Who Cares About Islan Nettles?
By Tim Murphy
Above: The rally on January 30, 2014, in New York City
When The Advocate, our sister publication, published a memorial to the 13 transgender people reported murdered in the United States in 2013, all but one, it appears, were women of color. Additionally, “Injustice at Every Turn,” a landmark 2011 national survey of more than 6,000 transgender people that documents widespread discrimination at all levels, found that 61% of respondents had been physically assaulted.
These statistics are the flip side to an otherwise upbeat cultural narrative in which transgender people, and perhaps trans women in particular, are gaining legal rights, public understanding, and media popularity. The truth is, every week that you hear, say, that chic retailer Barneys New York is doing an all-transgender ad campaign, or that California is letting trans students choose the gender of the sports teams they play on or the bathrooms they use, a transgender woman — usually of color — is murdered or assaulted somewhere in the United States.
Often, the murders occur in places that don’t have hate-crimes legislation. Very often, the murders go unsolved or uncharged. And often, though this is decreasing, the victims are “misgendered” by the media or law officials, being called he or by their birth names. Last year, when a young transgender woman named Cemia Acoff was found stabbed and at the bottom of a pond with a cement block tied to her, the Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to her by her male name and to her salvaged body as that of an “oddly dressed man.”
For urban gay men, especially white or middle-class ones who live in relatively safe gayborhoods, it can be a mental leap to realize that the stylish gal sashaying down the street so confidently, the one we might affectionately call a “tranny,” lives with some level of fear for her life the moment she leaves her apartment.
Just take New York’s Laverne Cox, the poised, eloquent transgender activist and actress who found fame last year playing transgender inmate Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. When I saw her on TV recently, tactfully but firmly telling a flummoxed Katie Couric why it was disrespectful to ask transgender people about their genitals, I remembered interviewing her seven years ago for The Advocate during a roundtable to discuss the exclusion of transgender people from a federal LGB nondiscrimination bill (which tanked anyway).
I’d asked her when she felt safe. “In my house,” she’d said. “Nowhere else.”
Now on a major nationwide college speaking tour about transgender rights and awareness, she took time to recount to me the time when, shopping for a scarf near her apartment in midtown Manhattan, she’d passed a group of young black men who made anti-trans slurs. One of them kicked her. Shocked, she immediately went into a store and called the police, who told her that since she wasn’t badly hurt, the incident was merely harassment, not assault.