Tiffany Mathieu holds up images for the Marc Jacobs #marcthesun Instagram promotion at North Brooklyn PrideTiffany Mathieu
By Julie Compton
Tiffany Mathieu doesn’t shy away from discussing the violence she’s experienced as a black transgender woman.
From her Lower East Side apartment in Manhattan, the aspiring social worker talks about being harassed and attacked in the streets and in her own home.
“More than 100,” she says, when asked how many times she’s been assaulted.
Some assaults stand out more than others. Like the time a man suddenly came swinging at Mathieu when she boarded the subway. Or the time a group of people—four women and one man—jumped and robbed her in the West Village. And the time she and some transgender friends were pelted with bottles and eggs as they walked up 125th Street in Harlem.
Mathieu alleges NYPD officers have attacked her numerous times, as well.
She is quick to point out that violence against her isn’t just physical. She’s no stranger to verbal harassment (mostly transphobic slurs) that follows her wherever she goes.
“If you’re an attractive transgender woman able to present and pass, people want to out you, because that’s the right thing to do in their eyes,” Mathieu says, when asked why she thinks people harass her. “They feel you are being deceiving.”
Mathieu says she never hides her gender identity from anyone.
Though all members of the LGBT community are at risk for hate violence, research shows it impacts transgender women of color disproportionately. Of the anti-LGBT homicides committed in 2014 (20 in total), 55 percent of victims were transgender women, and 50 percent were primarily transgender women of color, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP).
Transgender women tend to experience hate violence to “heightened degrees” because unlike other groups, it’s “based on both transphobia and sexism,” according to the report.
At the intersection is what transactivist and Whipping Girl author Julia Serano calls “transmisogyny,” a common perception that merges transphobia with misogyny.
According to Serano, transmisogyny operates under the assumption that transgender people are trying to take advantage of the benefits that come with being a particular gender, rather than just being themselves.
In a world where certain privileges are assigned to men and sexist attitudes about women persist, it’s especially difficult for people to understand why someone born male would want to be a woman, Serano says.
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“Usually the way people make sense of it in their minds is to assume we (transgender women) transition for sexual reasons,” she says, noting that transwomen, like all women, are often highly sexualized.
Serano says there is a persistent stereotype that transwomen are gay men trying to deceive straight men into having sex.
“That idea of sexual deceit plays out a lot in violence perpetrated against transwomen,” Serano says.
Transwomen of color like Mathieu are even further marginalized, says Chai Jindasurat, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project.
“The more marginalized someone is, the more likely they are to experience violence,” Jindasurat says.
According to him, there are many reasons transgender women of color are placed at greater risk.
“They live at the intersection of multiple points of oppression,” Jindasurat says, which allows many transgender people of color to fall victim to housing and job discrimination that puts them at risk for living on the streets and experiencing violence.
The child of Haitian immigrants, Mathieu grew up far from privileged in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. The now 32-year-old began dressing in her mother’s clothes as a child, but didn’t realize she was transgender until a teenager.
Her family did not accept her identity, and she eventually dropped out of high school due to the bullying she faced. She moved to Manhattan at the age of 18 and began her gender transition, living mostly in hotels around the city.
Like many transgender women in her situation, Mathieu was unable to find legitimate employment.
“I learned how to hustle for money,” she says, referring to her days as a prostitute.
Mathieu says those who acted violently towards her, whether strangers, clients, or intimate partners, probably realized someone in her situation would not call the police, which she rarely did. And she believes many of her abusers—especially men from intimate situations— struggled with denial surrounding their sexuality, and this insecurity sometimes manifested itself through violence.
So far this year, 17 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been reported murdered in the United States, according to a recent NCAVP press release. Of these, 16 of the victims have been confirmed as transgender women, and 14 of them transgender women of color (11 black and three Latino). One victim, whose gender identity is not clear, was black.
The NCAVP told NBC News it is monitoring the homicide of a possible 18th transgender or gender non-conforming victim, but details have not yet been released.
Solving the problem of violence against transgender individuals and transgender women of color in particular requires a spectrum of changes, according to experts.
“Protecting people from discrimination is really important,” says Jindasurat, noting that in many areas of the country, transgender people can still be denied housing and employment, and that concrete policy changes are necessary to transform this.
Creating jobs programs for transgender people and ensuring general social services are friendly towards them are also key to reversing violence and helping the most marginalized members of the LGBT community overcome oppression, Jindasurat says.
Cultural attitudes like gender policing also need to go away, according to Serano, who says strict attitudes about gender impact everyone, but especially transgender people.
“Regardless of whether you identify as a man or a woman, or neither, you are facing instances in your life where if you color outside the lines of what’s accepted, people make judgments about you,” Serano says, adding that the more extreme one’s gender nonconformity, the more extreme the discrimination.
Mathieu left sex work a few years back when a friend helped her get a job at a survey company. She managed to find a paid internship and is now working at a community-based organization while she earns her GED. She has even reunited with her family.
But Mathieu understands that as a black transgender woman, she is still at risk.
“People out there don’t respect us,” Mathieu says. “They pretty much feel you’re an easy target and they can do whatever they want to you.”
She says she always carries a knife for protection.
Julie Compton is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her @julieallmighty