Even after this summer’s series of historic protests and marches led by trans women of color, the murder of Black and Brown trans women continues unabated. During this long summer, the number of deaths of transgender women has climbed ever upward to at least 28, higher than the entire number killed in all of 2019. These include the recent brutal stabbing of 32-year-old Tiffany Harris in New York City and 24-year-old Queasha Hardy of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their deaths underscore why the American Medical Association last year labeled the killing of transgender women “an epidemic.” And they point to why it is clearly time for unprecedented action to stem the tide of blood in trans communities of color. The good news is that there is a way to do it.
One way to lower the levels of extreme violence against trans women of color is to center the economic justice of Black and Brown trans women. The essential point here is that for many trans women, anti-violence and economic well-being are one and the same.
A key trend in the murders of trans women is that they are overwhelmingly committed by people who know these women. In Harris’s case, local news reports say that she was in a relationship with the man whom police wish to question about her death. In case after case, Black and Brown trans women are killed by their partners, neighbors or clients. This pattern of intimate partner violence mirrors that of cis women of color, especially Black women, who suffer some of the highest levels of intimate partner violence in the country. And high levels of intimate partner violence correspond with high levels of economic insecurity.
According to the Department of Justice’s National Center for Victims of Crime, women who make between $15,000 and $24,000 a year report a third more incidences of domestic violence than those who earn above $75,000, and those who earn under $7,500 report violence at 12 times the level of those who earn more than $75,000. These numbers point to the fact that intimate partner violence is, among other things, an economic issue. This is partly because abusers target low-income women, and many of these women lack confidence in the current criminal legal system to address the violence they face.
Given that transgender people, as the 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality data shows, are more likely to be low-income earners and twice as likely to be unemployed, the economic precarity of trans people is a perfect storm for exposure to higher rates of violence and death.
In order to make serious headway to decrease violence, we have to get serious about economic empowerment. To be clear, we need a fundamentally different system overall to promote economic justice and fairness. But within current constraints, here are three ideas which could help.
Universal Basic Income
With 1 in 3 trans people earning under $20,000 a year, universal basic income would help many trans people escape violence. The current average living wage in the United States is around $25,000, which is above the economic threshold that corresponds to the highest levels of violence. We know that the minimum wage falls far short of a living wage. That is why 2 out of 5 people in the United States who are poor work, but can’t earn enough to escape poverty. Universal basic income payments would end this dynamic. They would make up the difference between the salary received and whatever the living wage is for the worker depending on where they live. Universal basic income programs are not new and have been tried in pilot initiatives both in the United States and around the world. It’s time to scale up and expand these initiatives for transgender women of color.
Affirmative Action for Trans Women of Color
With nearly 80 percent of trans women having faced job discrimination, there needs to be a radical rethink about trans women’s access to jobs. One route to increase the hiring of trans women is through affirmative action. Even though promoting diversity by considering the historic marginalization of job candidates has been attacked by the right and diminished by the Supreme Court, it worked. According to research by the Urban Institute, affirmative action improved the type of jobs, incomes and educational opportunities for Black people in the United States. Therefore, employers and educational institutions should add and prioritize gender identity in their diversity goals.
Decriminalization of Sex Work
Ending violence against sex workers is essential to preserving the lives of trans women of color. Due to a combination of economic and educational marginalization, sex work is a necessity for many. For others it is also a choice centered around control and earning flexibility. Either way, the fact remains that sex work is a vital lifeline for trans women, with nearly half of Black trans women having engaged in the practice. The word “decriminalization” in the context of sex work can evoke images of exploitation and increased violence, but done correctly, the opposite is likely. Decriminalizing sex work would likely decrease the incidence of arrest and incarceration of trans women of color. Decriminalization would also make sex workers eligible for government programs which, during the COVID-19 crisis for example, are keeping people afloat. For all of these reasons, sex work decriminalization is potentially both an anti-violence and economic support mechanism.
Thinking Beyond Short-Term Fixes
These ideas are just a beginning. Other important policies to consider are the creation of a multibillion-dollar fund which would give cash grants to trans women to start businesses, and Medicare for All, which would lower out-of-pocket costs and increase well-being. Additionally, there are community-led visions out there for a world of freedom without fear, such as the Trans Agenda for Liberation, which is housed at the Transgender Law Center and led by Black trans women. The Trans Agenda for Liberation is developing a wide-sweeping vision to allow for trans women to thrive politically, socially and personally.
Economic ideas alone will not solve the full range of challenges for trans women of color. Housing, education and a health care system responsive to trans needs are all pivotal pieces of the puzzle. So is a radical change to policing and the abolition of prisons, institutions which target trans women of color in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers.
But there is no way to end violence against transgender women of color, particularly Black trans women, without a dramatic shift in the economic realities for this community. The only question is how high the death toll has to reach before we act boldly to end the marginalization of the most marginalized and save lives.