Who Cares About Islan Nettles?


By Tim Murphy

What happens when a young trans woman is murdered in the street, opposite a police station?

At left: The rally on January 30, 2014, in New York City

Such vulnerable lives are deeply rooted in socioeconomic insecurity, the landmark 2011 study found. Its respondents were nearly four times more likely to have an income of less than $10,000 a year than the population at large. Forty-one percent had attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population, with higher rates for those who’d lost a job due to bias, were harassed or bullied in school, were very poor, or had been physically or sexually assaulted.

The group had double the national rate of unemployment, with respondents of color at four times the rate. Ninety-percent said they’d experienced some kind of on-the-job bias or harassment. Nineteen-percent had been refused housing, and 19% had been homeless at some point.

Twenty-two percent had been harassed by police, and 19% had been refused medical care because of their transgender status. And crucially, because official identification is so important in every corner of life, only 21% had been able to update all their records to match their gender identity, while 40% who presented ID that didn’t match their gender identity were harassed because of it.

“We’re misgendered all the time,” says Brooke Cerda, a transgender Latina who works with Herrera at the Gender Identity Project and who has been a key activist in the push to get officials to prosecute the Nettles case. “That’s our fear. That we will die and everyone will forget who we are, and at the morgue, they’ll see our genitals and call us a cross-dresser.”


Can high rates of transphobic violence be reduced? Currently, a federal hate-crimes law, as well as laws in 17 states and in Washington, D.C., covers bias against gender identity. It’s likely that over time, such laws will send a message that bias-motivated crimes may be punished more severely than others. But most trans advocates agree that aggressive investigation and prosecution of violent crime against transgender people itself sends a strong message. In the Nettles case, the DA staffer I talked to off the record insisted that this was the case. “We really want to get this case solved and we’re moving forward on it,” the staffer said, “partly because we’ve had a good record prosecuting crimes against transgender people in recent years.”

But transgender advocates believe that change must be proactive in order to prevent these assaults from happening in the first place. “We need to teach more sensitivity and diversity,” says Herrera. “Schools need to normalize this earlier so people see us as human, not as the freak or the hooker or the clown that the media looks to make fun of.”

She said New York and other cities could benefit from efforts like a 2012 poster campaign sponsored by the D.C. government that featured real-life transgender Washingtonians saying such things as: “Please treat me the way any woman would want to be treated: with courtesy and respect.” That campaign, as well as a city job-training program for transgender residents, was launched in the wake of a string of horrible attacks on transgender women in D.C. That trend in the nation’s capital unfortunately continued into 2013.