Tracy is a proud Black transgender woman, determined since childhood that, no matter the price, she would never pretend to be anything other than “my authentic self — the woman God made.”
The price has been high. She has been haunted by prejudice and pain for much of her 46 years. Tracy says she has been beaten by boyfriends, raped by strangers, shot by a stalker and “disrespected and dehumanized” by police and paramedics. All things considered, though, she’s been lucky. “None of my crew, the girls I came up with, is still around,” she laments. “My grandmother is 90 and I have more dead friends than she does. A lot of my girlfriends didn’t even make it to 30.”
Tracy is not her real name. She hasn’t forgotten the murders here three years ago of two young African-American transgender women. Being too public, she says, “can get a girl killed.” Other trans women don’t always know Tracy’s real name either. Instead, they call her Mama. They seek her out for advice. After all, she was walking in heels before many of them were born.
In Tracy’s America, she is practically a senior citizen. “There aren’t too many girls out there older than me,” she says. But Tracy doesn’t try to sell dreams about Prince Charming to her struggling sisters. It’s too dangerous out there and she has too many scars to her body and soul to waste time with fairy tales. She gives it to them straight. Her advice to “the next generation of girls” is blunt: Always be on guard. We are under attack.
In the first two months of 2015, at least seven transgender women of color – almost one a week – were murdered in the United States, from Miami to Los Angeles. Since 2013, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), nearly 30 transgender women, most of them Black and Latino, have been slain with fists, knives, guns and hate.
“We’ve had people burned in their homes,” says Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, policy adviser for the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based NCTE. “We’ve had people’s genitals mutilated after they’re dead. It’s absolutely rooted in transphobia and hatred and it’s absolutely a national crisis. And that’s just confirmed murders. It’s probably more.”
‘Killing Us Is Nothing New’
While the violent deaths make Tracy wonder every time she steps out of her front door whether she will return home in one piece or at all, the murders do not surprise her. “Killing us is nothing new,” she says. “It’s like being a policeman. When you go to work, you know you might get shot. It’s just something that comes with the territory.”
The territory is filled with peril. On Janurary 4, two White transgender women – Rae Raucci, 52, and Samantha Hulsey, 24 – were riding a city bus in San Francisco at 5 p.m. after a day of shopping. They were sitting in the back, talking about the rest of the evening when a man across the aisle began accusing them, Raucci says, “of defrauding him by pretending to be women.” As he got louder and more menacing, the women hurried off the bus at the next stop. The man followed, pulled a 3½-inch steak knife from his coat and stabbed Hulsey in the chest. She ran into a fast food restaurant for help while Raucci tried to distract him until police could arrive. Bleeding, Hulsey returned to the street to help her friend and the man stabbed Hulsey again. She survived and the man was arrested and charged with attempted murder and a hate crime.
“There’s a near hysterical amount of hatred that can show up against transgender people at any moment,” Raucci says, a first-year law student. “Every three or four months, I’ve had some kind of incident, name calling, threats, because I’m transgender. For transgender people, we’re like in the pre-civil rights era.”
Raucci and Hulsey were fortunate to escape more serious injury or death. Recent research by the Southern Poverty Law Center, based on 14 years of FBI statistics, shows that LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Blacks or Jews, and more than four times as likely as Muslims. Within the LGBT world, it seems clear, even if based on anecdotal evidence, that transgender people are the most victimized. Among trans people, trans women are the most targeted. And among trans women, women of color almost certainly face the most violence. Trans women of color, in other words, are almost certainly the group most victimized by hate violence in America.
Last year, for the first time, the FBI published statistics on the number of hate crimes based on gender identity, finding that 33 people were victimized in 2013, the latest numbers available. However, as Buzzfeed pointed out, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an advocacy group, released a similar report last year, finding that 344 trans people had been victimized in 2013, with 13 of them killed. The group’s findings have been disputed, in part because it counts some cases not classified as crimes by law enforcement. But it is known that the FBI numbers understate the number of hate crime victims of all types, by a factor of as much as 40 times.
So many transgender people have been lost to anti-transgender violence that every Nov. 20 their loved ones and supporters have gathered across the country and around the world for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The names of the slain are read off one by one, like a memorial service at a besieged military outpost before the troops wearily return to war.
On the next Day of Remembrance, the list will include, according to NCTE’s 2015 death toll, Papi Edwards, 20, who was shot and killed in a hotel parking in Louisville, Ky., on Janurary 9, allegedly by a 20-year-old man she apparently met online. A friend of Edwards, another transgender woman, told police that as soon as the man walked into Edwards’ hotel room, she said, “Well, you know I’m tranny?”
He cursed and left.
Minutes later, as Edwards and her friends were walking across the hotel parking lot to buy cigarettes, the man suddenly appeared and allegedly shot Edwards. “We thought the guy was going to kill us all,” the woman told police.
The name of 24-year-old Ty Underwood will also be read. A college football player police said she had been dating for weeks allegedly shot her to death in Tyler, Texas, on Jan. 26.
“A lot of these girls who have been killed, it’s by men they have relationships with,” Tracy says. “I tell girls all the time, if a man is not secure in who he is and open about who he is, his secret is more important to him than your life. He can kill you and move on to the next girl. Guys have told me, ‘If a woman puts me out there, I’ll kill her.’ We’re disposable to them.”
In 2012, two young African-American transgender women were discarded like trash after being slain a few blocks and a few months apart in a gritty patch of Chicago’s West Side, close to a stretch called "The Stroll," a place where sex and drugs are sold by people desperately trying to survive. It is a well-known strip. No one who stops and asks for a date is being fooled. “There are guys who date transgender women and sometimes resort to violence to erase what they think is their shame,” says Tio Hardiman, president of Violence Interrupters Inc., a violence prevention organization. “In their twisted minds, that’s their way to recapture their manhood.”
One of the murdered Chicago women, Tiffany Gooden, was just 19 when she was stabbed multiple times in an apartment in an abandoned building. Later, her mother and a social worker went back to the killing floor and found Tiffany’s bloody palm print on a wall. “You could see that baby tried to get up and out of there,” the social worker, Brian Turner, says. “She was fighting for her life.”
The other woman, Paige Clay, was 23 and a rising star in the city’s underground ballroom scene. She was lured into an alley and shot in the head. The killings remain officially unsolved, although the social worker and several transgender women said the slayings were connected to an earlier confrontation between a couple of men and a third transgender woman weeks earlier. A spokesman for the Chicago police department said she could not comment on the killings, which are still under investigation.
Gooden allegedly witnessed the violent confrontation that left one of the men with a badly injured leg after being hit by a car. Clay had nothing to do with it and was killed, according to Turner, “in a case of mistaken identity.”
Whatever the reason for the slayings, three years later, the women left behind to mourn have still not been able to rest in peace. Fear disrupts their dreams.
“The killers are still out there,” says Irish, a 34-year-old transgender woman, who knew and admired Clay, and, like Tracy, does not want her real name used. “It’s too dangerous. The streets of Chicago are too mean. And the police don’t care. They’re not eager to find these killers. They’re not rushing to crack the case because they’re trans women. When it comes to these trans murders, 'oh, well, it’s just another man in a wig.'”
Oppression, Gender and Race
Between 0.3% and 0.5% of Americans – nearly 1 million people – identify as transgender, according to a recent report, Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans, written by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), the Transgender Law Center (TLC), NCTE and GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Another widely cited study, from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated the number at about 700,000 trans Americans.
“Transgender Americans,” the Understanding Issues report says, “are experiencing a unique moment in history. Rising visibility, unprecedented advocacy, and changing public opinion are working to provide transgender people greater legal protections than ever before. At the same time, many transgender people, particularly transgender women and transgender people of color, still face enormous barriers to their safety, health, and well-being.”
“Trans women of color get hit upside the head from a lot of different directions,” says Susan Stryker, a transgender White woman, historian and author of Transgender History. “First of all, there is misogyny. Then there’s homophobia. And then you add the disparagement of black people on top of that, and that’s a whole other level of disparagement and devaluation.”
Yet, violence is just part of a bigger set of problems and prejudice that African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald — speaking at a panel in March at DePaul University in Chicago titled “Black Trans Lives Matter”— called “intersections of oppression.”
The Transgender Americans report says transgender men and women face discrimination at almost every turn, from finding a public bathroom, to renting an apartment, to getting and keeping a job, to going to school, to being treated with dignity and respect by the police. “Between 13% and 47% of transgender workers,” the report says, “report being unfairly denied a job, and 78% report being harassed, mistreated, or discriminated against at work.” Currently, the report adds, only 18 states have clear laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
The discrimination and challenges faced by transgender Americans, the report points out, are “exacerbated for transgender women and transgender people of color, who often experience deeper inequality in specific areas compared to transgender men and white transgender people.”
It is the day-to-day humiliation, harassment and insult that make life so hard for Tracy and her sisters. “The trauma never ends,” Tracy says. “You’re continually being re-traumatized. I’ve tried to kill myself four times.”
She is far from alone. According to a 2011 national survey of transgender discrimination, Injustice at Every Turn, a “staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 % of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).”
In the Lifeboat
On March 31, the last day of Women’s History Month, about 50 transgender people, most of them women of color, visited the White House at the invitation of the Obama Administration. It was a historic gathering, a three-hour meeting with administration officials to discuss the successes, joys and dangers of being transgender in America. “It was a great opportunity for trans people to be in the White House,” says Lourdes Hunter, a transgender woman and head of the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), an advocacy group. “But at the same time, we’re not interested in photo ops, we’re interested in action.”
Angelica Ross, a Black transgender woman in Chicago, is also interested in action. She has started a company, TransTech Social Enterprises, which trains and places transgender people in technology jobs. She says when she was younger she was faced with a choice in order to survive: sex work or become a showgirl. She became a showgirl and eventually a social worker before starting her company. “What I’m trying to create is a space for people to get ready,” she says. “I want them to come to this space and feel safe and become confident. We’re a small company and the need is so huge. It’s like I’m in a lifeboat and trans people are pulling on me from all sides.”
Tracy has found a different lifeboat, the TransLife Center of Chicago House, a social service agency on the city’s North Side. The center provides legal, medical and housing assistance for transgender and gender nonconforming people. Josie Paul, a white transgender woman and the director of the center, says, “A number of individuals come in for service, who have been going back and forth” between male and female. They are transitioning, “but they put that on hold because they experience so much harassment, the threat of violence and death.”
"They’re frightened to present authentically,” Paul says. “Almost as many trans women have committed suicide this year as have been murdered.”
A Father’s Tale
On a blustery spring day, Tracy, who moved last August into the center, and center staff member, Irish, sat in the living room, discussing their experiences with violence as transgender women of color.
Irish joined the staff two years ago when the center, which houses up to nine people, first opened its doors. Like Tracy, she is a black transgender woman. Unlike Tracy, she has never been beaten up or raped or compelled to sell her body in order to survive. “But I’ve known people who’ve been robbed, killed, beat up because of who they are,” she says.
Until Irish was 30, she lived as a gay man. “For years I had been miserable,” she says. “I used to always live my life vicariously through my trans friends. They were happy. They got to really be themselves. And here I was in my teens and 20s being a gay boy but miserable inside. My family accepted me as being gay, but when you go and try to change your gender, it’s a totally different thing.”
But for Irish becoming who she was inside and out was an issue of life or death.
“I was going to commit suicide,” she says.
Then she became Irish.
“I’ve lost friends,” she says. “I’ve lost relatives. I’ve lost so much. But I’ve gained so much more. I became happy. I gained a sense of who I really was. The only regret I have in this lifetime now is not doing this way earlier.”
Her father did not abandon her. He was always supportive and loving to the end of his life in 2012. “A lot of people don’t have that,” Irish says. “A lot of people don’t have parents that actually support them.”
One day near the beginning of her transition five years ago, Irish asked her father over to her place to watch a documentary on transgender Americans. She wanted him to know that being transgender was “not just playing dress up” or “a fad” or “something you do today and then you’re done with it tomorrow.”
They watched the film together, sitting side-by-side on her bed. Afterwards Irish’s father was emotional, near tears. He cleared his throat and said he had something to tell her, something he had never told anyone before, something shameful, something that he never wanted to happen to his new daughter.
He told her that when he was a young man, a teenager, back in the 1970s, he and some buddies went to a nightclub on Chicago North’s Side. There he met a gorgeous woman and they danced the night away. Towards the end of the evening, dancing slow and close, he reached under the woman’s skirt and “discovered she had a penis.”
Irish’s dad and his friends rained blows down on the woman. “He told me they had attacked her so bad,” Irish says.
Telling his daughter what he had done to someone else’s daughter, Irish’s dad began to cry. “He felt remorse for what he had done,” she says. “To be in his trans daughter’s room, sitting on her bed, watching her transform, basically right in front of his eyes, I believe that was his moment of making amends, or at least trying to ask for forgiveness from that person through me.”
He told Irish he didn’t want anyone to do to her what he had done to that transgender woman.
“It brought me closer to him,” she says. “I had developed a newfound respect for him. Not for the situation that happened when he was younger, but him owning up to it. Him having a human heart, saying, you know, ‘I messed up, especially now, knowing that you are a trans woman yourself.’”
It’s Her Life
When Tracy was in her 20s, trying to save up enough money to have gender reassignment surgery – so her inner and outer self could finally match – a stalker shot her in the back and in the legs on a Chicago street.
She was working in the porn industry. She couldn’t find a job in the straight world. She’d aced an interview, but when the HR department saw that the name and gender on her ID didn’t match the well-dressed woman filling out the application, suddenly the job was no longer available.
The porn industry was safer than working The Stroll. “I used to get raped by clients all the time,” she says. “To me that was paying taxes. You literally had to become desensitized to this shit. I would get raped. Clean myself up and stand on the same corner where I got picked up by the guy that raped me.”
Tracy says that “because of what so many of us are forced to do to survive” she has a thick police file filled with prostitution arrests. Some of the arrests, she says, were for “walking while trans,” adding, “I’ve gone to jail while walking my dog and carrying groceries.” She is working with the TransLife Center’s full-time lawyer to get her record expunged. The lawyer has already helped Tracy get her name and gender marker on her identification documents legally changed.
She believes the man who shot her was a fan of her porn work. She says he mumbled something about trying to contact her and being brushed off. Now he was going to teach her a lesson. He chased her down the street and shot her.
As she lay bleeding on the sidewalk, he stood over her, ready to finish what he started. He pulled the trigger twice more. Each time, the gun jammed and the stalker ran away.
This near-death experience confirmed something Tracy had always known in her heart despite what society tried to tell her at every turn.
God loves transgender people, too.
“That’s the only thing that saved me,” she says. “God.”
Yet being shot wasn’t the most traumatic experience she had that night.
The police quickly arrived. Paramedics were right behind them. The paramedics began cutting off her pants to treat her leg wounds. They abruptly stopped when they discovered she was a pre-op transgender woman.
“‘We’re going to take care of you ma’am’ turned into nobody gives a fuck now,” she says. “I started making my peace with God. I thought they were going to leave me there to bleed to death.”
They didn’t leave her, and Tracy woke up in the hospital, relieved, angry and heartbroken — and not for the first or last time.
“Everybody who is supposed to protect me, to help me, those are the people who have done the most harm to me,” she says. “It’s like, who can you trust?”
Tracy never did have the reassignment surgery. She decided it wasn’t worth it. “I’ve never really had any issues with my body,” she says. “I’ve known a lot of girls who had gender reassignment who killed themselves afterwards. They really thought life was going to be completely different. Nothing changed. That’s a whole lot of money to invest to still have the same life.”
One thing Tracy has always had in her life is complete support from her family. As soon as she could walk and talk, Tracy says her mother knew she was different. When Tracy was a teenager, her mother pulled her aside and said she’d rather have a live daughter than a dead son, so at high school, “I should act one way and when I got home I could be myself,” Tracy says.
As Tracy was telling her story, her mother called. Mom was outside, ready to take her daughter to a doctor’s appointment.
Tracy tries to be that kind of mama figure to her transgender daughters and sisters. She tells them that life for transgender people is better than it was when she was a young woman. There are transgender people like Irish working in social service agencies, starring in cable dramas and appearing on talk shows, not as freaks, but as proud men and women. Sure, there’s still a long way to go, “but we’re going.”
In the meantime, she tells them, “There’s a teenager out there somewhere who you will need to be the mentor to. She’s trying to figure herself out and she’s coming to you to be there and have your shit together as best you can. You know I don’t have all my stuff on the ball but I give y’all what I can.”
Tracy says it is during these conversations that she realizes that all the pain she has gone through “makes sense, so I can be able to tell them and relate.”
“It gives purpose to my pain,” she says. “My life has not been a picnic, but it’s been mine. Not to have to live one day pretending to be somebody I wasn’t, priceless. I tell the young girls I’d do it all over again. I’d take all the pain and another bullet again to be my authentic self – the woman God made.”
Don Terry is senior writer at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. He has worked for The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize with a team of reporters in 2001.