The violent deaths of two African-American trans women in Dallas is bringing national attention to the epidemic of violence against the transgender community, an epidemic which disproportionately affects trans women of color.
Dallas police are investigating the death of 26-year-old Chynal Lindsey whose body was recovered from White Rock Lake in northeastern Dallas on June 1. According to Dallas PD chief Renee Hall, Lindsey’s body showed “obvious signs of homicidal violence,” but police have not yet confirmed the cause of death.
Lindsey’s death comes just weeks after 23-year-old Muhlaysia Booker was shot and killed on May 18. Her death occurred shortly after a cell phone video of her being assaulted by a group of men went viral. After the video went viral, Booker spoke out against the violence trans women face. She told reporters at an April rally, “This time I can stand before you, where in other scenarios, we’re at a memorial.”
Hall said police are “concerned” about the back-to-back deaths of two trans women in the same community and have reached out to the FBI for assistance in the investigation.
The two murders are part of a disturbing pattern in Dallas. Another trans woman – who remains unidentified – survived being stabbed multiple times in April. And in October 2018, Brittany White, an African-American trans woman, was shot and killed.
The uptick in violence over the last eight months in Dallas alone against black trans women is reflective of a national pattern.
In 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 26 transgender people suffered violent deaths in the U.S., a majority of them were black trans women. So far in 2019, seven transgender people have been violently killed, according to the HRC. All the victims in 2019 were black trans women. Additionally, trans women of color make up four out of five anti-trans homicides, the HRC said in a 2018 report.
A rising number of transgender women of color have been killed in Hate Violence Homicides, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which is coordinated by the Anti-Violence Project. A total of 22 women were killed in 2017, compared to 12 in 2013. However, the HRC notes that data collection about the murder of transgender people is often “incomplete or unreliable,” because some deaths will not be reported, and some victims may not be identified as transgender in the media.
Black trans women are particularly vulnerable because they face multiple kinds of discrimination, says Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the NYC Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit which combats violence against the LGBTQ and HIV-positive communities through counseling and advocacy. Not only are members of this community trans, but they are also black, women and often poor.
“All of the discrimination results in people often living lives that are just more vulnerable to violence. You have a job that is more tenuous, you live in places that are more tenuous,” Tillery tells TIME. And in addition to all that, “people look at you and they don’t care about your existence and they don’t value your life.”
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by activist group National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of black trans people surveyed reported living in poverty, compared to just 12% of the U.S. population and 29% of transgender people overall. The respondents also reported greater housing instability, with 51% of black trans women reporting that they have experienced homelessness at some point in their life. Black trans women were also disproportionately likely to report having participated in sex work; 42% of black trans women said they had taken part in income-based sex work, compared to 12% of overall survey respondents.
Tillery says that her organization consults with trans women on promoting safety. Many of these women say that they need access to resources where they won’t face discrimination, including housing, healthcare and employment resources.
Tillery says that providing these resources to trans women can serve a dual purpose in communities. Providing resources for trans people can show society that “they’re valued community members. We’re looking out for them,” says Tillery. “Sending that message is equally important because we’re also waging a war, a culture war, here. What people are hearing from society, particularly the federal government, is we don’t value this community and these individuals.”
The Trump administration has taken a number of actions which transgender activists have decried as discriminatory, including banning transgender people from serving in the military; changing a Bureau of Prisons policy that requires prisoners to be housed in facilities for the sex they were assigned at birth; and introducing new Department of Health and Human Services rules to allow hospitals and insurance companies to deny patients care based on religious or moral beliefs.
David J. Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for black LGBTQ civil rights, tells TIME that black LGBTQ people – and particularly those in the trans community – often find it difficult to move because of discrimination and a lack of economic resources. This prevents them from going to places where they can access more LGBTQ services, and a community where they can fully express their identities.
“We don’t come out… [we] don’t move to ‘gayborhoods,’” says Johns. “We live in communities with other black people, where we’re fighting for basic access to resources.”
Johns and other activists say that it’s time for a larger, national conversation about gender, sexuality and identity.
Rev. Louis Mitchell, an African American trans man, works as the executive director of Transfaith, a non-profit that supports transgender spiritual leadership. Following the high profile homicides of Booker and Lindsey in Dallas, Reverend Mitchell says there needs to be a bigger conversation about the role of the patriarchy- a system in which men, particularly cisgender men, control a disproportionate amount of power. He believes that contributes to the violence, domestic and otherwise, that seriously affects the lives of trans women of color.
“This is intersectional,” he tells TIME. “When you have the combination of a society that protects racism, misogyny and transphobia, it creates insurmountable odds. This is not so much an issue just in the Dallas area, but an international pandemic.”
Mitchell says he hopes people in the ministry do their part and begin to talk about abuse of power in sexual relationships, especially because it’s landing heavily on the trans community.
“There is this issue, it usually comes from an intimate partner, the idea that somehow no one is going to look for these women, that they’re so deeply disposable, and that level of disregard is horrible,” he says. “It stems from misogyny, one of the things I would hope all women, cis and trans, recognize is the commonality of their plight when it comes to assault.”
Mitchell says what is needed is a combination of “education, legislation and mediation.”
“There’s a number of reasons black trans women are disproportionately affected by violence,” he says. “The trickle down effect of all sort of oppression lands on black women, trans or not. The combination of racism and misogyny and the disregard for black women has always been a factor, so I’m not surprised it’s landing on this population. There’s not a lot of mystery, when you’re stacking up oppression, its gonna hit black trans women the hardest.”
Monica Roberts, a Houston-based trans activist and blogger travelled to Dallas for Muhlaysia Booker’s wake in May. An African-American trans woman, she says the community is past the point of being sad.
“Its angering to us now,” she tells TIME. “For the last several years the majority of the victims have been black trans women. I’ve been tracking that violence via my blog. I believe it’s caused by a combination of factors, many are attacked because of intimate partner violence, and it’s not just girls involved in sex work. Some of it happens to be an argument that blows up, and then suddenly a gun comes out.”
For Roberts, one of the main steps to ending the violence is having black leadership, which she believes is mostly silent when it comes to issues affecting the trans community, speak up in their defense.
“There needs to be a multi-layered response,” she says. “With one of the layers being a legislative response and other layers [that] require people to open their mouths to say ‘Black trans lives matter.’ That means legacy organizations like the NAACP have to say that, black politicians have say that and then back it up if they’re in a state that doesn’t have legislation covering back trans folks.”
Roberts has also been on the frontline of trying to add gender identity to the list of protected classes in the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. She says the exclusion of transgender people from legislation that protects people from hate crimes motivated by race, religion and disabilities makes it easier for trans women of color to be targeted.
“The bottom line is when you don’t treat trans people with basic dignity and respect that permeates to the rest of society,” she says, and referenced the significance of the trans community in the Stonewall Riots. “People need to remember that 50 years ago this LGBTQ movement was kicked off by a black trans woman- and it is past time for society to recognize that trans lives matter.”
“Black trans people are black people and our human rights as Americans are deserving of protection,” Roberts says. “If our rights are not secured then just know yours are next.”
Correction, June 12
The original version of this story misstated the name of a transgender activist group. It is the National Center for Transgender Equality, not Trans Equality.