For Transgender Youth, Oakland Murder Hits Close to Home

Oakland police are currently investigating the April 29 fatal shooting of Brandy Martell, a 37-year-old African-American transgender woman. Friends and community members are pushing for the murder to be considered a hate crime, claiming that Brandy was targeted due to her gender identity. Until last year, Brandy worked as a peer counselor at the Tri-City Health Center’s TransVision program, and she helped organize Alameda County’s last five Transgender Day of Remembrance events. New America Media’s Jessica Arevalo asked Vanessa Rochelle, a 21-year-old City College of San Francisco student who identifies as transgender, how young people in the San Francisco Bay Area are responding.

How has the murder of Brandy Martell impacted your friends and community?

The murder of Brandy Martell has impacted my entire community. I’ve noticed my trans brothers and sisters rallying together to gain exposure on issues, raise awareness, and strive to come together as a community no longer divided. On the other hand, for those of us who knew or worked with Brandy, the thought of us having lost such a strong and powerful leader and role model of the community hits us hard. The fact that there are so few positive icons who can set younger generations on the right path to success and happiness, and the few that there are seem to be picked off one by one, is greatly distressing and leaves me wondering about the future and security of my brothers and sisters.

Too often, transgender women of color are only in the news as victims of violence. Why do you think that is?

I attribute this to society not knowing or wanting to give transgender women the respect or exposure they deserve. By giving a certain group time and exposure gives them power and draws support from allies, and it seems like society seeks to limit this for trans-people. While they introduce and pass laws that take measures to ensure our safety, employability and other aspects of transgender life, to me this is truly the very least they can do.

What would it take to change this trend?

More positive and peaceful activism amongst the people. Sure it would be nice if big organizations, politicians, and people with tons of money could sponsor change, but the real change starts from within. A call to all allies and role models needs to go out and we need to band together to stand up for ourselves and most importantly each other.

In 2002, Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old transgender woman, was murdered in Newark, Calif. Ten years later, are things any better for your generation?

My generation gets closer and closer to the goal, but sadly at this pace I do not see full acceptance happening within my generation’s lifetime. I believe it takes some very evolutionary and revolutionary thinking as well as action on the part of the community. Even if society gives us everything we asked for, we are still faced with learning to love ourselves in everyday life.

Do young people today consider the threat of gender-identity based violence as the exception or as something inevitable?

Young transgender folks, especially women, don’t really see this as their issue. For us girls, we live in a world where beauty defines everything. When violence against a trans-woman occurs, young girls figure it was because she didn’t work hard enough to be passable and so she got what she got. Because no one has really taken the time to educate these youth, they have only yet to understand how these issues, if left unchecked, will affect them, not only now but long into the future.

What can be done to support the surviving and thriving of transgender women?

Vocational training opportunities, more advocacy for trans-women of color specifically, equal housing opportunities, positive role modeling, educational support and empowerment around pursuing developmental goals, and more trans-women of color in positions of leadership is a start.

Do you have any leaders or mentors you look up to?

I look up to the older trans-female community for their experience and wisdom. I really value the lessons and cultural history and heritage passed down from my elders. Some of my mentors are professional trans-women of color who advise me about how to maintain a professional image and remain gainfully employed, others are simply older trans-women (also of color) who have been SF residents with a lot of insight into trans-life from before I was born. These have helped mold me into the woman that I am today and continue to become.

Vanessa Rochelle, 21, is currently studying at City College of San Francisco, with the goal of attaining her MSW. She works at Trans: Thrive in San Francisco and is currently involved in advocacy work for supportive services in housing for Transitional Age Youth, Former Foster Youth, Trans/Gender Variant, Transgender Youth, and Transgender Women of Color. She is a San Francisco native.