by Shaadi Devereaux
Recently, after one of those weekly conversations where your mother asks if you’re dating anyone, I decided I deserved the dairy therapy. On my way back from getting ice cream, I noticed a guy following me from the shop. Another two blocks and suddenly he appeared again, heading me off from around the corner. My alarms were raised. He said he recognized me from ‘before’ at a community event where I had discussed being a trans woman. I picked up the pace, hoping he would get the hint. My heart racing, I took off my heels and decided to take my chance with the pavement. I passed the police station. I had already gotten into it with the local cops when they profiled me for sex work for being out too late, while waiting for the pedestrian light to change on my way home from work. I made it back, chained my door and decided a new route home was needed. No more frivolous trips. Work, grocery store, home. No more heels. Only trainers.
There have already been six murders of girls like me this year and it’s only March. As the weather gets warmer and dreams of summer fill the air, I wonder: what do you do when every summer is your own personal Summer of Sam?
Along with the barbecues and booty shorts, headlines of girls like us being found in dumpsters, and dumped in rivers, pepper the headlines of our local papers.
It seems like as a country we would be horrified. Instead, we remain unfazed. We go to summer concerts as a grizzly murder novel occurs all around us.
There is a peace, stillness and acceptance that occurs around it that is almost as frightening as the violence. It’s the makings of horror novels set in dystopian futures. Except there is no clever hero to figure it out and save the day. There are only more bodies in more pieces, forgotten names, and fetishizing headlines. Our city landfills become a cemetery, holding the stories of girls taken out like the weekly trash.
Our names are not only forgotten in the ways of other missing and murdered women, filling the backlogs of unprocessed police reports and tucked away in boxes in a forensics department, but we’re erased as women as well. Journalists name us as men in the interest of “journalistic integrity.” They scour birth records to include birth names to center the sensation of our bodies over their disappearances. It’s a special kind of violence and cowardice to take away our names and call us men when we can no longer speak because our voices lay at the bottom of rivers.
America becomes a fine-tuned machine, a factory with each line of the conveyor belt playing its role in the disappearance of girls like me. Girls who are Black, who are women, and who are trans. We are America’s Black Dahlia. Except no one wonders were we went.
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From girlhood, trans women are exposed to these layers of violence. What does this look like when it’s played out in real time? A fifteen year old Black trans girl was recently stabbed at a train station in DC by an adult male. Her friends fended off the attacker with mace and led the authorities to him. News outlets reported the following narrative: a woman (not a girl) stabbed in a train station. There was little mention or praise of the fifteen year old heroes who both fended off a full grown attacker with a criminal history and brought him to justice. No highly visible rallies, no big media reports, no town hall meetings. Only an erasure of girlhood and in several cases fumbling journalists struggling to describe “a boy who is a trans girl dressed as a woman in girl’s clothing.” Where is the collective outrage at the serial murder of girls barely old enough to buy a metro pass? As violence expands into our adulthood, how can we keep ourselves safe?
But who exactly is this Jack the Ripper? We are immediately confronted with the two images most commonly reported: the faceless perpetrator of transphobia, committing violent acts with little or no prior relation to the victim, as in the cases of Cece McDonald and Islan Nettles; and men “rightfully defending their sexuality.”
In a society that views all non-male bodies through the lens of the male gaze, trans women are often viewed as “traps.” The narrative goes that we trick unsuspecting men into lusting after us. Our bodies are perversions waiting to corrupt their masculinity and “normal” sexualities. Any violence is then justified as “panic” and men protecting themselves from the lethal bite of the trans girl werewolf.
But we must also examine the danger in honing in on and sensationalizing the image of either a faceless murderer dripping in ‘unexplainable’ transphobic bloodlust or the guy who brings home a date that ends in a surprise “trans panic.” It erases the all too common experience of intimate partner violence and erases us as victims of this violence as well. If the danger remains an unspoken and mysterious thing in the night, just part and parcel of being a trans woman, then we don’t direct our actions, services, and narratives to actively provide resources for these women. Violence against trans women becomes normalized. Our lives are seen as inherently full of violence, with little that can ultimately be done.
Domestic and IPV are largely erased in the context of TWoC because society operates on the logic that intimacy with black trans women never occurs and, if it does, it’s a horrifying and abnormal experience. The fact that trans women are in intimate relationships is actively erased and any occurrence of intimate partner violence is immediately replaced with the narrative of “He didn’t know. He was tricked. Of course he reacted that way.”
Even if a potential partner didn’t know, killing a trans woman is an incredibly outsized and violent response. It’s a defense that only holds if you believe trans women’s bodies can violate non-trans bodies just through association. The crime is the TWOC’s body itself, not the act of violence against her. Our bodies are seen as the initial assault.
This idea of criminal bodies, Black and Trans, extends even further into the criminal justice system. When sex work, one of the few lines of work TWoC have access to when they are discriminated against in other forms of employment, is made illegal, and Black and Indigenous genders are seen as inherently sexual and criminal, we are inherently made into a profile. Media narratives pair unconfirmed and unsubstantiated stories of sex work with stories of disappearances, and then imply sex work means ‘you brought it on yourself.’ Again, we are denied victimhood.
This constant preoccupation with justifying the murders of trans women acts to erase society’s responsibility for the culture of violence it creates. It erases the fact that your sons hit on trans women and often respond violently, verbally or physically, when rejected or confronted with the reality of our bodies; that you create a culture of ridicule, entitlement, confusion and fear around interacting with and dating trans bodies; that your daughters take part in the process of outing trans women to possible perpetrators, to leverage and enforce hierarchies of womanhood, to “protect” them from the “trick”, and in fact often find it a source of entertainment. It erases the Jerry Springers and the Maurys that sensationalize us. It erases the fact that TWoC are often murdered in the interest of protecting men’s honor and guarding their sexuality. It erases the fact that we are turned away from shelters and vital resources with the mantra that we aren’t “real women.” Every narrative centered around TWoC’s lives historically has said that we must have deserved it. If Hester Prynne bore the scarlett letter, then Black Trans women bear the Scarlett Alphabet.
As we seek to take back control over reoccurring narratives of violence in our lives, we look to Mariame Kaba’s framework and are reminded that only some of us are seen as having a self to defend. How we recreate the “self” and whose is worth love and defense will mark our anti-violence feminist revolution. If we can successfully fill in the cracks and keep the most vulnerable women safe, we will have a ready system and language in place to tackle the violence we face as a collective whole.
Our success in 2015 and the rest of the century will be marked by whose victimhood and agency we honor in the crafting of our new world.
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Shaadi Devereaux is a Black and AfroIndigenous writer using media to build narratives for Trans Women of Color. She is also an independent contractor and consultant on Women’s Global Initiatives and Human Rights.