In an investigation published yesterday, ProPublica found that some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since Jan. 1, 2015 – and in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives.
Advocates say that not using the name and pronoun a person was known by, otherwise known as “deadnaming,” can slow down an investigation during its most critical hours.
“If Susie is murdered, don’t use ‘Sam,’” said Monica Roberts, an activist and journalist who tracks murders of transgender people.
Roberts worries that deadnaming both prevents the community from identifying victims and fosters mistrust of police.
People who knew the victim or who saw them in the hours before they were murdered might only have known them by their preferred name and gender.
Transgender women across the country told ProPublica that deadnaming and misgendering transgender victims of crimes foments distrust in law enforcement across the LGBTQ community.
The ProPublica story takes a close look at several cases in Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Tyler, Texas, among other jurisdictions throughout the nation.
When ProPublica reporters contacted law enforcement agencies for information on murder cases with transgender victims, officers insisted on using the name or gender listed on the victim’s ID. For trans people, accessing an ID that reflects their identity can be difficult – and sometimes impossible.
Some states require trans people to have expensive, irreversible surgeries just to update their ID.
The ProPublica survey found that arrests have been made in 55 percent of the killings of transgender people nationwide in the last three and a half years. The overall clearance rate for murders in the U.S. is only slightly higher, at 59 percent.
When Carla Flores-Pavon was found strangled to death in her apartment in Dallas in May 2018, Deputy Chief Thomas Castro of the Dallas police said the department made an effort to refer to her as “she” and “Carla” during their investigation.
“When we go out to the community and talk about somebody, we have to identify them by the way they identified,” Castro said, adding that it wouldn’t do the department any good to use a name that nobody knew her by.
Transgender women told ProPublica that common interactions like showing IDs at a bar, or to vote, can identify them as transgender to others — a process known as “getting clocked.” According to a 2015 survey of transgender people, nearly one-third of people who presented an ID that did not match their appearance reported being harassed, denied services or attacked.
Several women told ProPublica about job opportunities that disappeared after potential employers discovered they were transgender. Without a job, transgender people start falling through society’s cracks. They can lose access to medical care, become homeless, or be forced into sex work.
The consequences of getting clocked range from derogatory comments to death. In 2016, Dwanya Hickerson, a former sailor in the U.S. Navy, killed Dee Whigham, a 25-year-old nurse, by stabbing her 190 times in a hotel room in St. Martin, Mississippi.
Hickerson, who admitted he had been chatting with Whigham online for several months before meeting in person, claimed he “lost it” after discovering she was transgender during sex.
“Every day I wake up, I put on my clothes, I step outside, I don’t know if I’m going to make it home safe,” said Paige Mahogany Parks, a local activist, imploring the Jacksonville City Council to investigate why so many trans women had been murdered.
“And if I make it home safe, I don’t know if I’m going to be in one piece or not,” she added.
For Jacksonville resident Savannah Bowens, the transgender woman who changed her name after an employer questioned her about it, respect is worth the fight.
“There has to be somebody that says ‘I have had enough,’” she said.
“When I die? I don’t want to be called a male,” she went on. “That is not who I lived my life as, that is not my legacy, and I want to be respected as who I am. People knew me as Savannah. They knew me as she.”