Discussing the Causes of Violence Against Trans Women
Violence against trans women does not only exist as individual hatred or bias-motivated crime. It comes in many forms and for many reasons. Trans women are systematically placed in circumstances where we are more likely than others to experience multiple forms of violence.
In order to end violence against trans women, it is important to understand that more than just personal prejudices are at fault. Other kinds of oppression like racism, laws like the criminalization of sex work, economic forces like poverty and gentrification, and many other forces are also at play.
Wednesday, DCTC’s Sadie Vashti spoke about violence against the transgender community with the Latino Media Collective. The interview was broadcast on the radio, but you can also listen to it anytime at this link. (The interview begins about 1/4th into the clip.) In order to be more accessible, click below to read an abbreviated transcript broken into headings by topic.
Note: The views expressed in this interview belong only to Sadie. DCTC is a collective of many people with a variety of views. To learn more about our official organizational principles and stances, see here. Also, this interview was conducted before the most recent attack on a group of trans women by an off-duty MPD officer.
Overview of Recent Violence Against Trans Women in DC
Abigail DeRoberts: You are listening to the Latino Media Collective on WPFW 89.3 FM Washington. This evening we will be discussing violence against the transgender community here in Washington, D.C. We are joined by Sadie Vashti of the DC Trans Coalition. Welcome to the show, Sadie.
Abby: Thank you for being here. Hate crimes against transgender people have been increasing, especially in the past couple of years in D.C. Based on the Metropolitan Police Department’s statistics, anti-trans bias crimes make up about 14% of all hate crimes in D.C. Can you talk about what’s been going on lately?
Sadie: Absolutely. First, it’s worth noting that MPD wasn’t even tracking crimes motivated by bias based on gender identity until a few years ago, even though the law mandated they were supposed to. So these numbers are only since they began keeping track of anti-trans violence as separate from anti-gay violence. But we definitely have been hearing about a lot more violence in the past few weeks.
The most visceral was the murder of Lashai Mcclean, a 23-year old African American transgender woman who was murdered in Northeast. She and a friend were shot. The other person managed to get away. But about two weeks later, at almost the exact same location, two other transgender women were shot at again. Thankfully no one was hurt that time.
Those incidents have brought more media attention to what’s going on. But the violence trans women face is nothing new. Hardly a year goes by here in the District without another trans woman killed. While there may be an increase in statistics and tracking and more people paying attention, it really has been going on for quite some time.
Abby: You mentioned that these two crimes both happened in Northeast. Is there a pattern in general to the neighborhoods where these crimes are happening most?
Sadie: Most of the women affected by this violence are transgender women of color and often are involved in or presumed to be involved in the sex work industry. A lot of the violence is taking place near sex work strolls. Clearly not everyone who is impacted is a sex worker, but I do think it’s a pattern worth pointing out.
The Trans Community Responds to Violence and Trauma
Abby: How has the trans community responded?
Sadie: In the short term, we have to be able to support one another and deal with the emotional impact of losing members of our community. A lot of people are grieving and feeling these losses. And a lot of people are feeling fear and anxiety about who’s going to be next, is this going to keep happening?
There’s a lot of just supporting each other that’s going on. And also looking out for people’s physical safety, trying not to have people walk around in dangerous areas alone and that sort of thing.
Poverty, Racism and the Underlying Causes of Violence Against Trans Women
We’re also looking at the reasons that transgender women are so frequently placed in situations where they’re likely to encounter violence. For example, most of the women who are impacted are socially marginalized at the intersections of race (most are African American or other women of color) and class (many are poor or low/no-income).
Like a lot of trans people, they are often trapped in cycles of poverty. They may be losing support from their family or friends, not able to find formal employment because of discrimination and prejudice, and then not having a social safety net. Here in D.C., its becoming harder and harder to get things like unemployment or even food stamps. So without having a safety net, whether from family or from the government, people often have no choice but to turn to the streets. They end up in places where they’re more likely to encounter violence.
History of Neglect from MPD
Oscar: Have any of the people who perpetrated these crimes been brought to justice? In particular, was the person from the murder this past July caught?
Sadie: No, Lashai Mcclean’s murder has not been solved. In fact, another activist in the area took a look into the history of hate crimes and murders against trans women in the past 10 or more years in D.C., and she found that only 40% had any kind of closure. So the majority of anti-trans crimes and murders are still unsolved. Whoever shot Lashai is still probably out there.
Also, a couple years ago there was a woman, NaNa Boo Mack, who was stabbed in broad daylight just a couple blocks from the offices and drop-in center of Transgender Health Empowerment (THE), a social service agency for trans people — largely transgender women and African-American trans communities. Even though there was a survivor and witnesses stating that the assailant was hurling transphobic insults and had actually followed them for quite some time, they never classified it as a hate crime and police still have not found any one. It’s definitely a concern that so many cases are going unsolved.
Abby: I think that the response from MPD has sent a clear message on how the Police Department views these murders of transgender women. They don’t seem to be a priority. They don’t seem to pursue these murderers as aggressively as they need to be. What do you think this says about the Police Department’s view of transgender people?
Sadie: Between all the unsolved murders and the fact that they didn’t even track anti-trans crimes until we got on their case about it, that says a lot. It seems like they don’t care after trans women have been murdered — but I also think they often exacerbate the problem while we are still alive.
How Anti-Prostitution Laws Perpetuate Violence Against Trans Women
For example, MPD’s heavy-handed enforcement of anti-prostitution laws impacts trans women, of color particularly, more than any other population. Recently the police concluded the “Off the Streets” initiative which was a coordinated effort to arrest sex workers. They claim to have arrested 74 people on prostitution-related offenses in a 12 hour period, including people who worked on the internet and in hotels.
This makes it unsafe for sex workers to do what they must do to survive in hotels or on the internet, forcing them to go back on the streets. The more people are criminalized, the more they’re forced into situations where they are unsafe — out of the relative safety of hotels and into the dark alleys where often your only clients are strangers and there’s no safety precautions. [And, if women are attacked or assaulted while they are doing sex work, or even merely in situations where police might assume they are working, most do not feel safe asking police for help. Since police often profile all trans women of color as sex workers, this means that most trans folks must fear police, whether they actually are sex workers or not. ] So the policing of sex work is actually making it more dangerous for trans women, particularly the ones who are sex workers.
And that’s not even to get into the fact that once they’ve been arrested, they now have a record. On top of the existing transphobic prejudice they face, this makes it even harder to get jobs and even less likely that they’re going to be able to find ways to support themselves other than doing survival sex work.
Transphobic Police Brutality in DC
Abby: Although a lot of people believe police are here to protect us, a lot of the police’s actions are actually levying violence against all sorts of communities — including the trans community. Sadie, could you please talk about how this police violence manifests in D.C.?
Sadie: The most obvious way is literal physical violence. There are tons of trans women, particularly of color, who are working or presumed to be working as sex workers, who are constantly abused, harassed, verbally or physically assaulted by police officers. As both a part of those communities and as someone who works as a service provider with transgender women in those communities, I hear all the time about incidents where police are yelling slurs or insults, or even physically attacking trans women and threatening to arrest them if they say anything.
A lot of that violence is invisible because it happens in places or to people that not many people are paying attention to. So a lot of it remains invisible or unreported, but I can say from my experiences that it is a regular kind of violence.
Sometimes we do hear about specific cases. There was a transgender woman last year who was walking around one night and approached someone to ask for a light for her cigarette. The person she asked, who turned out to be off-duty MPD Officer Radon, assaulted her, called her names, and chased her down. She was originally arrested and charged with assault. Those charges were later dropped, thankfully. But nothing was done against the officer who was the one who actually assaulted her to begin with.
So even when we do have some specific examples where we can put names to these stories and say “this is an example of police perpetrating violence against trans women”, nothing has been done about that.
The Police’s Failure to Prevent Violence Against Trans Women
A more subtle form of violence that the police enact is failing to protect people from violence and contributing to that lack of safety. One study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that across the U.S., [46%] of the transgender respondents were uncomfortable reporting crimes to police. I think if you broke that down by race, class and sex worker status, it would be even higher. [For example, 60% of Black trans people reported being harassed or assaulted by police.]
There are a lot of people, particularly transgender women of color and sex workers, who have had negative experiences with police officers and for very good reasons are afraid to talk to them or report crimes to them. [The illegal status of sex work and police profiling of all trans women as sex workers has a lot to do with this.] The police can hardly “protect” a community that’s afraid of them.
The Connection Between Violence Against Trans Women and Gentrification
Oscar: I want to bring up the issue of gentrification, because we don’t often talk about how that impacts the transgender community. We talk about rich and poor in D.C. or how immigrants have been affected by gentrification, but how has it affected the transgender community?
Sadie: People might not immediately associate violence against transgender people with gentrification, but it’ very much at the forefront of this issue. For example, one of the most prevalent areas where transgender women do sex work is at 5th and K in Northwest D.C., which is also now being heavily gentrified with all the new condos and property values skyrocketing.
A lot of the neighborhood commission people and development agencies are very eager to get transgender women off the streets in order to make it more palpable to wealthy, white, cisgender, straight people so they can attract people from higher class backgrounds. The people behind gentrification — the developers and the neighborhood associations — are working with the police in trying to get transgender women arrested. 5th and K is a perfect example.
Profiling and the “Prostitution Free Zones”
By no coincidence, that is also an area that is frequently classified as a “Prostitution Free Zone.” PFZs are a program that MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier implemented. Basically, MPD declares a certain area of the city to be a PFZ and that means that police have extra power to arrest people if you’re congregated in a group or you look suspicious in that area. They have increased power to stop you, and generally the consequences and fines of being caught in a PFZ are higher.
Trans activists call it the “Trans Profiling Zone” because it gives police officers the right to harass anyone who “looks” like they’re doing sex work. And there is a documented history that the people police assume to be sex workers are usually transgender women of color. So if you’re a transgender woman of color in a PFZ, you’re more likely to be stopped, harassed or arrested by police. And it’s no coincidence at all that these PFZs are almost always declared around the areas where trans women congregate, which also happen to be areas at the forefront of gentrification.
Abby: So this brings up a couple of really dangerous elements for trans women. Not only are they at a higher risk of getting arrested or harassed by police in these areas, but it also pushes people out of places where people traditionally congregate. What is the effect of pushing women off these well-lit streets and into more dangerous areas?
Sadie: One of the other major strolls is out on Eastern Avenue along the D.C./Maryland border. So whenever transgender women are pushed out of areas like 5th and K or Northwest, often times they have to go further east to find work. And that’s where most of these murders have been happening. That’s a clear indication that people are being pushed further and further away from safe areas and into situations where they are more likely to encounter violence.
[... Discussion of the Needs Assessment Project, and how it found that trans communities in D.C. overwhelmingly worry about their safety, and how strolls can also be spaces of community building and supporting one another...]
How to Prevent Violence Against Trans Women
Abby: So communities protecting each other seems to be like one of the best ways to prevent violence. What are some other ways that cisgender (non-trans) people can get involved to help stop these crimes from happening and ensure greater safety for trans people in Washington, D.C.?
Sadie: We need to ask “what kinds of structural changes would we have to make in order to get more people off the streets and into safer situations?” We could start with decriminalizing sex work. That is one of DCTC’s priorities. The criminalization of sex work makes it impossible for trans women to feel safe or even talk to police. Criminalization impacts a lot of people, not just trans people. Having our cisgender allies pushing for reform of sex work laws is one place we’d appreciate help.
And also, broadening our access to services. There’s been ongoing cuts to the social safety net and that hits marginalized communities like transgender women the hardest. Fighting back and getting people to demand that these services not be cut and that we actually expand them would be very helpful. [We need programs like Mayor Gray's recently proposed jobs program] so that people can get back on their feet and don’t have to be on the street all the time.
Those are two political changes that might seem like hard, big things to do. The transgender community can’t do that on our own. We need our allies to be with us.