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All Too Visible: The New Terrorism Targeting Trans Communities

A wave of terror strikes the few places we’ve claimed for our own.

A recent wave of attacks on LGBTQ community centers targeting transgender people has left our community in the United States on edge. From Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, incidents ranging from vandalism to threats to outright assault have become the face of a newly emboldened public transphobia.

This is the painfully long valley on the other side of the much-ballyhooed “transgender tipping point.” A new wave of cultural awareness, fuelled by a famous Time Magazine cover Caitlyn Jenner’s splashy coming out and shows like “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black”, has served mostly to raise the profile of a vulnerable community without the benefit of additional protections — indeed, as the debacle in North Carolina this week shows, even a national outcry couldn’t prompt anything more than an utterly botched non-repeal of the widely loathed anti-trans HB 2.

The recent community center attacks have sometimes targeted the entire LGBTQ spectrum, but more than a few were particularly directed at transgender people or initiatives associated with us. In Washington, DC, the trans women’s community center Casa Ruby was vandalized by a man who had been shouting expletives and transphobic language — he’d long been known to the center as a man who displayed an unhealthy fixation on transgender women and seemed to finally lash out when he was banned for harassing the women.

After he was banned, he returned to avenge himself by smashing the center’s furniture, as well as attacking one of the staffers — grabbing her, hurling objects and slurs, and threatening to kill her.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the LA LGBTQ Center there found itself tagged with a graffiti scrawl reading “Fuck Trannies,” and in New Orleans a Unitarian Church saw a brick hurled through one of its stained glass windows after it hosted a town hall on anti-trans violence.

A new wave of cultural awareness has served mostly to raise the profile of a vulnerable community without the benefit of additional protections.

Within weeks of taking office, President Trump rescinding the federal guidance that directed schools to grant trans students equal access to public accommodation. A gender neutral bathroom in an Oregon high school was found with this graffiti: “the faggots who use this restroom are going to burn in hell. Your gay ass is going to get shot.”

Our greater visibility, for now at least, serves to make us a more appealing and prominent target for extremists.

In addition to all these other incidents, on March 6 the Tulsa offices of Oklahomans for Equality were shot at with a pellet gun, leaving the unmistakable crystal rings of bullet holes in the glass. The following day, a man came into the building, claiming to be a veteran, and began shouting, “I wish you would all die!”

“A lot of important work is being done in that building; it houses a lot resources and support for the community,” said Alex Rowland, an artist and local transgender woman with a long history at the center. “So a lot of newly queer folk go there before they are even really a part of the queer community.”

Rowland added that Tulsa is a “scary place” to know you’re different. “It’s a place where playing ‘smear the queer’ was still openly and freely played when I was in high school.” Rowland is 26. “So, it’s scary to go seek out this space, because at least for me, going to the center made my, I don’t know what you want to call it… ‘queer ideation’ is very real.” This, she said, was vital in a town with very few affirming resources for young LGBTQ people.

“Community centers” have always been a hub on the color wheel of the queer community’s radiating spokes. They have performed the same social function that a church might: a hub for communion, an event space, a place to organize and revere. A similar sanctity has been obtained within those four walls, a sense that there are greater forces to which this space has been commended, imbued with an enchantment that keeps the mundane world at bay.

That magic stemmed from a sense that these places made being queer and trans seem normal, like a living time capsule from some better Earth. Pictures of gay couples out and proud, rainbow flags, proudly displayed public affection, conversations not laced with winking code language, shelves bent under the weight of queer literature and community zines. Such oases — for that is what they always have been — have never been without their internal problems.

Eight transgender women have been killed in the US this year — all of them trans women of color — and we’ve only begun the fourth month of 2017.

They have sometimes been nexuses of drama, or struck through by other kinds of prejudice. But they have endured as a collaborative effort of the queer communities, in all their diversity, that built them. Most of all they have been spaces for the young and newly out to be themselves without all the incapacitating fear that attends queerness’s dangerous novelty.

Rowland talked at length about her past and fearing that first, interminably long walk across the parking lot in front of Oklahomans for Equality — open country where a hateful “bogeyman” might leap out and attack her for being queer. She’s forever grateful she made it through the front door, becoming comfortable in the fact that there was no bogeyman, that the center’s reverence for queer community and safety gave it a kind of force field of protection. “But now,” she says, “the bogeyman has physically scarred​ the entrance. New people who so desperately need the help inside can’t pretend that the bogeyman doesn’t exist, as I did. And what scares me to death about this whole thing is that [queer and trans people] won’t make it inside, that they will turn around.”

One of the points of the gay or queer or trans community center is to invite people in to help shape their vision of what a better, less hateful world might look like. It’s why such centers have been staging areas for fights against racial injustice and gentrification, as well as havens for sex workers — a community that has a non-trivial overlap with the LGBTQ community as a whole. To attack them is not only to attack the people who depend on the space, but also to attack the very idea of the pluralistic community they represent.

That, in the end, is terrorism. Frightening people out of access to communities and services they need in order to live a dignified life is precisely the kind of domestic terrorism the US specializes in. Many right-wingers feign concern about Islamic extremists “throwing gays from rooftops,” and either implicitly or openly say that the West is more “civilized” than this by contrast. Our homegrown terrorism is, however, separated from ISIS only by degrees of subtlety.

Making queer and trans people want to kill themselves isn’t a spectacular improvement over murdering us outright — though the US certainly does plenty of that as well. Eight transgender women have been killed in the US this year — all of them trans women of color — and we’ve only begun the fourth month of 2017. That is the backdrop to the need for LGBTQ community centers that cater specifically to transgender people’s needs and provide us with a home.

“Most of the time, crimes happen and we always get blamed like, ‘You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,'” Casa Ruby’s founder Ruby Corado explained to NBC News. “But we are at our center, where we belong, and they come here to prey, and they come with so much hate.”

By trying to pierce the sacred walls of these institutions, bigots play the role of terrorist to perfection, trying to instill the fear of assault in every person who walks through those doors, driving people toward a state of permanent emergency where nowhere feels safe. Who can live under such conditions, with the fear of being “next.”

A terrorist always punches above their weight by inculcating fear that far outstrips their individual ability to harm, and that dynamic has been gleefully exploited by a new generation of internet-savvy bigots who amplify each other’s hate in forums like Stormfront or 4chan’s /pol/. The biggest difference between ISIS and the anti-queer bigots on our own shores is that one organizes under a literal banner while the latter are crowdsourced from the nation’s masses.

As with all forms of terrorism, this new generation of anti-queer, anti-trans prejudice summons ordinary people to commit heartless acts of violence.

We are now being hit by ill political winds from all sides.

Though organized hate groups, from neo-Nazi societies to the National Organization for Marriage (which even has a transphobic bus that is touring in multiple cities) are a source of concern, so many of these recent crimes appear to have been committed by people with no formal institutional connections. They’re just the faces in the crowd who are linked only by shared misconceptions about LGBTQ people that are widely reinforced by the media and their social circles, with the internet providing them with an echo chamber in which to nourish such hate.

A look at the comments on the Tulsa World article about the attack on Oklahomans for Equality is an education in the forces that lead to such attacks. User Lonnie Lamb writes: “When a group is trying to push their perverse agenda upon the public by any means necessary things like this are bound to happen. This does not make it right, but it should not be a surprise.” Lamb goes on to say that LGBTQ activists’ “‘in your face’ style does rile a few people up.”

These views fill the swamp that breeds men like the Tulsa attacker; ratcheting up the sense of urgency they must feel, the sense of being under siege or threat from a bunch of people hanging out together in a room full of rainbows.

Though LGBTQ people as a whole are clearly under threat from these attacks, it’s worth understanding the unique threat trans people face and why I focused this article on attacks against us specifically.

Our newfound visibility in prominent television shows and magazine covers can give the mistaken impression of a triumphal march into full citizenship. In truth, the cart has gone well before the horse here. More people are aware of our existence and our “issues,” but that hasn’t come with commensurate guarantees of rights and dignity. We stand out now as if on a pillory. That visibility, combined with a sense that even in the age of Trump, the right-wing battle against same-sex marriage is completely lost, has ensured that all the old right-wing political forces that targeted queer people for so long are focusing more energy on trans people specifically. That is what lit a flame beneath the nationwide rash of anti-trans bills and the new ballot initiative in the state of Washington to repeal the state’s progressive trans rights law. Bathroom panics are now more mainstream than they’ve ever been in political discourse. Indeed, Columbia Professor Mark Lilla commented, “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms,” in a New York Times op-ed articulating his views on why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election.

We are now being hit by ill political winds from all sides, with some liberals and leftists blaming us for taking “identity politics” to an extreme nadir that alienated everyone, and Christian conservatives turning us into the new great Satan of their demonology. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has written anti-trans hate into its platform for the first time. All this comes amidst a sudden and unaccountable torrent of liberal writers “concern-trolling” about transgender rights, and feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refusing to acknowledge trans women as women.

That panoptic outrage, where we are all things to all people — the death of the Family, identity politics gone mad, traitors to feminism, an albatross around the necks of liberals — has ratcheted up just as Trump’s election lent a benediction to violent bigotry across the nation.

I still believe better days lie ahead, but none should deny these are trying times for us. Unfortunately, too many either are denying it, or actively contributing to the trials.

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