The Haunting Reality Of Being A Trans Woman In Detroit

Photo: Paul Sancya/AP Photo.
While the United States has made enormous recent progress on issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation, for many young men and women, it’s still not enough.

Among them are the seven transgender women who have been murdered in Detroit in the past five years — many being women of color. Detroit Metro Times writer Allie Gross recently profiled one case, the death of 25-year-old Ashton O’Hara, in her in-depth piece "The Throwaways," an examination of the lives of trans women in Detroit. O’Hara, who had been working in the local sex trade, was killed by a John in the summer of 2015. But her story didn’t end with her death — multiple women in the local trans community found themselves affected by the tragedy, and Gross spoke to many of them for her piece. Refinery29 spoke with Gross about the dangerous reality of being a transgender woman in America today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide to write this story?
"Over the summer, I was doing a fellowship at Mother Jones, when a trans woman [Amber Munroe] was shot and killed in Detroit, and her death made headlines really quickly. It came out afterwards that Amber was the 12th trans woman to be murdered in the United States so far [in 2015]. By the end of the year, that number had gone up to 25. So it got attention.

"I was so glad that Amber’s murder was getting covered, but at times it could feel like the coverage was one-dimensional, where we’d hear about the murder and we’d hear some stats. You might hear something like a ‘fun thing’— ‘Amber was really fun’, or ‘she loved to dance’ — but you didn’t really get to know much about who these women were, or what their community was like, or the context of the crime. I wanted to flesh out not only who the victims were, but who their friends were and how they’re dealing with the fact that they keep learning about a new friend, who’s an important person in their life, being killed. And so that was why I wanted to write about it."

Tell me a little bit about the reporting process. What do you think being based in Detroit allowed you to do in terms of telling a story?
"You could probably tell this story in various communities across the country. I think Detroit specifically, it becomes apparent, is really this flash point for violence right now. Just since 2011, seven trans women have been killed here. There’s just a lot of violence.

"This isn’t so much Detroit specific, but one thing that stuck out is the barrage of discrimination that weighs on these women. Of the seven who had been killed since 2011, all of them had been involved in sex work. While sex work isn’t necessarily directly tied to the reason that they were killed, I wanted to look at what their lives were like, and I saw a real marginalization. You have this trajectory of prejudice, where life options for these trans women of color, specifically, are really limited: you have job discrimination, housing discrimination. So it becomes very hard to enter the formal economy, which leaves a lot of these women with really few options for survival. Many do turn to survival sex work, which then puts the women in a really dangerous situation. Murders are making the headlines, of course, but I talked to women about getting beat up, robbed, pistol-whipped, all these horrible things were happening because of the situation they were being placed in."

What was the most surprising thing that you found when you were getting to know these women?
"Julisa, who was someone that I shadowed probably the majority of the time, she had done a lot of media and spoken with a lot of different people about her life, but she had never opened up and talked about her experience with sex work. For her, it was really difficult to talk about that. I wrote about this in the piece, but women had different reactions to sex work. Some felt empowered that this was a way they could actually make money and take care of themselves, but for her she was really concerned with how the world would perceive her, even thought she knew that she didn’t have choices. She felt like people would see her as a ‘ho’ or a ‘slut.’ It was really sad, because I saw this really proud, beautiful woman who was so resilient and bold, but because of job discrimination, in a weird way society is still forcing her to live a portion of her life in secret. And she had carried this shame even though in the rest of her life she was living out in the open. That stuck with me."

How do you tell these stories without exoticizing these women for a mainstream audience?
"I felt it was really important to get to know them as people. I went with some of the women to Six Mile and Woodward one night, which is where the stroll is for Johns to pick up women, and I filmed a little. But I decided not to include those videos in the piece. I didn’t even detail that experience that night, because they were in an incredibly vulnerable situation that night. And it felt — exploitive isn’t the right word, but it didn’t feel appropriate. I wanted to document their struggles, but I didn’t need to have a video of them in a moment right after a date, where this is how they’re having to make their living."

Have you heard from any of the women you spoke to about the piece?
"They really appreciated it, but one of the best messages I got was — I went to the trial of Ashton O’Hara’s killer Larry Gaulding. I was able to get to know Ashton’s family. After the article came out, Ashton’s grandmother texted me and said, 'I read the whole article. Thank you. You’ve done a wonderful job trying to tell these girls’ stories, just hug them all for me and tell them I hope that sooner than later they can finally be themselves with no stigma. And if they ever need to talk or vent or just hear someone say 'I love you,' please give them my number and I’m on the Facebook. Just ask and I will do whatever I can help. I have to go I’m in tears — the good ones — because I know my Ashton is finally at rest.'"
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