A Crisis of Silence Is Killing Trans Women of Color

Sixty-four years ago this August, Mamie Till decided, through unthinkable grief and pain, that the casket holding the body of her 14-year-old son who had been lynched should remain open for the country and the world to see. Her act of courage awakened the conscience of our nation and changed the course of our history. 

Her bravery laid bare to America that the lynching of Emmett Till was not only a singular act of unspeakable violence but the direct result of a collective failure to address systemic hatred and deep-seated discrimination.

And is a system that rages on today — especially in the lives of trans women of color. 

Last week, a Black transgender woman named Brooklyn Lindsey was killed in Kansas City, Mo., making her the 11th known Black trans woman to have been murdered this year — following the murders of Dana Martin, Jazzaline Ware, Ashanti Carmon, Claire Legato, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, Paris Cameron, Chynal Lindsey, Chanel Scurlock, and Zoe Spears.  

These individual acts of hatred are not only singular acts of unspeakable violence — they reveal our collective failure. Because the crisis facing trans Americans is not limited to acts of terror, it is institutional.

It is Donald Trump’s discriminatory, un-American ban on transgender Americans serving the country they love. 

It is Betsy DeVos’s failure to protect transgender students in schools and on college campuses. 

It is the Trump administration’s discriminatory refusal rules that let doctors and health care workers refuse to provide health care to trans people at all. 

It is an immigration policy that treats transgender people fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States as criminals and denying them hormone therapy. 

This crisis is transphobic language and policy. It is the dehumanization, discrimination, and prejudice that gives birth to fear and to shame. It is the crisis of a culture that normalizes and administers that shame. 

And this crisis is a crisis of silence. Silence in school, at work, in our neighborhoods. It is the silence that happens when any act of discrimination or bigotry goes unchallenged.

Today, just like generations before us, we must speak out in a chorus of conviction and take urgent action. 

We must start by undoing the damage the Trump administration has done, starting with reversing the immoral ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. That means a Department of Education that protects all of our children — no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. And that means a Department of Justice led by an attorney general who stands up against employment discrimination and prosecutes hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law. 

But we cannot stop there. 

We know that violence against the transgender community, and trans women of color in particular, is not new. According to the University of North Carolina, the life expectancy for the average trans woman of color is 35, and according to the Human Rights Campaign, 128 transgender people were killed over a five-year period between 2013 and 2018. The American Medical Association has rightly called this crisis an “epidemic of violence against the transgender community, especially the amplified physical dangers faced by transgender people of color.”

We must strengthen laws so that survivors of hate crimes can access justice and heal, reform our policing practices so that all people are protected and feel safe seeking police assistance, and improve data collection so that our public policies accurately reflect the lives and meet the needs of transgender people. 

We must pass the Equality Act into law — to ensure that all people are protected by federal nondiscrimination law enshrined in the Civil Rights Act. 

And we must address the many other challenges that disproportionately impact transgender people — from closing disparities in employment and wages that undermine economic security to improving access to safe, affordable housing and removing barriers to quality, affordable health care. 

We have so much work to do, but we cannot remain silent in the face of this crisis. Ralph Ellison once wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” We must see the truth of this crisis. We must see our trans community. We must speak up. And we must act, from the White House to Congress, in every community and on every block. 

Lives depend on it. 

Sen. Cory Booker currently serves as the junior United States senator from New Jersey and is running for president in 2020. 

(RELATEDSpeaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. David Cicilline on why we must pass the Equality Act.)


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