Since the beginning of March, four trans women—Tatiana Labelle, Paloma Vazquez, Elise Malary, and most recently, Kathryn Newhouse—all of whom were women of color, have reportedly been murdered or found dead in suspicious circumstances at a time when violent attacks on trans people have been on the rise. Already, 2022 has seen at least seven confirmed murders of trans people, People reports. Their tragic deaths come as state legislatures and governments pass bill after bill to dehumanize trans people, rather than protect them from violence.
The number of murders and mysterious deaths of trans women of color this month is alarming. And rather than “focus on getting right to a body count,” Gillian Branstetter, press secretary of the National Women’s Law Center and co-founder of the Transgender Journalists Association, tells Jezebel it’s important to recognize “there’s a lot of violence and trauma you can experience before you’re murdered.”
After 2021 saw the most reported murders of trans people of any year in recent history at 57, Labelle, Vazqez, Malary, and Newhouse can’t just be numbers.
Newhouse, a 19-year-old, autistic, Asian-American trans woman in Georgia, was killed by her father in a murder-suicide on Saturday. Malary, a 31-year-old LGBTQ advocate, community outreach specialist at the Chicago Therapy Collective, and Black trans woman, was found dead in Lake Michigan last Thursday a week after being reported missing. The following day, Labelle, a 33-year-old Black trans woman and community activist, was found beaten to death in a trash can in Chicago. Vazquez, 29, was found shot to death in her Houston apartment on March 5, just six months after she immigrated from Honduras to flee anti-trans violence and persecution.
“Their stories were all very different from each other, and extend from their trans identities, but also other intersecting identities and oppressions,” Branstetter said. “The misery of trans people is a policy choice disguised as an inevitability, and each of these deaths—fueled by a variety of factors—were avoidable.”
Anti-trans violence is inseparable from a policy landscape in which 30% of trans people are living in poverty—a staggering percentage that climbs even higher for trans people of color. On top of high costs of health care and low rates of insurance coverage, trans people also face significant barriers in the medical system that include rampant discrimination and incompetence from health providers. And in their own communities, social ostracism and isolation can render trans women more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, all while many trans survivors struggle to find supportive women’s shelters due to transphobic discrimination.
According to Branstetter, violence against trans people and particularly trans women of color is about more than “hate crimes” and can’t be resolved through more policing and criminalization. When surveyed, the majority of trans people said they wouldn’t call the police in a crisis. Policing also fails to address the heart of the problem trans folks face, Branstetter says. “We’ve found violence is frequently a consequence of systemic problems and material need. If you’re living in poverty, if you’re unstably housed, you’re significantly more likely to face violence fueled by poverty, stigma, alienation.”
Right now, states across the country including Iowa, Arizona, South Dakota, Alabama, Wyoming, and others are rapidly passing bills to ban trans youth from playing school sports or accessing gender-affirming health care. Texas, in particular, has cracked down on attacking the rights and safety of trans youth with gutting ruthlessness, moving to require child welfare agencies to investigate parents and health care providers who offer gender-affirming care to trans youth for “child abuse.” While courts have halted investigations that were taking place, if the policies mandated by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton were to be enforced, trans youth could be separated from their families, and parents of trans kids could be criminalized.
The most marginalized trans people and their families will always face the brunt of both interpersonal and state violence, often without the same outpouring of public sympathy, Branstetter says. Child welfare agencies are “already a site of a lot of trauma,” particularly for Black communities, communities of color, and undocumented families, who will be disproportionately targeted.
Homicides and physical violence against trans people don’t happen in a vacuum, nor should murders of women like Labelle, Vazquez, Malary, and Newhouse be treated as isolated, individual crimes separable from a greater landscape of anti-trans state oppression. “The laws we’re seeing to deny trans people the chance to find community, to find health care,” Branstetter said, “this is ultimately about denying them the opportunity to exist.”