November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to commemorate lives lost to anti-trans* violence. We asked writer Parker Molloy to write about this epidemic and how we can stop it.
On August 17, 2013, 21-year-old Islan Nettles was walking home with two friends when they were approached by a group of men. According to eyewitness reports, when the men realized that Nettles was a transgender woman, they began taunting her and her friends, hurling homophobic and transphobic slurs at the trio. Nettles was thrown to the ground and savagely beaten. Unable to overcome her injuries, she died in the hospital five days later.
Advances in trans* visibility and acceptance have been made in 2014, but Islan's story is a tragic reminder of how much further we still have to go. Trans* individuals — particularly trans women of color — still live their daily lives under the threat of violence, in a society that doesn't always seem to care. More than a year has passed since Nettles' death, and the police appear no closer to punishing her killer than they were that very evening.
There was one arrest: In October, 20-year-old Paris Wilson was arrested in connection with Nettles' death and was charged with a misdemeanor assault. A few weeks later, all charges against Wilson were dropped. At the time, Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Viorst tried to explain away Wilson’s release, citing the complexities of the justice system.
That was over a year ago. Since then, police and prosecutors have said little on the record regarding the status of the Nettles investigation, and the boilerplate response tends to be that they are still "aggressively pursuing" leads in her murder. We reached out to the DA's office, but they declined to comment, citing an open case.
Sadly, Nettles' case is far from unique. Each year, trans* people are brutally murdered worldwide; the vast majority of these victims are trans women of color. Yet, the general public appears unmoved by their plight. Cases often get little to no press. Each year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) releases an annual report compiling hate-crime statistics from the previous year. According to the most recent report, 72% of hate-crime homicide victims in the United States were trans women, with trans women of color accounting for 67% of that total. Since June, 10 trans women of color have been murdered; the most recent victim was Gizzy Fowler, a Nashville-area woman who was found shot.
Meanwhile, the media celebrate the year's progress in trans* visibility. In May, TIME featured trans* icon Laverne Cox, best known for her Emmy-nominated role on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The cover story, which heralded the "transgender tipping point," focused on the recent advances seen in the world of trans* rights. From California's recently-enacted trans* student protection law to various court victories to author Janet Mock's New York Times bestselling memoir, Redefining Realness, there most certainly have been advances — both in terms of legal gains and media representation. Yet, the physical violence against the most vulnerable group of trans* individuals continues undeterred.
It's not as though the trans* community has remained silent; there have been dozens of protests and gatherings calling for justice for Islan, and trans* celebrities have been using the media spotlight to speak out against anti-trans* violence. But, that narrative often isn't getting heard.
In January, during an appearance on Katie Couric's daytime talk show, Katie, Laverne Cox fielded an invasive, embarrassing question about her anatomy. Without hesitation, she managed to turn Couric's inappropriate question into a platform to demand justice for Nettles and other victims of anti-trans* violence.
"[Trans* model] Carmen [Carrera] sort of recoiled a little bit when I asked her about her transition, and she said that people who are not educated about this or familiar with [trans* people] are preoccupied with the genitalia question. And, I’m wondering if you think that’s true, and if you have the same feelings about that as Carmen does," asked Couric.
"I do feel like there’s a preoccupation with that, and I think that the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans* people. And, then we don’t get to really deal with the real, lived experiences," said Cox. "The reality of trans* people’s lives is [that] so often, we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average. If you’re a trans* person of color, it’s four times the average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest amongst trans women. And, when we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things."
Cox then brought up Nettles’ case, telling the story of her killing and the lack of justice to follow. “Trans women of color, whose lives are in danger simply for being who they are...we’re looking for justice for Islan’s murder, and we’re looking for justice for so many trans* people across this country. And, by focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination."
The next day, Cox's appearance was written up across the Internet — as a spat. Headlines grabbed onto the idea that Cox had “shut down” Couric, and largely ignored anything specific to Nettles’ case — and Cox's points about the violence her community lives with. And, with each passing day, it seems more and more likely that the men who beat Islan Nettles to death will never pay any price for their crimes.
If we truly want equality — and not just a glossy, televised version of it — we need to focus efforts on stemming anti-trans* violence. As long as trans women can be killed for walking down the street in their own neighborhoods, as long as their killers walk free, we have not reached a positive “transgender tipping point” of any kind.