Violence Engulfs Transgender Population in D.C.
A wave of violence engulfs transgender people, whose murder rate may outpace that of all other hate killings
By Bob Moser
With its abundance of support groups and readily available hormone and steroid treatments, Washington has long been a destination of choice for transgender people on the East Coast.
Now, with the past year's spree of killings and the constant drumbeat of assaults that has accompanied it, the city has also become a microcosm of what life — and death — is often like for transgender people in cities across the U.S.
While the past year's murders and assaults are "unrelated" in the law-enforcement sense of the term, most of the incidents do have at least one thing in common: "transphobia," which Jessica Xavier calls "the most powerful hatred on the planet."
"We are regarded by most as disposable people," she says.
Though the government compiles no statistics on anti-transgender hate crimes or murders, the unofficial numbers appear to back up her assertion.
While the FBI reported a total of 11 U.S. murders motivated by racial, religious, or sexual-orientation bias in 2002, the Intelligence Report has documented 14 murders of transgender people in the U.S. in that one year. (Our findings were based on news accounts, police reports and information on www.rememberingourdead.org.) By the end of September 2003, according to news and police reports, at least 13 more transgender people had been slain.
In some cases, the details remain too murky to say for certain whether these murders were hate-motivated. But all 27 have at least one of the telltale signs of a hate crime — especially the sort of extreme brutality, or "overkill," that was all too evident in the bullet-torn bodies of Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis.
"The overkill is certainly an indicator that hate was present," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has written several books about hate crimes and murder.
"When you see excessively brutal crimes, and you know the victim is gay or black or Latino or transgender, you have to suspect that hate was a motive. There's a sense of outrage in these crimes that someone different is breathing or existing."
One reason it's so tough to prove that anti-transgender murders are hate crimes is that so few are ever solved. Of the 27 murders in 2002 and the first nine months of 2003, arrests had been made in only 7 — fewer than one-third — at press time. The general "clearance rate" for murders is almost twice as high, around 60%.
"The police are very slow in solving murders committed against marginalized Americans, whether they're black, Latino, gay, prostitutes or transgender," Levin says.
"When more than one of those characteristics is present in a victim" — usually the case in anti-transgender murders — "they really don't act quickly. They're much more likely to form a task force and offer a reward when the victim is a straight, middle-class college student."
When it comes to hate crimes that stop short of murder — assaults, harassment — it's virtually impossible to gauge the extent of the problem. The reason is simple: the victims of anti-transgender hate crimes almost never report them.
One national group that keeps statistics on anti-transgender hate crimes, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, reports a consistent rise of reported incidents since 1999. In 2002, the NCAVP found that an average of 20 transgender people were victimized by a hate crime every month.
Some find that number far too conservative. "I get 10 to 15 calls about assaults every month just here in D.C.," says Earline Budd, who runs a grassroots group called Transgender Health Empowerment.
Out and At-Risk
What has made transgender people such popular targets? "It's partly because we're coming out into the daylight," says Toni Collins, who works with Earline Budd at Transgender Health Empowerment.
Jack Levin, the criminologist, agrees. "There are more transgender people who are coming out, willing to expose themselves to the possibility of victimization," he says.
"It reminds me of the period beginning in the '80s when gay and lesbian Americans began to come out in larger numbers. They exposed themselves to the risk of being victims of homophobic offenders. The same thing is happening with transgendered people now. They are encountering much the same violence, for much the same reasons."
In the case of transgender victims, the violence often has a pattern. "So many of these crimes are discovery crimes: 'We thought you were X, but you were actually Y, so we killed you,'" says Lisa Mottet of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Transgender Civil Rights Project.
In the notorious cases of Gwen Araujo, the 17-year-old beaten and strangled last year in California, and Brandon Teena, whose brutal murder inspired the movie Boys Don't Cry, the "discovery" was made by friends. More often, it's a sex partner.
"For someone who is confused about his sexual identity, or kind of shaky in the sex department," Levin says, "it may seem like a personal attack on his virility, on his sense of machismo, to find himself with a transgender woman."
Budd, like many transgender activists, believes the "discovery crime" motivation is often bogus. Most transgender people are up front with potential sex partners about their identities and anatomies, she says — and even in cases where they're not, "how can you say that's an excuse for killing somebody or beating them up?"
Bella Evangelista's murderer, Antoine Jacobs, is reportedly considering a "panic defense" when he goes to court.
According to Sgt. Brett Parson, head of Washington's GLLU police unit, Jacobs told police he and Evangelista "were engaging in sex for hire, he liked it, the act was completed, they parted ways, and some of his friends said, 'Hey, man, that's a dude,' and he returned and shot her."
Budd suspects that Jacobs simply got embarrassed when his friends found out he'd been with Evangelista, who was well known as a transgender woman in the neighborhood where Jacobs lived.
"This was all to show off for the guys," she says. "He came back and confronted her, and when she turned around to walk away, he pulled out a gun and shot her and just continued to shoot her. In the back. And that's a panic defense? Come on now."
Beyond fear and machismo, activists point to two bigger factors that help stoke the violence. One is the dearth of anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws that mention gender identity (as opposed to sexual orientation, a category that does not apply to transgender people).
Though four states and nine municipalities have added transgender people to their statutes so far in 2003, only 24% of the U.S. population is currently covered.
Then there's the forgotten factor. "Look at the victims," says Mottet. "Because they are transgender, they have to be in places that are extremely dangerous to begin with. Even if they're assaulted or killed for reasons other than hate, they still wouldn't have been targeted if they weren't transgender, because they'd be able to stay in school, have family support, and hold down jobs.
"Society pushes people into the streets in order to survive, and they're not allowed to survive there. That's a societal hate crime."
Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista's or Emonie Spaulding's often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it's a form of blaming the victim.
"The implication is that it's your fault for being beaten or killed," says Jessica Xavier. "But a lack of privilege means you don't have a choice." Or as Mottet puts it, "Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living."
"The classic profile," says Mara Kiesling, "is a 13-year-old who's thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She's kicked out of school for wearing girls' clothes. She can't get a job because her says 'Andre' but she looks like a girl.
"What's going to happen? Most likely, she'll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable — living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival."
On the Streets
Earline Budd and Toni Collins can tell you all about matters of transgender survival. The co-founders of D.C's Transgender Health Empowerment both landed on the streets in their teens. Both ultimately struggled their way to better lives, partly because they got their diplomas.
But with their activism, they maintain a tight bond with the "girls" in the streets today. Collins, a tall elegant woman who's about to mark her 20th anniversary as an information-systems manager for a D.C. firm, recently spoke to transgender teenagers in SMYAL, the support group Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis belonged to.
"Out of the 20 in the group, all between 15 and 18 years old, only two were currently in school. One had a job. That left 17 of those 20 with no intention of going back to school. They dropped out because they were harassed."
Sooner or later, most of these teens will wind up on 5th and K. This triangle-shaped, open-air downtown corner, a few blocks from the city's silvery new convention center, has in recent years become Washington's best-known transgender "stroll" — a place to advertise their wares for potential clients.
"A lot of the girls who frequent 5th and K are homeless," says Budd. "That's one of the reasons they prostitute — along with substance abuse. But it's always a matter of survival. The fact that they're estranged from their families is the starting point."
Prostitution is dangerous enough when you're several blocks down K Street, in the separate area where straight hookers find clients. But 5th and K tends to attract the sketchiest kinds of customers.
"The straight female prostitutes are turning dates for $100 a whop," says Collins. "Guys know they can go over to 5th and K and get a transgender to give them what they want for little if anything. These girls are desperate, and they don't have pimps to keep them from getting beaten and make sure they get paid OK — or even get paid at all. Sometimes they'll give you $20, get what they want, then beat you and take the $20 back."
Budd and Collins have no end of horror stories from their time on the streets. Budd has especially vivid memories of a gang in the 1980s whose idea of fun was "to catch you, beat you, snatch your wig and knock you out." Now, she says, it's even worse.
"5th and K is just rampant for assaults. I think guys feel like, 'Man, I'm going to go out and beat me up a faggot tonight, one of them ones dressed in women's clothes.'" As in most major urban areas, such hate criminals know exactly where to find their victims.
Budd believes the Washington police's GLLU, recently given an award by Transgender Health Empowerment, may have begun to make a dent in the violence.
"They make a lot of drive-throughs in that area, and it's probably decreased the amount of crimes that happen right there." But not necessarily the crimes that happen when "girls" are picked up and driven away.
Even with the GLLU putting a kinder face on the police force, activists and cops agree that almost none of the violence that happens to transgender women on the stroll — or elsewhere — is ever reported.
Why? The main reason is that Washington — like San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia, New York and every other big city with a large transgender population — has a history of police abuse that everybody in its transgender community can recite, chapter and verse.
"Cops?" Collins says. "You don't even want to get me started on that."