I sat quietly in the courtroom Tuesday as a sentence was read, but justice not served. It was difficult to see the decision as anything but the system failing us yet again. James Dixon, 25, received 12 years in prison on a charge of manslaughter for beating to death Islan Nettles, a vibrant young woman, in 2013. Nettles, 21, who lived in Harlem, was black and transgender.
I saw only five transgender advocates in attendance; there were less than 40 people in the courtroom. It was disheartening not to see more solidarity, but it is also hard to feel impassioned about a legal system that routinely falls short of protecting us.
The proceedings began late, making it feel all the more like a formality. While the prosecution had asked for a 17-year sentence, Judge Robert Stolz offered a 12-year term to bypass a trial. There would be no surprises. Few members of the press showed up.
Nettles was walking with two friends after midnight on August 17, 2013, when she encountered a group of men near the corner of 147th Street and 8th Avenue, according to the police reports. Dixon confessed to police that he hit on her, not realizing that Nettles was transgender until his friends began teasing him.
“I just didn’t want to be fooled,” Dixon said on tape, according to The New York Times. He punched Nettles, and continued to beat her once she was on the ground. He knocked her unconscious, then left. She was brought to Harlem Hospital and had brain surgery, but was declared brain-dead and taken off life support a week later.
If men are beating trans women to brain-death on public streets, imagine the risk we take if forced to enter a men’s restroom based solely upon birth sex assignment.
Hateful laws like North Carolina’s HB2, which mandates the use of public facilities as per the “biological sex” listed on one’s birth certificate, reinforce the myth that transgender people are deceptive, and that this deception justifies rage if discovered.
We are seen as men playing dress-up, a perception ingrained into language itself. “Travesty,” a false or absurd representation, comes from the same Latin root as the “trans” and “vest” in “transvestite,” a word for crossdresser, which is commonly confused with being transgender. If men are beating trans women to brain-death on public streets, imagine the risk we take if forced to enter a men’s restroom based solely upon birth sex assignment. Painting transgender women as criminals just for existing distracts our country from the truth: that we are the ones most endangered.
Fellow transgender advocate Jennifer Louise Lopez, herself a victim of street violence, and I approached New York Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Viorst, who prosecuted the case, as the session ended. She asked once again why Dixon was not charged with a hate crime. “We don’t know the words that went on between them,” Viorst replied, referring to the conversation between Nettles and Dixon — surrounded by his friends — that remained a mystery throughout the investigation.
We continue to lose transgender women, especially transgender women of color. Their cases are seldom charged as hate crimes.
Viorst’s comments prove how much the justice system must learn about gender identity to properly defend us. Hate does not always require words to manifest. As transgender women, we are at risk simply when our physical builds, voices, or facial hair can reveal our pasts. Not unlike the color of our skin, something that should not matter much at all can instantly decide our life or death.
We continue to lose transgender women, especially transgender women of color. Their cases are seldom charged as hate crimes. Many victims are further denied acknowledgement even in death, as they were in life. Police reports often highlight the person’s birth name, and unsupportive families bury them as afflicted sons.
The violence will end when we teach our sons that loving a trans woman is loving a woman. Legislation may not serve as enough of a deterrent, but it can be improved. We must formalize crimes against trans individuals as hate crimes nationwide.
We must remember our transgender sister Islan, whom I never got to meet. She was every bit a woman and had so much yet to enjoy — perhaps even marriage and motherhood. She was a budding fashion designer, and a natural talent, so they say. The world has lost out.
Simpson, a transgender advocate, marathoner, and unabashed nerd, appeared in Refinery29’s Trans America series. She frequently comments on trans issues and was recently featured as a guest with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, as well as on WNYW Fox 5's Good Day New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.