I learned a lot about myself while sitting in the first U.S. congressional hearing about the Equality Act this week.
As debate about the act—which would extend federal nondiscrimination laws to LGBTQ people nationwide—began in earnest, I learned that I and other transgender women are tricksters and frauds intent on supplanting “real” women throughout public life. I learned I’m a threat to women’s sports, a topic many committee members only seem to care about when it can be wielded as a cudgel against transgender people. And perhaps most shockingly, I learned that the well-documented crisis of violence transgender people face across this country is, in the words of one witness at the hearing, a “myth.”
Just a few days before the hearing and a few miles away from where it took place, Ashanti Carmon had been shot and killed near the line dividing D.C. and Maryland. Ashanti is the second known Black transgender woman to be murdered in 2019; Dana Martin was the first, in January in Montgomery, Alabama. Last year, of the 28 known transgender people murdered, 17 of them were Black transgender women.
Even these rates are likely an undercount, reliant as they are upon faulty reporting by police and the media. The federal government regularly fails to collect the basic data that would tell us the true rates of violent death in our communities, but even the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own hate crime statistics showed anti-transgender violent hate crimes spiking 9 percent from 2016 to 2017. This was part of a larger rise in all hate crimes nationwide following the election of Donald Trump.
The proximity of Ashanti’s death to this hearing is a grim and tragic reminder of the targeted violence and persecution many transgender people still face. Advocates like myself are not basing our beliefs on purely hypothetical risks or absurd theories like those floated by the minority’s witnesses and committee members. We want our society to grow past the prejudice that puts people in real danger today. While transgender people have made much social and political progress in recent years, the bigotry and violence we still face are undeniable—and the very reason we need the Equality Act in the first place.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) from the National Center for Transgender Equality (for which I’m the spokesperson), 1 in 10 transgender people was physically attacked in the past year, and half of all transgender people are survivors of sexual violence.
Family rejection, unemployment, poverty, and a lack of stable housing increase the likelihood anyone will face violence. This is most certainly true of transgender people, and Black and Latina transgender women in particular. The USTS found that transgender people are three times as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the United States, and Black transgender women are four times as likely to be unemployed as the general U.S. population. The survey found 1 in 6 transgender people have been fired from a job because of their gender identity, and 1 in 4 Black respondents experienced the same.
Indeed, one of them stood before the committee on Tuesday. Carter Brown, a Black transgender man, told of the pain his family faced after he was outed as transgender at a prior job before promptly being fired. None of the committee members eager to dispel the reality of anti-transgender bias bothered to speak to him during the hearing or even acknowledge his testimony.
Employment discrimination still keeps many transgender people on the peripheries of the economy, making it harder for many to find stable housing, escape the poverty cycle, and build other supports that lower their chances of experiencing violence. In housing, too, transgender people face discrimination: Our survey found that 1 in 6 transgender people have been evicted or denied a home because of their gender identity, and 1 in 4 Black transgender respondents have been similarly humiliated.
More likely to be homeless and to be forced into criminalized livelihoods—such as sex work—transgender people are left especially vulnerable to all forms of violence. While not often discussed in these terms, the Equality Act’s protections for employment, housing, and other key areas of public life will clearly help mitigate these risks, while eroding the deadly stigma that drives this violence in the first place.
To be sure, the violence faced by women like Ashanti is a function of transphobia and homophobia as much as it is a result of a racist criminal justice system that profiles and targets Black transgender women, leaving them vulnerable to targeted violence and few places to turn if they are in danger. Rejection of transgender people by their families also feeds this harm, acting as a risk multiplier.
No single piece of legislation can hope to correct these shortcomings of our society, and the Equality Act itself leaves much work to do. This includes improvement in public education about the rights and experiences of transgender people, as well as broader solutions to the poverty, homelessness, and other challenges facing trans people and too many other Americans.
But to argue against the basic protections the Act does entail by calling the pervasive violence trans people face a “myth,” and to frame the victims of this violence as villains and bogeymen, is a particularly cruel and dangerous form of recklessness with the truth.
This week’s hearing is one step in the long-running project of ensuring fairness and respect for all. That makes it all the more crucial for it to focus on the facts of what transgender people face in our daily experiences. As transgender people, we are forced to prove our existence and our experience at every step of our lives. If we ever hope to end transphobic violence, we must agree on its existence, its urgency, and the tools needed to stop it.
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