Before the coronavirus pandemic tore through the U.S., resulting in nearly 600,000 deaths and a slew of collateral damage, transgender people across the Southeast were participating in self-defense classes catered specifically to them. The courses, organized by LGBTQ advocacy group Campaign for Southern Equality, had one goal: to teach trans people to protect themselves should they be the target of an attack.
The campaign saw the classes as a necessity, with trans Americans facing disproportionate levels of violence — including record levels of reported fatal violence against the community.
“When folks are being attacked and murdered, helping with a name change doesn't really do much good if we can't keep our people alive,” Ivy Hill, the community health program director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, told NBC News.
Now, as it seems the worst of the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for the U.S., Hill hopes these classes will resume — either through their own organization or local grassroots groups. While the damage spawned by Covid-19 is slowing down, the violence faced by transgender Americans — particularly trans women of color in the South — appears to be accelerating.
This year is on track to be the deadliest on record for transgender Americans, with at least 28 trans and gender-nonconforming people fatally shot or violently killed so far, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking trans deaths since 2013.
2021 is outpacing 2020, when the group recorded a record 44 trans people killed due to violence. By this time last year, the group had tracked 13 trans deaths. Of this year’s 28 known transgender victims, 20 were trans women of color (16 of them Black trans women), and 14 were killed in the South.
The disproportionate violence trans Americans face in the South, and more specifically the Southeast, is due to a combination of issues, according to advocates. These factors, they say, include a lack of discrimination protections, a flurry of recently introduced anti-LGBTQ state bills, high rates of poverty and a host of cultural factors. To combat this dangerous brew, local and regional advocacy groups, like the Campaign for Southern Equality, say they are working to fill the void left by their states to ensure trans people have some form of protection where they live.
The Southeast in general is a hostile region for the transgender community due, in part, to “institutional violence,” according to Austin Johnson, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio’s Kenyon College, who studies the trans community. Trans people face high barriers to health care and housing in the region, and state legislatures in recent years have put forward “persistent attacks” against the community with bills that seek to limit the everyday rights of trans people, he explained.
Add in the high rates of poverty in the region, along with religiosity that promotes a very conservative view of gender roles and sexuality, he said, and there is a combination of factors that contribute to the violence.
“I think those kinds of norms, all of those intersect with the kind of economic deprivation, educational deprivation, we have in the South, and so when you have all of this deprivation, in terms of the different institutions, it's going to affect every group,” Johnson said. “When there are some groups that are more disadvantaged, it's going to affect them. So I think that's why we're seeing these really drastic rates of negative outcomes for LGBTQ people and trans people in particular in the South.”
Although there is a disproportionate number of reported killings of transgender people in the South, it does not mean the region is inherently more deadly, according to Eric A. Stanley, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The true number of trans people lost to violence each year is unknown, due in part to the lack of a national database to track anti-trans violence, police misgendering victims in official reports and some victims’ closeted status. Absent that, Stanley said, it is impossible to truly judge the regionality of anti-trans violence in proportion to other areas of the country.
“I don’t think anywhere is necessarily safer, as the kinds of anti-trans antagonism that propels so much of the harm is any and everywhere,” Stanley said.
Stanley did note, however, that the Southeast is “less resourced” when it comes to combating violence against the transgender community — and the LGBTQ community more broadly — due to the relatively high poverty in the region and the lack of a social safety net.
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi — three Southeastern states — are also home to the highest homicide rates in the country, further adding to the climate of violence that trans people face in everyday life.
‘Dehumanized’ by state legislatures
Outside of housing and basic needs, transgender Americans only recently received federal protection from being fired for their gender identity, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. Besides that, there are no federal discrimination protections in other areas of life for trans people, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
Hill said trans people's inability to safely access public spaces without fear of discrimination — and the issues being debated in state legislatures aimed at rolling back the rights of trans people — have created a climate that has “dehumanized” the trans community. That combined with a lack of legal protections such as nondiscrimination ordinances leaves trans people vulnerable and easy targets of violence.
Twenty-two states do not have public accommodation nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people from being discriminated against in public places due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 20 do not have such protections when it comes to housing, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Many of these states are clustered around the Southeast.
In addition, only 15 states — none in the Southeast — have laws that make it illegal for a defendant to claim the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity contributed to their violent actions, known as the “gay/trans panic” defense.
“I think for a lot of us, what people kind of miss is just how dangerous or scary it can be just to move through public space, which is something that other folks who are cisgender generally don't even have to think about,” Hill, who lives in South Carolina, said of being trans in the South.
A number of Southeastern states have recently passed bills that restrict the rights of transgender Americans. Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee all passed bills that bar trans student athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
Tennessee enacted an additional law that compels businesses to display signs that read, "This facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom,” if transgender people are allowed to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. The state also enacted a law that restricts access to gender-affirming care for trans minors.
State bills targeting transgender people that did not pass in 2021 will likely be introduced next year, advocates warn. Advocacy groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, say serious political change must happen on the federal level to help stem the tide of rising anti-trans violence.
HRC President Alphonso David said one of the most important things that can be done to help protect trans Americans is for Congress to pass the Equality Act. The federal legislation would explicitly create LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections in housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs and jury service.
“It is heartbreaking to see violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people across our country,” David said in a statement. “The Equality Act that will provide legal recourse to incidents of discrimination, discourage discrimination, and work to reduce stigma against transgender and nonbinary people nationwide.”
In addition, HRC cited actions the Biden administration took — such as reinstating the Equal Access Rule that allows people to access Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded housing without discrimination based on their gender identity and encouraging the Education Department to enforce Title IX with protections based on gender identity — as tangible solutions to help the trans community.
Some advocates, however, are not optimistic about additional national actions, especially given the slim majority Democrats hold in Congress. That’s why groups like the Campaign for Southern Equality continue to focus on lobbying state legislatures and supporting more local, grassroots efforts.
‘Robust community of grassroots work’
A number of queer advocacy groups in the Southeast say they are filling in the gaps left by the federal, state and local governments.
Organizations like Atlanta-based Southerners on New Ground are dedicated to keeping reports of anti-transgender violence in the news to ensure the public is aware of this ongoing issue.
“Those folks are amplifying their voices and amplifying their stories,” Johnson said of advocates sharing the stories of trans people lost to violence. “I wonder if we didn't have this robust community of grassroots work, that we wouldn't even know many of their names.”
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the trans community has been racked by violence. Two Black women, Jaida Peterson and Remy Fennell, were killed in the span of two weeks in April. Ash Williams, an organizer with Charlotte Uprising and the House of Kanautica, which both support the local Black trans community, said the groups’ main goal has been to get money in the hands of struggling trans people so they can find stable housing. After Peterson’s death, the groups raised over $20,000 for trans people of color. Williams said if they had this kind of funding year-round, it may have saved Peterson’s life.
“We believe that how we are organizing is certainly in the spirit of what we understand to be happening across the country, which is, we hope, some kind of cultural awakening that says trans people matter and Black lives matter,” Williams said.
However, he added, distributing funds so the community members can take care of each other only goes so far when there is limited access to health care and other necessary services.
“Because of the way that power structures are, regular people have to show up,” Williams said. “And one of the things that we hope to be able to do is to get people mobilized and to show up for the trans folks where they live.”
Several groups in the Southeast are organizing to provide vulnerable trans communities with essential needs, such as housing, where they say state institutions have failed to provide a path to safety.
My Sistah’s House in Memphis, Tennessee, for example, has raised money to build homes for trans people of color to help provide safety. The group is currently in the process of building 20 tiny houses in the Memphis area.
“A big portion of the folks that we serve participate in survival sex or sex work. Therefore, they don't have verifiable income,” Kayla Gore, co-founder of My Sistah’s House, told NBC News last year. “So that's the reason that they can't get housing or they're underemployed, in a sense that they don't necessarily have access to equitable jobs that will provide them an income that is enough to obtain stable housing.”
My Sistah’s House also provides emergency housing in an effort to keep the local trans population safe in the immediate term.
House of Tulip in New Orleans is renovating a multifamily home in hopes of creating a pilot program to house 10 transgender people facing housing insecurity. The group, according to its website, also plans to establish a “separate space that can serve as a community center” where transgender people have a safe space to visit, access resources and get a hot meal or shower. H
House of Tulip said 1 of every 3 trans people in Louisiana faces homelessness, emphasizing the need for immediate housing as well as investment to help trans people find long-term housing arrangements.
Johnson said local grassroots groups in the Southeast have come to realize in the absence of institutional help, they have to rely on each other for survival.
“When you have that kind of community building, it's empowering, and people are not going to just roll over and expect this treatment that they're getting,” Johnson said. “Also, they're going to honor those who they've lost in their community, because they have people to rely on.”