Who Cares About Islan Nettles?
By Tim Murphy
Above: The rally on January 30, 2014, in New York City
Cox says that cisgender people can’t understand the toll that such physical and verbal abuse takes on trans women, who have high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. “People have told me on the subway that they thought I should die,” she says, her voice rising in distress even as she recollects. “A man passed me a few months ago and said to me, ‘You look like you could fight like a man.’ Now, with the TV show, fans will come up to me on the street with love. But it’s traumatizing. I’m hyperaware that my life is in danger because of who I am.”
Cox’s situation is echoed by that of Cristina Herrera, a transgender Latina who heads up the Gender Identity Project, which provides counseling, referrals, and support groups for transgender and gender nonconforming people at New York’s LGBT Community Center. Herrera says she’s been assaulted several times. Once, just like Nettles, she was walking down the street in Jackson Heights, her neighborhood in Queens, when three men taunted her. One of them knocked her to the ground.
“It took me a while to regain confidence,” she recalls. “I felt very impotent. I wish I could’ve prevented it and defended myself. Even now, years later, there’s a little voice in my head telling me to be extra-cautious wherever I go. It’s a sad way of living, and incidents like Islan’s just reinforce our paranoia and the feeling that we could be next.”
According to Cox, violent transphobia is rooted in an irrational rage. “People think that trans women deserve violence because of this ridiculous, bullshit idea that we’re in herently deceptive,” she says. “That we’re not who we say we are, that we’re fake women, and fakeness needs to be called out. Just read any story online about a celebrity caught with a trans woman. People say things like, ‘If I ever found out that my girl was trans, I would beat her ass.’ ”
Cox is currently trying to fund a documentary called Free CeCe, about CeCe McDonald, a Minneapolis transgender woman who served 19 months in prison after fatally stabbing a man in self-defense during a transphobic attack. (In a sign that courts may increasingly be becoming sensitive to antitrans violence, she was, indeed, freed in January.)
PUSHED TO THE MARGINS
There’s another reason rates of violence against transgender women of color are so high compared to LGBTQ people at large. A 2011 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and summarized in “Injustice at Every Turn” found that many of them live at the complicated intersection of homophobia, transphobia, violence toward women, job, workplace and healthcare discrimination, racism, police harassment, and, on top of all that, poverty. Often, for lack of other options, they become sex workers in neighborhoods or in social networks that aren’t safe to begin with. In some of the transgender murder cases of 2013, the women were not assaulted by strangers on the street but in private homes by lovers or acquaintances.
That was the case with Erycka Morgan, who’d served prison time but was in a post-prison job training program for transgender women at Rutgers University when she was murdered last fall in the New Brunswick, N.J., apartment she often used to shelter younger LGBT people — a visiting acquaintance was charged with the crime. After years of ups and downs, she’d become a mother figure and a safety adviser to younger trans women, some of whom drifted in and out of sex work, according to Gary Paul Wright, founder of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, a Newark nonprofit where Morgan had pioneered a transgender program nearly a decade ago.
“Because of girls like Erycka, we changed our thinking about transgender people around here,” says Wright. “It wasn’t just doing drag, but their lives.”