'This violence is an epidemic': What experts say must be done to save trans lives

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A new report from the Human Rights Campaign suggests ways policymakers can help reduce violence against transgender people.

Experts and advocates who track violence against the transgender community say lawmakers need to take crucial steps to keep transgender people safe, and fast.

Among the things they suggest to make sure that happens: passage of a federal nondiscrimination law and police accountability legislation, better data collection, and sex work decriminalization.

On Thursday, one day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes those who have been killed as a result of anti-transgender violence, the Human Rights Campaign released a report documenting the lives lost this year.

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At least 37 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed in 2020 so far. Since 2013, the organization has tracked 201 incidents of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people. 2020 has had a record number of killings.

"This grim milestone has proven what we have long known: this violence is an epidemic," Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.

He added, "Each one of the lives we lost was someone who was ripped from their family, their friends, and their community by an act of senseless violence often driven by bigotry and transphobia and inflamed by the rhetoric of those who oppose our progress."

The Human Rights Campaign found that 84% of the victims in the past seven years were transgender women and 66% were Black transgender women. Young people and people in the South were also critically impacted by this violence, according to the report.

One of those victims was Angel Unique, a 25-year-old Black transgender woman, who was a licensed cosmetologist. She was shot and killed in Memphis at a Motel 6 on Oct. 25.

Takia Weddle, a friend of Unique's, told WATN Local 24, a Tennessee ABC affiliate, that people who knew her said she was "very funny" and "very nice to everybody she met."

"I still can't believe it really because that was the only person I was with every single day. I talked to my best friend more than I talked to my boyfriend," Weddle said.

In 30% of cases analyzed by the Human Rights Campaign, an estimated 56% of the assailants were known by the victim but were not a family member, intimate partner, or close friend. The report estimated that 29% were committed by an intimate partner, 14% by a close family member or friend, and 1% by the police or federal government.

There are a number of key factors that put transgender people's lives in danger, according to the report, including anti-transgender stigma that manifests in "lack of family acceptance," "a hostile political climate," and "cultural marginalization."

That discrimination makes it difficult for transgender people to get health care, education, and employment.

The report also says that biases within the criminal justice system and "increased risk factors" of intimate partner violence, homelessness, poverty, and mental health disparities play a role in transgender people's vulnerability to violence. For many of the transgender women of color who are victims of this violence, racism and sexism only intensify all of these existing vulnerabilities they face.

To improve the safety of transgender people in the United States, the Human Rights Campaign has advocated for the passage of federal nondiscrimination protections in the Equality Act and the passage of more of these protections at the state level.

The report also mentions the elimination of what is known as the trans panic defense, which allows those accused of violence against a transgender person to argue that they only committed that act because they found out the victim was transgender.

Some states have enacted bans on this defense, but the vast majority have not.

Across the country, transgender people still face a number of barriers to correcting information on their identification documents, including high costs and unnecessary medical requirements. The Human Rights Campaign has argued that more states need to remove these barriers to ensure transgender people do not face discrimination or violence if they don't have accurate identification.

Improved data collection would help policymakers and advocates have a better understanding of the needs of transgender people and violence against them. The report recommends the passage of the LGBTQ Data Inclusion Act, a federal bill that would prompt federal agencies to review their data collection efforts on LGBTQ people, and Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, which focuses on improving hate crime data.

The report additionally calls on Congress to pass the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which includes police accountability measures and would address over-policing and police brutality against transgender people and minority groups in general. It states that decriminalization of sex work should be a priority for lawmakers as well, given that criminalization "poses a serious threat to public health and increases violence in LGBTQ communities."

Many of these goals are supported by other LGBTQ organizations, including the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which wants to pass the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act; the Transgender Law Center, which supports the decriminalization of sex work; and the National LGBTQ Task Force, which supports the Justice in Policing Act.

In an interview with Philadelphia Gay News in October, President-elect Joe Biden said he supported many of these asks, including the passage of the Equality Act, Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, and a prohibition on LGBTQ panic defenses.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.