Words by Michael Alles
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
The Jussie Smollett news cycle has been overwhelming. When I first read Smollett’s account, I had flashbacks to St. Patrick’s Day of 2015. I was in a straight bar full of rowdy, hyper-masculine men. One of these men noticed me “talking like a faggot.” I probably should have walked away, but I talked back instead: “What did you just call me?” I said. “A faggot,” he replied. Before I could get another word in, he punched me, broke my nose, broke my glasses, and left me bleeding on the ground. I had reconstructive nose surgery a week later.
Reports are coming out that Smollett fabricated his attack. The Chicago Police Department is claiming that Smollett paid two men $3,500 to stage this publicity stunt because he was dissatisfied with his salary on the show Empire. The Chicago P.D. has a spotty record on civil rights, but news organizations are running this story. Regardless of the validity of these claims, we must all acknowledge that hate crimes and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community are ongoing issues, and they disproportionately affect trans women of color.
Who is responsible for LGBTQ hate crimes? Robert E. Lee? The Westboro Baptist Church? Donald Trump?
Trump formally launched his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015. Since then, hate crimes in the United States have consistently risen. In 2015, the FBI reported 5,850 hate crimes. In 2016, they reported 6,121. In their most recent data for 2017, they reported 7,175. Of the hate crimes reported in 2017, 58.1% were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias, and 17.6% were motivated by a sexual orientation or gender identity bias.
The Trump administration repeatedly targets the LGBTQ community. In 2017, the president withdrew Obama-era guidelines on how to protect trans students under federal title IX law. In October of 2017, The Justice Department released a memo instructing Department of Justice attorneys to take the legal position that federal law does not protect transgender workers from discrimination. In July of 2017, President Trump announced on Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The Supreme Court ruled that his ban was constitutional in January of this year.
Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is no angel either – although in his head I’m sure he thinks he is. In his time as a member of Congress and governor of Indiana, he vehemently opposed legislation in support of the LGBTQ community. In his 2000 congressional campaign, he advocated for conversion therapy to “assist those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Last month, he defended his wife after reports revealed that she teaches at an elementary school that explicitly bars LGBTQ teachers and students. He even condemned news organizations for reporting the story.
Trump and Pence’s rhetoric and policy has real-life consequences, especially for the transgender community. In 2017, Trump’s first year as president, 29 trans people were killed, according to the Human Rights Campaign. After the Trump administration’s plan to define transgender out of existence was released by the New York Times, calls to trans suicide hotlines quadrupled.
“Now [that Trump is president] there’s more discrimination, not just for the transgender community but for the entire LGBTQ community,” says Catherine Garcia, a 41-year-old undocumented trans-woman living in Jackson Heights.
In 2018, at least 26 transgender people were killed in the United States, and at least 130 have been killed since 2013. At least 80% of those deaths were transwomen of color. “I have to literally look at every single corner that I turn, worrying and praying that nobody’s gonna come and beat me up just because I’m living my life,” says Jasmin Nicole, a 23-year-old transwoman of color living in New York.
All statistics on violence against trans people in America are prefaced with “at least” because police departments across the country do not keep specific data on violence directed towards trans people. 74% of the victims of anti-trans violence since 2013 were misgendered in initial media and police reports. Tonya Harvey, a 35-year-old transwoman of color, who was fatally shot in Buffalo, NY in February, was initially identified by her “dead name” and a gender that did not correspond with her identity.
Dead-naming, or referring to a trans-person by a name or pronoun they used before they transitioned, is often due to ignorance in police reports, but can also be attributed to state policies across the country. Only 15 states allow trans people to change their gender on both their IDs and birth certificates. 68% of trans people do not have IDs or records that match their gender identity.
For many trans-people across America, the lack of proper identification prevents them from obtaining housing and employment, leading to homelessness and extreme poverty, especially for transwomen of color. Black trans women have double the unemployment rate of all trans people, and four times the rate of the general population. 41% of black trans women have been homeless at some point in their life, which is five times the rate of the general population.
Many trans women, like Jasmin, turn to sex work for survival. “I did sex work when I was younger, because no job would hire me.” Since 2013, at least 41 trans sex workers have been killed. At least 10 of the 26 trans people killed in 2018 were believed to be involved in sex work.
Bianey Garcia, a community organizer for Make the Road NY, admits they still have a lot of work to do. “Since 2016 we have seen an increase in hate and violence against the trans community in Queens. Many of us call the police and they never arrive,” she said.
Garcia also used sex work as a means of survival due to employment discrimination. “Sometimes the police laugh, they think it’s funny that I’m trans. They don’t care about transgender rights,” she added.
In her most recent interaction with the police, Catherine Garcia was arrested for sex work, taken to an immigration center, and placed in a cell with men. “They called me by my dead name, and I asked to please call me by my last name, because when they call me by my dead name, they out me as trans and I feel scared,” she said.
In detention she was denied medical service and access to hormones. The guards asked her “what are you talking about, this is a man’s jail?” They continued, “I have nothing for women, you are a man.” She pleaded to an immigration judge for medical assistance, but said because she was undocumented, she was not entitled to treatment or access to hormones. “They have no services for trans people or undocumented people,” she concluded.
In 2018, Roxana Hernandez, a transgender woman fleeing violence in Honduras, died in ICE custody. The 33-year-old was processed on May 13th and then transferred to a privately-run federal prison for men that has contracts with ICE. ICE claimed that she died from “symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and HIV.” However, an independent investigation from the Transgender Law Center concluded she was shackled for long periods of time, beaten, and refused water. Lynly Egyes, the director of litigation for the TLC commented that “her death was entirely preventable.”
Carina Rivera, a 30-year-old transwoman, left El Salvador when she was 14 and crossed the border into the United States. Rivera’s chances of surviving as a transwoman in El Salvador were slim. “The Maras are everywhere, and they will kill you if you’re trans.” The Maras are a violent, powerful gang in El Salvador that are known to target the LGBTQ community. In 2015, they killed Garcia’s transgender neighbor. In June of last year, Jeff sessions ruled that the federal government would no longer recognize gang violence as grounds for asylum, a major blow to LGBTQ asylum seeks from Latin America. “I know I can’t go back,” Rivera said.
All these statistics pose the question, “are Trump and his associates directly responsible for these attacks on the LGBTQ community?” Kemi Adeyemi, assistant professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, argued, “Donald Trump is the perfect man for the job.” She maintained that yes, Trump represents the cisgender heterosexual white supremacist patriarchy, but does that not make him a perfect fit for “the job?”
“The job” Adeyemi is referring to is the presidency, the leader of the United States, the leader of the cisgender heterosexual white supremacist patriarchy.
Who were “the Founding Fathers?” Were they your founding fathers? This country was founded by the custodians of the mythical norm, as intersectional activist Audre Lorde puts it. If you are a person of color, or female, or an immigrant, or undocumented, or non-Christian, or transgender, or gay, or bisexual, or gender non-conforming, or any other category that does not fall into the cisgender heterosexual white supremacist patriarchy, then the answer is no, you are not in this norm.
In the United States, we are conditioned to get as close as we can to the mythical norm. We are encouraged to replace feminine energy with masculine energy; replace curly, dark hair for straight, blonde hair; replace homosexuality with heterosexuality; adhere to the social constructs of the gender we were assigned at birth.
And many of us will try to achieve that mythical norm and fail. Some risk becoming complacent. We learn to settle for the lower rungs of society. We become obedient workers, clinging on to the myth of the “American Dream.” Complacency breeds exploitation. The more complacent we become, the more people like Donald Trump will profit.
As all the noise circles around the Jussie Smollett case, keep your eyes and ears plugged into the heartbreaking things occurring to trans women of color, and the LGBTQ community as a whole. They need your time, attention, and advocacy.
Anger is a natural response to a hate crime, for most of us. We want to see justice carried out on the people who committed the crime, and we should. But hate crimes are so much deeper than individual actions. Hate crimes are embedded into the fabric of our society. Until the powers that created this country are dismantled, they will continue to happen. So, the next time there’s a hate crime, and you ask me who’s to blame, I’ll say the United States. As Lorde once wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Everything is going according to plan, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned it.