014/10/24: A transgender Filipino walks across the lit candles formed 'Justice' during a protest
QUEZON CITY, PHILIPPINES - 2014/10/24: A transgender Filipino walks across the lit candles formed 'Justice' during a protest held at the University of the Philippines in Diliman on Friday. Jeffrey 'Jennifer' Laude was allegedy murdered by US marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. (Photo by Jansen Joel C. Romero/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Amid the asinine fight over the safety of women and girls if we dare to let trans women use their gender appropriate restroom, 22 trans women are known to have been murdered (19 of them of color) in the United States this year.

My stomach turns to think of the effect this fear-mongering against trans women has on public perception, when the data-driven overwhelming no-brainer obvious TRUTH is it's the safety of trans women that's in jeopardy. And although I believe that it's beneath our community even to address this humiliating non-controversy (there has yet to be a single documented case of a person claiming to be trans harassing anyone in a restroom), these two issues of public safety -- one real, one make-believe -- have a common thread: the way in which trans and gender nonconforming individuals are seen as a threat to heteronormativity, specifically as a threat to male sexuality itself.

Heat Waves

I kept hearing this statistic that struck me as terrifying and ludicrous when transphobic violence was peaking over the summer. The statistic said the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35. As an otherwise healthy TWOC who turned 31 this year, this tragicomic countdown to my imminent death at least warranted further investigation.

It took some poking until I found the statistic's apparent source -- this study of 594 LGBT murders in the Americas (as in North and South and the Caribbean) from a 15-month period starting in January 2013. Nearly half of the victims were trans women of color, and the life-expectancy statistic was an apparent extrapolation of that data.

So I have thoughts:

1. It's an impressive and substantive report, but it is by no means a comprehensive account of LGBT murders or hate crimes.

For one, in order for a victim to be included in the study, they must have been a known member of the LGBT community. This is even more complicated for trans women, who are more often than not misgendered by police and reported simply as "Male" (this is, of course, just code for "penis-having"). More than likely, even the 22 known cases in the U.S. this year represent a woeful underreporting of the real number -- with an unknown number of cases of misgendering and identity erasure simply lost to history.

2. Since biases ingrained in criminal justice and society-at-large make the hard numbers of this violence essentially unknowable, these 594 victims constitute more of a "poll" of LGBT murders, and what polls can tell us are percentages.

"The only solution to move past these grotesque patterns of violence is to demolish that shame and stigma -- to bring trans sexuality out of the shadows."

Roughly half of the victims in this report are trans women of color, while estimates derived from 2010 census data indicate trans women of color make up just 2 percent of the LGBT spectrum. A mere two percent of the LGBT population accounting for 50 percent of its murder victims.

That, friends, is insane.

On Dangerous Ground

So, why then are TWOC such disproportionate targets of hate? Why are our lives, seemingly, seen to have such little value? I'd be remiss, at this point, not to bring up this issue's overwhelming intersectionality -- the volatile crossroads of race, class, gender and gender identity.

Minority lives have been historically devalued. As a result, minority populations are disproportionately poor. Poor lives have been historically devalued. Further, trans and gender nonconforming people are also disproportionately poor (for one, they're more likely abandoned by family and support systems... which are financial relationships as well as emotional ones). And trans women have given up, in a rather bold way, their access to male privilege in order to live as women. Women's lives have been historically devalued.

This collected devaluation manifests in limited access to medical and mental health care, high suicide rates, and high criminalization i.e. involvement in sex work -- all forms of indirect, societal violence -- which, coupled with direct violence, result in scary statistics like my having 4 years to live.

The above case for devaluation however, strong as it is, applies to any queer woman of color, and still doesn't explain the staggering 2 percent to 50 percent climb. So what is it about an MTF trans identity that makes violence so disproportionate, so tempting, so easy?


One guess can be gleaned from a frequent pattern in these murders --  so-called crimes of "discovery." Prior to the last few years (which have seen increased trans visibility and efforts to identify victims), "discovery" murders were often the only kind that made headlines -- Jerry Springer sensationalism bleeding into matters of life and death.

In 2002, four men beat 17-year-old Gwen Araujo to death after their "discovery" that she was a trans, rather than a cis, woman.

A year later Nireah Johnson and Shelby Tracy Tom were killed for the same reason. Tom's killer successfully used a "gay panic" defense to plead his crime down to manslaughter. I know what you're thinking -- great band name or Halloween costume -- but sadly gay panic is when the sudden sexual confusion of a straight male drives him to murder.

"The disconnect between a trans woman's lived gender and aspects of her biology challenge a man's sense of his own sexuality, his own manhood, and the concept of manhood itself."

It's worth pointing out that in these cases and all cases of "discovery" killings, it's in the interest of the perpetrator to claim he was clueless about the victim's trans status -  both to use as a legal defense, and to save face from the shame and stigma of romantic involvement with a trans woman.

Many recent trans murders have been domestic in nature, committed by boyfriends, sexual partners, or family members (such as Bri Golec, earlier this year killed by her own father). Zella Ziona was murdered by a friend just last month after she "embarrassed" him by "acting flamboyant" around his clique at the mall. Some reports went further, stating she was "flirting" and that the pair were involved romantically. Later, he stalked her and shot her multiple times in the head and groin.

Embarrassment. Shame. Stigma. These are powerful, deeply ingrained emotions... as straight men snap like they're weathering some exponentially hot day.

The disconnect between a trans woman's lived gender and aspects of her biology challenge a man's sense of his own sexuality, his own manhood, and the concept of manhood itself. The societal prevalence of Machismo is even more visceral in Latin America, where so many of the 594 victims of the referenced study were based.

In sharp contrast to manifesting masculinity as a female, manifesting femininity as a male is highly stigmatized. Further, to be in a relationship with or attracted to a trans woman piles that stigma onto the stigma of sexual confusion. It's another intersection -- where our culture's extraordinary discomfort with in-between gender meets its extraordinary discomfort with in-between sexuality. In my mind, the only solution to move past these grotesque patterns of violence is to demolish that shame and stigma -- to bring trans sexuality out of the shadows.


Presently, we like to pretend rather literally that it doesn't exist. There's essentially no word for men and women attracted to trans folks aside from the scientific (technically, gynandromorphophilia... yes, seriously) or the pejorative (e.g. tranny chaser). I'm partial to "trans-amorous" myself, but that we're so far from even settling on a non-derogatory term for the orientation feels symbolic of the stigma it carries, of how much further we have to go.

Meanwhile, it very much exists. Trans porn is the fourth most visited category of adult website (this according to A Billion Wicked Thoughts' comprehensive survey of Internet pornography), and the trans sex industry thrives --  with sex work still a viable option for trans women experiencing economic and social marginalization.

Let's be very clear: Their customers are not men who were looking for a woman but settle for "the next best thing." These are men seeking trans women. Both pornography and sex work are among the few arenas where being a woman with a penis is actually desired rather than despised. It's a seldom spoken truth that those arenas are places of refuge for vulnerable trans women -- they validate and affirm our identities... when so much of mainstream society turns its back.

We Still Have to Pay Them, Mom...

So where does that leave me and my four years to live, you ask? To be honest, I feel no connection to that (problematic) statistic, and I've been trying to put my finger on the why. I'm of color -- mixed-black but light-skinned -- and I grew up poor and stayed that way  ( though somehow "starving artist" sounds so much more glamorous).

One factor I keep coming back to is education. As tumultuous as my upbringing was, my mom fought for scholarships and good schools, and I was lucky enough with my college experience and beyond to find support systems that reflect a more secure strata of society, even if my own resources don't.

So let's talk about education, let's talk about good, real data and how to get it, let's talk about calling something by its proper name, let's talk about calling trans and gender nonconforming people --  dead or alive -- by their proper names, let's talk about normalization, let's talk about humanization (let's talk about sex, baby, let's talk about you and me...).

If there's one thing my mom refusing to open her bills has taught me, it's that ignoring something doesn't make it go away. Embracing what's seen as marginal or in-between --  as well as our own attraction to the marginal and in-between -- is the simple embracing of the fullness of humanity.

A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.