20 November 2009

Transgender Remembrance Day

Today is Transgender Remembrance Day.

I missed the rally that was held at the LGBT Community Center of New York. However, on Sunday, I plan to attend a memorial service to be held in a church near the Center.

On one hand, I am glad that we observe this day, which is the anniversary of Rita Hester's murder in Boston in 1998. She was stabbed in the chest at least twenty times just a few weeks after Matthew Shepard was beaten, kidnapped, tied to a fence and left to die in a bitterly cold Wyoming desert night.

If people pay any attention at all to murders or other crimes against people who are (or perceived to be) gay or simply not conforming to prescribed gender roles, Shepard's and Hester's murders are two of the major reasons why.

Yet something makes me uneasy about Transgender Remembrance Day. It's not that it reminds me of the fact that we are twelve times as likely to be murdered as anyone else; rather, the observances make me realize that, too often, the dangers we face are recognized--if indeed they are recognized--only after one of us is killed. Or so it seems.

Also, when I read the names and stories of those of us--or those who were perceived as one of us--who were killed, I am distrubed to see how much more brutal and grisly our murders are than most others. The way Rita Hester was killed was not unusual at all, at least for a trans woman: It seems that when trans women are attacked, the attackers not only want to kill us; they also use as as punching bags, voodoo dolls and bonfires for their rage. Lisa Black was stabbed in the eye and beaten twenty times with a hammer; Christiaan D'Arcy was strangled, bound and locked in the trunk of a car that was set on fire and Michelle Byrne was tortured with a hot electric iron to her breasts before her killers cut off her hands and feet and finally beheaded her.

I learned about Lisa, Christiaan and Michelle from this site. None of their stories received any media attention outside the victims' local LGBT newspapers. Nor, at first, did the murder of Gwen Araujo seven years ago in California.

Araujo was killed in October of 2002, just a few weeks before Laci Peterson. Of course, that was a brutal crime, and it deserved all of the media attention it received. However, it's hard not to think that her murder got all that press because she was a pretty white cis-gender woman from an All-American family in an upscale Bay Area suburb. On the other hand, Gwen came from the "wrong" side of the Bay: Newark, a poor-to-working-class town in which a large percentage of the residents are Hispanic, as Gwen was. And, of course, she was trans.

At least her case was solved. The same can't be said for 92 percent of the other murders of transgender people that have been reported since 1975. I learned of this terrible statistic while researching an article I wrote four years ago.

Why are so few of our murders solved? Probably for the same reasons those same homicides committed against us receive so little attention. When one of us is killed, too many people see it as "just" the death of a deviant or a social misfit. Also, too many of us die alone: We have been disowned by families, friends and former co-workers--if, indeed, we ever had them in the first place. A corollary to that is that so many of us are poor: A study done in 2006, a prosperous year for the economy, indicated that 35 percent of all transgenders in San Francisco were unemployed and 59 percent were earning $15,300 a year or less. Plus--and this is one of the few stereotypes about us that has any truth--too many of us are sex workers. It's not that we have any more desire or inclination to such a job than anyone else has; it's that too many of us don't have other options. After all, what else can a teenager do if she's dropped out of school because she's been beat up too many times and her family has kicked her out--or she's run from the abuse she was facing for being who she is?

Finally, there is pure and simple misogyny. Crimes against women still aren't taken seriously by too may law enforcement officials and society generally; a "man" who "becmes" a "woman" is seen as bringing trouble on herself.

So, knowing these things, why am I against the "Hate Crimes Law? I think it has the opposite effect from what's intended: By saying that a murder or beating is worse when it's committed against members of one group, one is setting up a class system of justice. A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it against whom. If someone stabs someone, shoots that person, then douses him or her with gasoline and lights a match, it's a horrible crime, no matter who the victim is, and should be treated as such. That's how it has to be seen if we're to have policies that are actually equitable.

Besides, someone can argue or decide that the murder of a trans or gay person, or a member of any stigmatized group is not a hate crime. The defense tried to argue that Matthew Shepard's murder was a robbery gone wrong. Then they tried to invoke the "gay panic" defense. If such tactics work, as they do in many cases we never hear about, the victim becomes, to those who are adjudicating his or her case, simply another sexual deviant who won't be missed.

And, of course, people like me have to educate both in the sense most people think of that word and through example.

Finally, in the meantime, we need to remember Gwen. And Rita. And all of the others.

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