Homicides of transgender individuals in U.S. reach alarming high

Rebecca O'Hara holds a phone showing a photo of her 25-year-old transgender son Ashton O'Hara, in Detroit. Ashton O'Hara, whose body was found in a field with stab wounds, was killed in July 2015.
Rebecca O’Hara holds a phone showing a photo of her 25-year-old transgender son Ashton O’Hara, in Detroit. Ashton O’Hara, whose body was found in a field with stab wounds, was killed in July 2015. Paul Sancya, AP

For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger, violence and mourning.

While Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox prospered as a popular actress, other transgender women have become homicide victims at an alarming rate. By the count of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there have been 22 killings so far this year of transgender or gender-nonconforming people — including 19 black or Latina transgender women.

The toll compares with 12 last year and 13 in 2013, and is the highest since advocacy groups began such tallies a decade ago.

“Most Americans think it’s been an amazing year for transgender rights,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But for the transgender community, it’s been one of the most traumatic years on record.”

Death by death, the details are horrific. Kiesha Jenkins was beaten and shot dead by a cluster of assailants in Philadelphia. Tamara Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. Police said the most recent victim, Zella Ziona, was fatally shot in Gaithersburg, Maryland, last month by a boyfriend embarrassed that Ziona showed up in the presence of some of his other friends.

“She was just amazing,” a friend, Barbie Johnson, told NBC Washington the day after the killing. “When Zella’s around, there’s not a single frown in the room.”

There’s no question that anti-transgender hatred has fueled many of the killings, yet activists and social-service professionals say there are multiple factors that make transgender women of color vulnerable. They have documented that numerous victims were killed by intimate partners, and many were murdered while engaging in prostitution.

“For many of these women, it’s chronic unemployment or participation in survival sex work,” said Louis Graham, a professor of community health education at the University of Massachusetts who has studied the experiences of black transgender women.

Many are beset by homelessness and economic desperation, sometimes ending out in coercive and violent relationships, Graham said.

Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Rights Project, said that for many perpetrators of the violence, “there’s a sense of transgender people being less than human.”


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