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Amid 'pervasive anti-transgender sentiment,' a record number of deaths

by Foluké Tuakli and Associated Press /
Katrina Johnson becomes emotional at the South Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk, Iowa after the jury returned a guilty verdict for Jorge Sanders-Galvez in the death of Johnson's transgender child, 16-year-old Kedarie Johnson. At least 25 transgender Americans have been homicide victims as of mid-November 2017, the highest annual total this decade, according to advocacy groups that have been monitoring the grim phenomenon and seeking ways to reduce the toll.
Katrina Johnson becomes emotional at the South Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk, Iowa after the jury returned a guilty verdict for Jorge Sanders-Galvez in the death of Johnson's transgender child, 16-year-old Kedarie Johnson. At least 25 transgender Americans have been homicide victims as of mid-November 2017, the highest annual total this decade, according to advocacy groups that have been monitoring the grim phenomenon and seeking ways to reduce the toll.John Lovretta / AP

Candace Towns was found dead in Macon, Georgia, between two neglected houses on Halloween. Towns, 30, was last seen on surveillance video of a gas station near the Roadway Inn where she was living. She had been shot and abandoned.

Towns is the 25th reported transgender person killed in the U.S. so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which noted 2017 is the "deadliest [year] on record for the transgender community."

More than 60 percent of the deaths have occurred in the South — four of them in Georgia. Twenty-one of the 25 killed, including Towns, were women of color.

Zahara Green, 27, had been in Macon a couple weeks before Towns’ body was found. A transgender woman of color herself, Green said Towns’ murder was upsetting.

“This could (have been) me at any point in my life,” she said.

An FBI report released earlier this month on hate crimes showed an increase against the LGBTQ community in 2016 compared to the previous year. Of the 7,615 known hate crime victims, 1,255 of them were targeted due to sexual-orientation bias, accounting for nearly one in six hate crime victims. The number of victims targeted due anti-transgender bias also increased — from 76 in 2015 to 111 in 2016.

"Despite a record number of newly elected transgender candidates and historic media and cultural visibility, there exists a pervasive anti-transgender sentiment in the nation."

In a statement released shortly after Towns' death, HRC noted that among the four U.S. census regions, the South has the fewest states that provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Georgia is one of five states nationally that does not have any hate crime statutes on the books.

"Public safety departments in Georgia do not have to report violence toward anyone that’s sexual-orientation related [or] gender-identity related," Chanel Haley, a transgender inclusion organizer at Georgia Equality, told NBC News.

"A person usually won’t think twice about causing violence toward a transgender individual, because there isn’t an increased penalty for that," Haley speculated.

As more people come out and refuse to be silenced by homophobia and transphobia, “more conversations that sometimes turn ugly are going to happen,” said Christian Zsilavetz, a transgender educator and activist based in Georgia.

Haley hopes if and when these conversations do take an ugly turn, more people will "stand up" for trans people.

"The same way people will stand up and speak out if they hear someone using derogatory language around race or maybe even sex, they should be doing the same thing when it comes to our transgender individuals," Haley said.

Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), said "despite a record number of newly elected transgender candidates and historic media and cultural visibility, there exists a pervasive anti-transgender sentiment in the nation."

Keisling said policies are needed to "level the playing field and promote real equality" for the trans community. To do otherwise, she added, "would ensure that more transgender people are marginalized and end up with bull’s eyes on their backs."

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