Civil rights groups push officials to do more to protect trans people after recent murders


Advocates say government officials must act after the deaths of two Black transgender women, Jaida Peterson and Remy Fennell, in North Carolina.

Civil rights groups and national LGBTQ organizations are demanding state and local governments do more to protect transgender people after the deaths of two Black transgender women, Jaida Peterson and Remy Fennell, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On Friday, police charged two men with murder in the nearly identical killings, which took place 11 days and 12 miles apart. Both Fennell and Peterson were shot to death in hotel rooms and engaged in sex work when they were killed, according to authorities.

Friends told the Charlotte Observer that Peterson was a generous woman with a good sense of humor. Fennell's godsister, Barbara Prescott, told WBTV Fennell had moved to North Carolina from Virginia to style hair.

"She was a very bold person, very outspoken. She was also loveable, everybody loved her in the community in Virginia," Prescott said.

At least 15 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the past 4 months alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2020, there were at least 44 such victims, a record since the organization began tracking them in 2013. Most of the victims were transgender women of color.

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign's Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a statement that Fennell's and Peterson's deaths were devastating.

"It's never been more important for everyone — from community members to those at all levels of government — to speak out, affirm that Black Trans Lives Matter and take action to bring this violence to an end," Cooper said.

Victoria Kirby York, deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights group with a mission to end racism, homophobia, and anti-LGBTQ bias, said governments and communities needed to do more to prevent deaths like Peterson's and Fennell's, pointing to existing policies that allow suspects to get away with violence against the LGBTQ community.

She said that state lawmakers should specifically prohibit use of the trans panic defense, a legal strategy which has been used by lawyers to defend people charged with violent crimes against transgender people.

According to the LGBT Bar Association, "The LGBTQ+ 'panic' defense strategy is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder. ... When a perpetrator uses an LGBTQ+ 'panic' defense, they are claiming that a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity not only explains—but excuses—a loss of self-control and the subsequent assault."

Kirby York also suggested that school districts embrace comprehensive sexual health education that is LGBTQ+ inclusive and encouraged state and local governments to work with law enforcement and community-based organizations on task forces to end violence.

She noted and that law enforcement must also learn more about how to investigate anti-transgender violence and convict perpetrators, saying that police training should include policies on deadnaming — referring to a transgender person by their prior birth name or given name  — and misgendering. Local media and law enforcement should also be educated on how to find photos for police reports and news coverage subsequent news coverage.

A November 2020 Human Rights Campaign report also cited criminalization of sex work as a factor threatening trans people's wellbeing.

"The criminalization of consensual sex work poses a serious threat to public health and increases violence in LGBTQ communities. Laws criminalizing sex work disproportionately punish the poor, Black and Brown women, transgender women, and those living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities," the report explained.

In addition to decriminalizing sex work, the group has advocated for the passage of the Equality Act, a federal law that would clarify and expand LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections; more state laws banning the LGBTQ panic defense; and legislation that addresses police brutality.

Kirby York, for her part, also supports decriminalizing sex work as one of many steps to address violence against transgender people, saying such a policy step might prevent deaths like Fennell's and Peterson's.

"Sex work is work. Sex workers are people. Transgender people already deal with the trauma and fear of seeing their siblings or themselves brutally harmed or killed every day — and without consequences for the person or people responsible," she said.

In a statement on April 13, following Peterson's death, the Human Rights Campaign urged state officials to ensure better protections for the transgender community.

"At the state level, transgender and gender non-conforming people in North Carolina are not explicitly protected from discrimination in employment, housing, education and public spaces. North Carolina also does not have a law that expressly addresses hate or bias crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity," the group said.

They added, "We must demand better from our elected officials and reject harmful anti-transgender legislation at the local, state and federal levels, while also considering every possible way to make ending this violence a reality. It is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, especially Black transgender women."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.