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Murdered by America

The dangers of being a trans woman of color in Jacksonville

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The first murder could have been a fluke—a tragic confluence of ‘wrong place, wrong time.’ A few months after that fateful February day, the second and third murders and one attempt (on June 1, 24 and 8, respectively) made it clear that transgender women of color were being targeted in Jacksonville. But by who? And why? Law enforcement remains short on answers; one arrest has been made thus far, in the attempted murder.

Fear gripped the LGBTQ community. Some suspected that a serial killer was targeting these women. Police have repeatedly assured the community that, no, there is not a serial killer hunting among the city’s population of trans women of color. Based on the differing circumstances of the killings, there is no reason to doubt their assurances.

While the killers may not share a name or address, make no mistake—their identity is the same: the killer is America, and she is slaughtering trans women of color.

In 2017, America claimed the lives of at least 29 trans people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. As 2018 wound down, we counted 26 trans people murdered in this country. As ever, a disproportionate number of these were female and racial minorities. A 2017 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 72 percent of the transgender homicide victims since 2010 were women of color, specifically black women.

The deeply conservative and religious South is particularly dangerous for trans folk; of the 26 murders this year, 12, nearly half, were in the South. Florida, with five confirmed murders, leads among states for such crimes; Jacksonville, with three murders, one attempted murder and a fifth slaying of a queer man who was reportedly femme and a drag performer, is far and away the trans murder capital of the nation. It adds up to cultivate a sense of danger for trans people simply existing in this place.

“Some neighborhoods, I don’t know there really is a safe place to go,” said Dan Merkan of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN), a nonprofit dedicated to serving LGBTQ youth. Physical and verbal harassment is reportedly common, particularly outside the Riverside “bubble” as some refer to it, where the city’s LGBTQ citizens typically feel safest and most free to live their lives.

The grisly series of events brought long-standing issues into sharp focus for the trans community: inequality, discrimination, rejection and suffering. Not since the as-yet-unsolved 2001 slaying of trans activist Terrianne Summers has this community been so shaken by death as it was in 2018.

The killings also shined a spotlight on the policies and procedures of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in regard to trans people. In the days after the February killing of Celine Walker, no one in the community was aware that a trans person had been murdered, because JSO repeatedly referred to Walker by the name and gender marker on her license, a practice known as deadnaming. JSO continued deadnaming victims even after the more recent killings of Antash’a English and Cathalina Christina James.

The community was outraged by what many viewed as not only a sign of disrespect, but an indication that bringing justice to these victims was not a priority for law enforcement. On June 27, dozens gathered to air their grievances with JSO and city leadership at a Trans Lives Matter rally at the Duval County Courthouse.

Since then, advocates say that JSO has taken their concerns seriously and endeavored to change its policies and culture to better serve and protect the LGBTQ community. In July, JSO hosted a town hall on the subject and many say the department is doing everything in its power to improve. Equality Florida, the ACLU and JSO’s LGBT liaison team, in consultation with the Department of Justice, have been working together to pursue these goals.

Gina Duncan, director of trans equality with Equality Florida, characterized JSO as very receptive.

“By doing that, they actually improve the chances of developing trust with the community as well as getting information to help solve these murders … when they are deadnaming and misgendering, it leads to distrust in the community,” Duncan said.

Nevertheless, it will take time for police to earn that trust.

“There are some that want to make a better connection … and there are others that have a harder time because of their experience with law enforcement,” said Samir Gupte, a regional organizer for the ACLU.

Duncan pointed out that people who may have information that could help law enforcement investigate the murders or other crimes against members of the LGBTQ community are less likely to come forward if they believe that law enforcement is not fully invested in solving such crimes. She also questioned why none of the murders has been characterized as hate crimes—a concern shared by other advocates who serve the LGBTQ community.

“No one has stepped forward to categorize these as hate crimes, which we find disturbing because we find these as similar intentional acts of violence against the same community,” she said.

“… If five white housewives were murdered in these areas … Tallahassee, the capital, would be on fire.”

Transgender women of color began the movement for LGBTQ equality 50 years ago at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, yet today their rights continue to lag far behind the rest of the community. As sodomy laws have been repealed, marriage equality made the law of the land, and anti-adoption, inheritance and other unjust laws have been repealed and struck down in the courts, opening opportunities for personal and economic success and freedom, trans women of color continue waiting their turn.

“They are Americans and deserve rights and protections that everyone else gets,” Gupte said. Meanwhile, trans women of color are suffering and dying at an incredibly high rate.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to fully explain the complex intersection of racism, transphobia, sexism and other forms of discrimination that holds these women back from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As convoluted and complicated the causes, one primary way America stands with her heel firmly on the neck of trans women of color is economic. People who can’t find steady work, who may not have a stable support system, who have been rejected by their families, churches and friends are more likely to end up in dangerous situations. All too often for trans women of color, those situations lead to their deaths.

Each of the three trans women of color who were murdered in Jacksonville in 2018 moved around a lot; each was murdered in places with disproportionately high crime rates. One publicly lamented her problems finding stable employment; another spoke of threats of violence to her person. These are not anomalous experiences for many members of this community. The poverty rate among trans women of color is far higher than the national average; unemployment, violence and homelessness are similarly high, and life expectancy low, as low as 35 according to some data. And it can all stem from the basic inability to find a job.

JASMYN CEO Cindy Watson characterized finding sustainable employment as the No. 1 issue for trans women of color.

“Really, it is about discrimination and opportunity,” she said.

Last May, Antash’a English took to Facebook to celebrate her first day at work. Days later, the smiling woman, clad in hairnet and hope, was back on the social media site sharing that she had just gone to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “I will no longer be a victim of discrimination. #Transrights,” she wrote.

Plenty of women in her shoes don’t even get to that first day of work before the door of opportunity slams in their face. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate of trans women of color was four times higher than that of non-trans women of color. If they get past the application, trans women may hear that they’re not the right fit for a job, or that they don’t have enough experience, but not that the employer doesn’t hire trans people. Hear that enough times, and even people who consider themselves resilient will give up.

Although Jacksonville passed an amended human rights ordinance in 2017 that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing (an important, if largely symbolic, first step), discrimination is extremely difficult to prove absent the proverbial smoking gun in the form of discriminatory statements and a witness.

Being unable to find or sustain employment often has a negative effect on mental health. Unemployment is at least a contributing factor to the higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide ideations and attempts, as well as addiction and other symptoms of poor mental health among trans people.

Two days before her death, English said in a Facebook Live video that she’d slept all day.

“That’s how I do when I be bored. When I be bored, I just sleep, take my mind off of being depressed,” she said.

Recognizing the difficulties many experience in the job search, last year the University of North Florida hosted an LGBT employment summit with funding from the LGBT Community Fund. Kaitlin Legg, director of the UNF LGBT Resource Center, said the summit was designed for both job seekers and prospective employers, and intended not only to help people get hired, but to help employees and employers navigate what can be an uncomfortable, confusing exchange. UNF has also actively endeavored to create relationships with local LGBTQ-friendly employers to build job capacity.

Legg said that she’s seen trans people who were afraid to even try to get a job before they’ve completed the often costly and time-consuming process of changing their name and gender marker. She said that simple things like whether an application has a space for preferred name and gender identity, and if the office offers a gender-neutral bathroom, can go a long way to making both parties feel comfortable and empowered without being put out or having to demand reasonable accommodation or suffer its lack.

“Our first advice for hiring professionals is to look at their policy and procedure about hiring … . [The second] is helping hiring officials feel empowered to ask questions,” Legg said, adding, “Sometimes when people want to be inclusive, they’re afraid to ask questions.”

As simple as it sounds, just explaining the workplace policy of inclusion and nondiscrimination and opening the conversation for a prospective hire to tell you how to help them feel comfortable can go a long way to fostering a successful employer/employee relationship. It’s not necessary or desirable to be invasive or intrusive; Legg recommends what she calls “cultural humility,” and basic, open-ended conversations that create an opportunity for a recruit to discuss ways an employer can make them feel “affirmed and supported.”

Like the improving relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQ community, these are excellent steps on a long road to equality for trans citizens. There remains much ground to cover.

When people can’t find a legal way to support themselves, some will turn to illegal methods of earning a living, which can in turn lead to a criminal record and create further roadblocks to obtaining sustainable employment. Studies such as the National Transgender Discrimination Survey have found that trans women of color, particularly those who have experienced poverty and homelessness, are more likely to have performed sex work to survive at some point in their lives. The risks inherent in sex work are many and deadly, ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to robbery, rape and murder. Advocates report that those who have been hurt while performing sex work often feel as if they can’t turn to police for help, that they risk arrest or worse if they report crimes against them that occurred during the commission of other crimes. For some, this fear is based on experience. Law enforcement says that it will investigate any crime that’s reported, regardless of the history or conduct of the victim, but contacting police requires a lot of faith that simply has not yet been established. The fact that there is inconsistency among departments across the nation only further serves to undermine the willingness some have to trust in law enforcement.

There’s also the matter of police policy of testing suspected sex workers for HIV/AIDS when they’re arrested—and subsequently charging them with a felony for intentionally spreading the disease if they’re picked for solicitation after a positive diagnosis. The statute does not take into account the viral load of the accused, whether the sexual activity is likely to spread the disease, or whether protection was used. Instead, it merely criminalizes status.

This is an example of a law that has a disproportionate effect on one subset of the population in such a way that, while perhaps not discriminatory in intent, is discriminatory in effect. In a city like Jacksonville, which is in the top 10 for numbers of new cases of HIV/AIDS (of the 10 cities on this list, nine are in the South) and in the top for numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, this law clearly is not having the desired effect.

Merkan, who is part of a work group looking to reform the law, said that such legislation was passed by many states in the late ’80s, when fear of HIV/AIDS was at hysteric proportions, before many breakthroughs in treatment and prevention, and at a time when acceptance of LGBTQ people was generally far less common than present day.

“It’s one of the things where the law doesn’t consider where we’re at [in terms of medicine],” he said. “It creates a stigma.”

For the general population, which HRC reports has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 0.6 percent, such laws may seem obscure and unlikely to do much harm; but for trans women of color, who are infected with HIV/AIDS at a rate of 24.9 percent, or nearly one in four, according to HRC, such laws can have an extremely disproportionate effect. Merkan also pointed out that at one time, Duval County had one of the highest rates of prosecution under such laws. Consider how much more difficult it might be to get a job with this charge on your record.

So where do we go from here? In the 50 years since Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought back against a homophobic police raid at the Stonewall Inn, opportunities, awareness and acceptance have improved for much of the LGBTQ community. Today some fear that progress is in danger of backsliding. Each of the advocates Folio Weekly spoke with for this story cited the deleterious effect of Donald Trump on trans people and their standing in America. Since becoming president, Trump has promised to ban trans people from serving in the military, removed the LGBTQ page from the White House website, and reportedly made moves to stop recognizing the very existence of trans and gender nonbinary people. These acts, many believe, have emboldened the forces of bigotry and discrimination.

Merkan said that the most recent figures show that hate crimes are way up. “I don’t think that it’s a surprise a correlation may happen,” he said.

“On college campuses across the country since the Trump administration took over, we have seen an increased incidence of hate offenses and … graffiti that is anti-LGBT,” Legg said.

It is not all bad news, however. Legg says some have responded by becoming more vocal about their support for LGBTQ rights. Optimists may view the path to equality as a pendulum swing that, overall, inches incrementally in a positive direction; for every gain, a backlash, but continued momentum. In some places, like the South, like Florida and Jacksonville, however, there seems to be more backlash and more progress still left to be made.

For Celine Walker, Antash’a English and Cathalina Christina James, it’s too late. For others, their deaths were a signal that trans women of color are still not safe here.

“The murders just amplified that for a lot of people. This is either a temporary place or a place they grew up, but it’s not home. It’s not even Jacksonville, it’s Florida,” Legg said.

The fact remains that these tragedies have kept a bright light on injustice in this community, and with light often comes progress. There are people fighting for equality every day, and they’re not giving up.

“People are slow to change, but change does happen,” Gupte said. “… Things will come, it’s not going to happen fast, and it could be a painful journey along the way. People are good-hearted in their nature and the more personal it gets, the faster it will be.”

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