2015 marked a big year for the trans community, but as they gained more recognition, its most vulnerable members faced persecution.
The sun is shining bright inside the Starbucks on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue. On this warm October afternoon, Tamara Williams is sitting on a small couch with her back pressed up against the coffee shop’s storefront window. Looking wholesome, she is wearing light blue jeans, white sneakers and a light purple tee emblazoned with cartoony, Asian restaurant-inspired take out containers, which bear the words: “Take me out! Thank You.” Red plastic earrings cling to her ears, as her honey blonde ombre styled hair flows below her shoulders. “I did it yesterday!” she gushes with a smile, referring to her new hairdo. But as the natural light is making her blonde locks and brown eyes glisten, the 26-year-old black transgender woman from the Bronx is recounting some of her darkest memories.
At 17, when Tamara told her mom of her decision to transition, she was swiftly kicked out of her home, forced to live on the streets and engage in sex work as a means for survival. Later, she developed an addiction to MDMA, popping five to 10 a week. That is, in addition to smoking weed and drinking. She says her substance abuse was a coping mechanism to help get her though her harsh reality. Eventually, Williams discovered she was HIV-positive when she was 22 after a stint in rehab for her drug addiction. And in the midst of all this, for three years she was involved in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with a transgender man, who she says never accepted her for who she was. He wanted someone who physically looked like Rihanna, and she just wanted to be loved.
“This scar right here under my eyebrow is from us fighting one night,” she says, pointing to her left eyelid. “He was bear hugging me and we were rolling on the floor, and as I was trying to get out, I hit my head on the radiator and began to bleed.”
Stories like Tamara’s are far too common among transgender women of color. Statistics show that black transgender women are more susceptible to homelessness, HIV infection, doing sex work and violence.
Amid all of these challenges, violence against transgender women of color in 2015 became a nationwide epidemic. A recent report by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) states that this year, at least 21 transgender individuals in the United States were victims of fatal violence.
That makes it the highest number of killings of transgender people in comparison to any other year on record. According to the HRC, more transgender people were killed in the first six months of this year than in all of 2014. “While we don’t know many details about these victims’ experiences, research shows that transgender people face harassment and discrimination in numerous contexts throughout their lives," the report reads. "Moreover, we know that the chances of facing discrimination, harassment and violence increase exponentially for transgender women of color, who also face racism and sexism. For many transgender women of color, the threat of violence is constant.”
"If there is blood in your body, there is life in your body. And just because of that, you deserve to live. It’s simple.” —Tamara W.
Experts say that part of the reason why transgender women of color are more prone to violence than their white counterparts is because of the ingrained hyper-masculine attitudes coupled with insular religious mindsets that plague their communities.
“For men of color to be seen or openly acknowledge that they love a transgender woman, or have been with a transgender woman, goes against the norm,” says Octavia Lewis, Executive Director of the Islan Nettles Community Project. “We also have to look at how religion plays a factor in men of color. And how everyone has been beat over the head to think that homosexuality is a sin, and even still categorize us as men. So with all of that stigma that comes from our own communities, that’s why we are so susceptible to violence because of what has been instilled in the men that love women of trans experience, and especially women of color.”
Tamara knows firsthand what it’s like to be taunted and harassed for being a woman of trans experience from men in her community. One incident in particular sticks out. In her old stomping grounds in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, she recalls fearing for her life while being chased by a group of teenage boys. “It all happened because one of the drug dealers around, who always tried to get with me,” she says nervously, swirling a straw wrapper around her fingers. “So one day I was walking past a group of kids, and he told them, ‘That’s a man, that’s a man!’ And I was like, ‘No the f**k I’m not.’ It was a whole bunch of them. I was very scared and I didn’t want to reveal that I was trans. I just kept walking and said, ‘That’s my boyfriend right there, he's just acting stupid.’ They was like ‘Yo, that’s your girlfriend?’ He was like, ‘Nah, f**k out of here that’s a man.’" She kept walking, but eight of them ran around the corner after her. "I was on the phone, too," she continues. "All I can remember is running on the phone and telling my friend, ‘I’m running from these people, if you don’t hear me no more call the police.’"
Despite the chase, Tamara made it home safely, but the harassment didn’t stop there. The boys then proceeded to break one of the windows in her house. When she told the police about the incident, they told her they couldn’t do anything because they didn't know the boys’ names, even though they lived two houses down from where she lived. A report released by The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program states that in 2014, transgender people of color were .59 times less likely to receive a hate violence classification by the police. Yet they were 1.6 times more likely to experience some type of physical violence.
Because of the negligence to report hate crimes against transgender people, often times these cases get lost in the shuffle. Despite the federal hate crimes law that requires the collection of statistical data related to the violence against transgender people, experts question the accuracy of the numbers they are getting. “A lot of jurisdictions report zeroes, even in places where we know there are hate crimes,” Mara Keisling, Executive Director of The National Center for Transgender Equality, told TIME earlier this year.
But what happens when transgender people take matters into their own hands and fight back against their predators? What does the law do then? In June of 2011, when Chrishuan “CeCe” McDonald, a 23-year-old black transgender woman from Minneapolis, Mn. was making her way to a supermarket when she was attacked by 47-year-old Dean Schmitz and his ex-girlfriend, Molly Flaherty. Initially, Schmitz started hurling out racial, homophobic and transphobic slurs to CeCe and four of her friends (all of whom are African-American). The altercation eventually got physical, with Flaherty slashing CeCe on the side of her face with a glass tumbler. CeCe had to get a total of 11 stitches, according to MPR News. After the incident, CeCe then proceeded to walk away and managed to get half a block when she heard her friends calling, “watch your back,” according to “The Transgender Crucible,” a story on CeCe by Sabrina Rubin Erderly for Rolling Stone. Schmitz—who was high on cocaine and meth at the time—was lunging at CeCe with fury with all intent of taking her down.
When CeCe took notice, she reached for a pair of scissors she had in her purse and ended up stabbing him in the chest to defend herself. Schmitz later succumbed to his injuries and died. CeCe was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s state prison for second-degree manslaughter. She plead guilty to the counts because she felt that with a mostly all-white jury, she had no chance at winning. Eventually, CeCe was released after serving 19 months at a Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. Her good behavior, and the 275 days she served prior to trial, were her ticket out of jail. Flaherty also ended up being sentenced to six months while CeCe was in prison.
Still, it’s a no brainer that CeCe was just acting in self-defense.
Experts echo these sentiments, and want to make it a point to convey the realities most transgender women succumb to. "As trans-people, we hear about murders of trans-people in that same circumstance that CeCe was in. The usual result is the person is dead — that is, the trans-person is dead. Every trans-person in the country in their heart knows that she was in danger of dying right there at that moment," Keisling told MPR News back in 2012. She believes CeCe was ultimately punished for surviving the attack, which means that more needs to be done in our judicial system to help protect the rights of transgender people.
“Police officers and courts are generally incredibly biased against transgender people, and especially against transgender people of color,” says Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “If they know that someone is a transgender woman, most often they immediately discount that person and assume that person is the one breaking the law. Or should be punished, even if they are being victimized. We need to address that through police training, and judicial training.”
Amid all the violence, however, the transgender movement has gained significant visibility throughout the years. The year 2014 marked the first time in history a transgender person has graced the cover of TIME magazine, with an image of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black star, Laverne Cox (who is making a documentary about CeCe McDonald’s experience in the legal system, titled FREE CeCe) as cover girl. In 2015, Olympic Decathlon Champion Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, and won an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards in a white Versace gown. Jenner also recently won Glamour’s coveted Women of the Year award, which garnered some controversy after her acceptance speech. In it, she said the “hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”
Controversial or not, it’s safe to say these women have made important strides for the trans community as a whole. But they are an exception to the rule and don’t accurately represent their everyday counterparts. Most transgender people are disadvantaged both economically and socially. According to a report by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, making less than $10,000 a year in comparison to the rest of the population.
Violence, poverty and discrimination continue to haunt and take the lives of transgender people at alarming rates in this country. Inevitably, something has to change, and it can all start with how our communities perceive transgender people. Minter says the trans community has to work together as whole to change the mindsets of those who are prejudice against transgender people. “We’ve got to change everybody’s understanding and attitudes,” he notes. “We have to change how people see transgender lives, as having value and importance.“
Tamara agrees. For her, anything that is living, matters. “Valuing each other as humans is not about your color, or your gender. If there is blood in your body— there is life in your body. And just because of that, you deserve to live,” she says. “It’s simple.”
Eight weeks after our sit down interview back in October, it’s now a rainy afternoon in Downtown Manhattan. Today, Dec. 1, marks World AIDS Day, and after a photo shoot for this story, Tamara will be on her way to rehearsals for a play at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in honor of today’s commemoration of the pandemic. She is a student nearby at Borough of Manhattan Community College, majoring in theater. But right now, her main stage is the corner of Church Street and Reade, beneath a construction scaffold concealed by a navy blue cover. Her hair is dyed all black, fixed into a bun. She has on a navy blue jacket, and a pair of jeans. Very much dressed down. “How does my close-up look?” she asks the photographer. Like a true natural, she doesn’t need much direction.
As she is twirling away, putting on make-up, smiling and working it for the camera, a middle aged Latino man sporting glasses and a black sweater randomly interrupts the shoot. “What’s going on here?” he shouts with a smile. He then jumps in to put his arm around her and quickly poses for a shot. As he walks away he shouts, “You go girl!”