As the trans community pauses on Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor those lost to violence this year, activists are laying the groundwork to push the incoming Biden administration to address the rising levels of violence plaguing the community.
“So far, the Biden administration has said the right things. That alone is a big deal,” Alexia Núñez, 42, a trans woman from the Boston area who works in the tech industry, told NBC News.
“Awareness of us in the public sphere leads to normalization,” she added, noting that the president-elect mentioned the transgender community in his Nov. 7 victory speech. “It remains to be seen, though, if there is any follow through. It’s our job to continue to push for change and hold the administration accountable.”
Reports of anti-trans violence rising
From October 2019 through September 2020, 350 transgender and gender-diverse people were reported killed around the world, according to data from the Trans Murder Monitoring project. More than half of those killed were in Brazil, with Mexico and the United States following. The latest data represents a 6 percent increase in transgender violent deaths from the year prior, and brings the total number of trans and gender-diverse people reported killed since 2008 to 3,664.
While these figures do represent an alarming increase in anti-transgender violence, the Trans Murder Monitoring report stresses that they are incomplete due to “data not being systematically collected in most countries” and “the constant misgendering by families, authorities and media.”
In the United States alone, at least 37 transgender and gender-diverse people have by killed by violence so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The organization, which has been tracking such deaths since 2013, said 2020 is already the “deadliest year on record” with more than a month left to go. Nearly 4 in 5 of this year’s 37 deaths were transgender women of color.
David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights group focused on empowering Black LGBTQ Americans, said the “epidemic of violence” faced by trans people of color is “too-often ignored” and added that “hostile legislation and policy make it worse.”
“We have to prioritize protection, fight shame and stigma, and do the work of healing, so we no longer need to remind people that our trans family deserves to be here,” Johns said in a statement. “Nobody should live in fear of being their authentic self. Especially not now. Not ever.”
Biden, the projected winner of the election, has laid out an ambitious platform when it comes to LGBTQ rights, which includes “combat[ing] the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color,” and he has doubled down on his ambitious plans over the past several months.
At an Oct. 15 town hall event, Biden explicitly said that “there should be zero discimination” in policy from the White House during an exchange with the mother of a transgender child, pledging to end all of President Donald Trump’s anti-transgender executive orders. Several days later, Biden issued a statement calling violence against trans people an “epidemic that needs national leadership” and vowed to prioritize the fight against anti-trans violence and discrimination if elected. Then, during his Nov. 7 victory speech, Biden explicitly mentioned the transgender community as part of his campaign’s diverse coalition.
Reggie Greer, the Biden team’s LGBTQ engagement director, said last week that signing into law the Equality Act, federal legislation that would add LGBTQ protections to existing federal civil rights laws, is a “top priority” regardless of which party controls the Senate next year.
“President-elect Biden and the vice president-elect have spent their entire careers forging bipartisan coalitions to get bills through the Congress,” he said. “They have relationships that will assist in advancing protections for LGBTQ+ people broadly.”
To mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, Biden issued a statement saying that “2020 has been a year of tremendous suffering and loss” for the transgender community, calling the death of at least 37 transgender and gender-nonconforming people “intolerable.”
“Transgender rights are human rights. To transgender and gender-nonconforming people across America and around the world: from the moment I am sworn in as president of the United States, know that my administration will see you, listen to you, and fight for not only your safety but also the dignity and justice you have been denied,” Biden’s statement said.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris issued a statement on social media stressing “today and every day we must recommit to ending this epidemic,” of violence against the transgender community.
‘I believe Joe Biden does care’
Activists say the overtures made by the Biden team are a start, especially since many of the steps taken by the Trump administration to roll back transgender rights were done by executive action, which can be easily reversed by a new president. This tactic is incredibly important if Republicans keep control of the Senate and block any Democratic-led bill from the House of the Representatives.
Restoring Obama-era rights, however, is only one part of the calculation to protect the safety of trans Americans, according to advocates.
“It is time for there to be a national plan for this. We are asking for a federal plan from the Biden administration,” Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said. “In order to solve this problem, it’s going to take an administration that cares and a president who cares. I believe Joe Biden does care.”
Any long-term plan to address violence against the transgender community, must be intersectional, according to Michael Munson, executive director of Forge, an organization that works to improve the lives of the trans community.
“What’s happening this year is really the reflection of what’s happening in our culture and how that’s being played out in the murders against trans folks,” Munson said, adding that anti-trans violence stems, in part, from lack of access to economic opportunities, housing instability, lack of proper health care, racial injustice and stigmatization of trans people.
He hopes federal legislation around human rights and human dignity more broadly will have a “positive, trickle-down” effect on broader systemic issues that will “hopefully lead to less violence against trans people directly.”
Among those expressing cautious optimism is transgender activist and television star Laverne Cox. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Cox said she’s encouraged by the incoming administration’s promises but wants to see tangible results.
“It’s exciting to hear the word transgender uttered but then for me, the question becomes what are we going to do to back it up with policy,” she said in the interview. “I'm hopeful and excited that the incoming administration has made a commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m also hopeful that there will be policies to support everyone who is marginalized in this country.”
Trans lives lost in 2020
In addition to the 37 known trans lives lost to fatal violence, the transgender community lost two giants in the transgender movement this year: Monica Roberts and Aimee Stephens. Roberts, a trans journalist based in Houston who died in October, ran the influential Trans Griot blog and spent her life chronicling the black trans community. Stephens, who died in May, was one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents employers from firing individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Stephens died just a month before the case was decided in her favor.
While the Human Rights Campaign’s list of trans deaths due to fatal violence is likely not complete, due to underreporting and misreporting, here are the 37 lives lost the organization has recorded so far this year:
Neulisa Luciano Ruiz
Yampi Méndez Arocho
Scott/ Scottlynn Devore
Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos
Layla Pelaez Sánchez
Penélope Díaz Ramírez
Helle Jae O’Regan
Dominique “Rem'mie” Fells
Brian “Egypt’ Powers
Dior H Ova
Queasha D Hardy
Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears
Lea Rayshon Daye
Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas
Yunieski Carey Herrera