A State of Emergency: Addressing the Violence Epidemic Faced by Trans Women of Color

The Trans Women of Color Collective of Greater New York demonstrating in Harlem last summer after the death of another trans woman of color. Photo courtesy of GLAAD.

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

When Latina trans woman Kristina Gomez Reinwald was murdered on February 16, it made her the seventh US trans woman killed in as many weeks. Six of these homicides were committed against trans women of color (TWOC), shining new light on the epidemic of violence faced by the TWOC community.
The sense of frustration and despair felt by TWOC is heard in a message from the Trans Woman of Color Collective’s National Director Ashley Lourdes Hunter, memorializing two of the earlier deaths.
“In just 9 days, two Black Trans Women have been brutally murdered. Goddess Lamia Beard, 24 years old, from Norfolk, Virginia January 17th and Goddess Ty Underwood, 30 years old from Tyler, Texas January 26th” Lourdes said.

“I know there will be no petitions started in your name to end structural violence and oppression. I know there will be no protests that stop traffic and SHUT SH-T DOWN in your honor. There will be no national outrage or pleas from politicians to end this brutal violence. But we will honor you. We will mourn for you. We will not let your lives be in vain. I am humbled by the ultimate sacrifice you made to live unapologetically in your truth.”
PQ reached out to activists working to address this problem, in Portland and nationally, to learn what is being done to help the most threatened part of our community.
At Basic Rights Oregon, the Trans Justice working group has initiated several campaigns designed to combat the violence and stigma surrounding trans women of color, says BRO Policy Director Nico Quintana. He cites the working group’s “End Profiling,” “End Violence” and “End Conversion Therapy” initiatives as efforts to begin dismantling the transmisogyny and racism that underlie these crimes.
Harassment and discrimination plague trans women, Quintano says, pointing to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2011 survey “Injustice at Every Turn,” which found that 54% of trans people in Oregon report having been verbally harassed and 31% have been denied services because of their gender identities. “Every aspect of harassment and discrimination is higher for people of color—in some cases doubled,” adds Quitano, who is trans and Latino identified.
Quintano previously worked with the DC Trans Coalition, where he witnessed the murders of trans women of color firsthand. “This is an issue that’s been devastating communities for generations,” he says. “We’re losing our community members. I, personally, have lost four friends. The lives of trans women of color are not being respected.”
One Portlander who’s acting to change that is Ryannah, a trans woman of color youth, who works with many agencies, including SMYRC, Basic Rights Oregon, and the agencies that serve Portland’s homeless youth continuum.
While she was a Basic Rights Oregon Fellow, Ryannah herself was attacked by seven men on the PSU campus, who targeted her based on her gender identity. She reported the crime to the police, but has received no update on her case.
Ryannah urges other trans youth of color to access the resources available to them, from CAP, SMYRC, and Safer PDX. “I would say to trans women, I encourage you to always have someone with you if you’re going somewhere, and if you can’t, to be in contact with someone on your phone,” she says.
While she’s personally experienced transphobic harassment, Ryannah remains resilient and optimistic. “I believe awareness is here, and hope is here,” she says. “Our youth are our strongest voices.”
While the Human Rights Campaign is not a direct service organization, it makes efforts to bring the plight of trans women of color to light, says Director of Program Strategies Jay Brown. He points to HRC’s recent report, “A National Crisis: Anti-Transgender Violence.” The report is continuously updated, recording all the murders of trans women this year, and places the crimes in stark perspective, quoting the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program statistics, which found that in 2013 72% of LGBTQ hate violence homicide victims were trans women, and 67% were trans women of color.
In addition to this public education, Brown says HRC attempts to address the problem by countering the poverty and chronic unemployment suffered by trans women through HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. Likewise, HRC hopes to support trans youth by creating benchmarks to help foster care agencies become competent in placing trans youth in affirming homes.
“Our All Children-All Families program helps foster care systems,” says Brown, who himself identifies as trans. “We want to create agencies that recognize the problem of family rejection trans youth face, and screen families in a way that avoids it. They recognize there’s a need.”
As for the day to day work of stopping the deluge of anti-trans woman of color violence, Brown points to, and lauds, the work being done by local agencies around the country, like Trans Tech in Chicago, and Casa Ruby and the Whitman-Walker Health Center in Washington D.C.
One agency addressing the issue here in Portland is PFLAG Black Chapter. To Coordinator Khalil Edwards, tackling it means understanding at the multiple oppressions that fuel it.
“I would encourage people to look at the ways race and transphobia are interlocked,” Edwards says. “People of color and trans women are two groups that are extremely marginalized and constantly have their rights and access stolen from them. We need to look at the intersections that push people out from living and breathing and getting their needs met. The privileges we have to pursue a life have been stolen away and not shared with trans women of color.”
Edwards says PFLAG Black Chapter serves people who identify as TWOC through GSAs and youth groups. The organization advocates for them in its work with educators, church groups and with Multnomah Co., teaching those they consult with to view the issue through the lens of intersecting oppressions.  Current focuses for PFLAG Black Chapter also include examining and addressing the unique ways gentrification affects black trans women, and ensuring trans women of color can access shelters that align with their gender identities.
Edwards says to address the violence against trans women of color, we must consider its impact. “This is happening to our family members and in our communities,” he says. “To address it we need to raise its visibility and keep it on our consciousness. To address it we can make it a top priority and treat it like a state of emergency.”