In the early morning hours of February 10, 21-year-old Penny Proud was found shot to death in the Treme district of New Orleans. This makes her one of seven transgender and gender-nonconforming people known to be violently killed since the beginning of 2015. Most victims, like Penny, have been people of color.
That same day, Proud's family and friends held a candlelight vigil in her honor at the street corner near a highway underpass where she was murdered. They grieved their sister, and also spoke about the call that's been making the rounds on the internet of late: #BlackTransLivesMatter.
One of the people paying HER respects was Ja'Leah Shavers, Outreach Coordinator at BreakOUT!, a group in Proud's hometown of New Orleans that combats the criminalization of trans youth in Louisiana. "Nationwide, it's important that we realize that we're in the same fight in a lot of ways, especially trans people of color. We have to stand in solidarity for real," she said assertively.
There are expected public responses around terrible stories like these: Increase the police forces! Build more prisons! Pass tougher hate crimes laws! But Shavers and OTHERS in her community are determined to change what it means to seek justice. Trans people and their allies in Louisiana (and other states like California) believe that a traditional "tough-on-crime" approach to violence will harm more than it'll help. On the other hand, if more resources were directed to funding direct services for trans people, Shavers believes they "wouldn't have to worry so much" about being caught in unsafe situations.
Shavers works with trans youth who are constantly agonizing over issues like where they're going to sleep tonight. Her group's 2014 report "We Deserve Better: A Report on Policing in New Orleans By and For Queer and Trans Youth of Color" describes how trans people with little access to housing, education, jobs, and medical care can be forced into "survival crimes" like loitering, retail theft, and sex work, and can also get picked up by police officers for simply not conforming to gender stereotypes. (The latter happens so often, people in the community have a nickname for the "crime": "walking while trans.")
Years before the hashtag campaign #TransLivesMatter started blowing up in January 2015, the most prominent trans community groups, like New York’s Sylvia Rivera Law Project, took a stand against public policy that would channel more resources into a justice system that targets trans people of color above almost any other category of people.According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), one in six trans people has been arrested. And BreakOUT! reports that 84 percent of trans people in NOLA experience police profiling based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Trans people of color get the shortest end of the stick in the criminal justice system. In 2011, the NCTE found that about half of the black trans population has been arrested. Meanwhile, BreakOUT!'s 2014 report found that 42 percent of LGBTQ people of color reported calling the police for help and being arrested themselves, compared with zero percent of white respondents. The week after the BreakOUT! crew learned of Proud's passing, trans people of color held a die-in at San Francisco's City Hall following the murder of another trans woman who died from multiple stab wounds. Taja Gabrielle De Jesus, 36, was found in a stairwell in SF's Bayview neighborhood the week prior. A group calling itself Taja's Coalition released a statement describing the deep-rooted societal discrimination that allows such viciousness to take place:
We recognize this epidemic of violence as being deeply rooted in systemic racism, trans* misogyny, class inequity, and lack of access to affordable housing for trans* communities. This is a national crisis in which the most vulnerable members of our community are fighting for their lives. In Taja's memory, we will not relent in demanding justice.
The Coalition is demanding access to resources for social services, rather than the sheriff's proposed $290 million state-of-the-art jail that would include a "trans pod." Services like trans-specific health care, and affordable housing amidst San Francisco’s ongoing housing crisis, where high demand and little movement from local politicians have meant that the median rent for new apartments is more than $3,000 per month. The organization also called on journalists to stop the common practice of misgendering trans people in the media, and — noting that racism and transphobia exist within the gay community — for LGBT businesses and nonprofits to take action to become safer spaces for trans and queer people of color.
Janetta Johnson of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco explains why a new jail is not on her agenda: "Trans people have been stepped on for how many years now, and a new jail is the best you can do? "Instead of fresh cellblocks, the millions that would go to constructing the facility "would be better spent on low-income housing, [or] could be used for out-patient reentry programs, so people can take care of their families."
Johnson, who helped organize the City Hall die-in, stresses why housing is such an important part of puzzle: "Taja literally moved out of her [public housing] unit because it was so roach- and rat-infested. She basically put herself in a position to be homeless because she could not live in that nasty environment anymore," she says. When De Jesus was finally was able to get a subsidy to move into her own apartment, "it was the only place that would accept her subsidy, and that's based around that a lot of landlords don't like to rent to the transgender population."
After the die-in, San Francisco's city supervisors, who sit just below the mayor in the city's political hierarchy, promised to consult with Taja's Coalition on how to make SF safer for trans people. But members of the Coalition will believe the change when they see it, and are busy planning future direct actions.
The struggle for trans liberation started even before the first queer person threw a brick at the famed 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which pitted LGBTQ people against the police who commonly raided gay bars (a practice that continues into this century). It'll continue with or without the help of the people at the top of society's ladder, which is put succinctly in the statement put out by BreakOUT! on the night after Penny Proud's death:
We know what we need to feel safe… We can sit through the funeral of one of our friends and not say a word about the fact that the preacher keeps calling her “he” and the family dressed her in a suit. And if the preacher walks away from the funeral when he finds out who is in the casket, we can stand up and conduct the funeral ourselves. We don’t want your pity… And when we have one another for support and community, we believe we can thrive.
In life and in death, we are all survivors.
Toshio Meronek is an independent journalist focusing on politics, the Bay Area, disability, and LGBT/queer issues.