D.C. Anti-Transgender Crimes Worry Activists

After two violent incidents targeting transgender women in the last couple of weeks, residents of a northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood fear the possible replay of an earlier murderous wave of hate crimes against Washington transgender people.

“People are up in arms because we just don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Earline Budd of Transgender Health Empowerment, Inc., a non-profit service agency in the neighborhood of the latest crimes, told Hatewatch.

Washington police say similarities in the two recent incidents suggest a potential pattern. In both cases, a man approached a transgender woman, said a few words and then pulled out a handgun and shot at her. He missed in the most recent attack last Sunday. But on July 20, using the same MO just a block away, an attacker killed 23-year-old Lashai McLean. Police now say they’re providing extra patrols in the area.

The attacks brought back harrowing memories of the murders of four Washington transgender women, two of them teenagers, in 2002 and 2003.

“What worries me is that these last two attacks were so close to a shelter for LGBTQ homeless teens, and a lot of homeless trans youth go into that neighborhood,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality.

Since most hate crimes are never reported to police, nobody knows exactly how many are committed against transgender people. But a recent SPLC estimate, based on FBI data, indicates that members of the LGBT community are far more likely than any other minority group in the U.S. to be victimized by a violent hate crime.

And facts gathered in advocacy group surveys suggest that transgender people are targeted for the most severe violence within the LGBT community. Every year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCVAP), a network of 35 U.S. groups addressing LGBT hate crimes, tracks crimes reported by its local affiliates and police (the numbers reported by the coalition are generally much larger than those reported by the authorities and may be questionable). According to the coalition, transgender women made up 44% of 27 hate murders in 2010.  Transgender people also were more likely than others to be injured in attacks and less likely to receive medical care, according to the report released last month.

In a separate, landmark national survey of 6,450 people who identify as transgender, out last February, 22% who had interacted with police reported harassment by officers. Among black transgender people, that number was 38%, while 15% of black transgender people reported being physically assaulted by police. A pattern of harassment and assaults starts early, according to the survey. About eight in 10 transgender people reported being harassed in grades K-12, and more than a third said they suffered physical assaults at school. The people surveyed lived in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The survey, co-sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, is believed to be the largest ever done on the lives of U.S. transgender people.

Monolingual Spanish-speaking people are particularly vulnerable to violent anti-transgender crimes and are quite fearful of reporting them, said Jake Finney, manager of the Anti-Violence Project at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “They’re easily preyed upon,” Finney said. “They often came here seeking political asylum because at home they’d be murdered. Then they can’t get jobs here. A lot resort to doing sex work on the streets, and they’re scared to death of telling the police if something happens to them,” says Finney.

With crime data so spotty, it’s hard to track upswings or drops in transgender-targeted hate crimes. But the NCAVP annual report found a 23% increase in anti-LGBT hate murders between 2009 and 2010—with transgenders disproportionately targeted. “We can’t know whether things are getting worse or better, but we know things are really bad right now,” added Patrick Paschall of the public policy and government affairs section at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In fact, in the neighborhood where the two recent anti-transgender crimes are sparking fear, there’s been a lot of hate-crime behavior against trans women in the last few years, says Budd of the local service center. Washington D.C. has not been a serene place for transgender people since the killings in 2002 and 2003.

“We’ve seen these girls shot in the buttocks or legs, stabbed, hit with baseball bats, and you don’t read anything about it in the media,” Budd said. “Transgender stuff is kept hush-hush because we’re the people nobody wants to talk about. Now the pattern has escalated to murder. … The only time we become newsworthy is when we’re dead.”