“Baby it’s like going out on the front lines of war every night. You don’t know if you’ll make it out alive.”
I met Dee Dee Pearson, a quiet, gentle spirit, through the Justice Project when I was working for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending violence within and against LGBT communities. Dee Dee was part of a tight knit, Kansas City community of low-income Black transgender women. For Dee Dee the threat of violence was a daily reality but her primary concerns were most often food and shelter. Dee Dee would call me and say, “Chai, I’m hungry. Can you help me out?” We’d get a burger and Dee Dee would talk about her life. She left home and school when she was very young, due to rejection and harassment for being transgender. She engaged in survival sex work to pay for food, and couch surfed for housing. Frequently in and out of jail, Dee Dee was unemployed and faced pervasive job discrimination. She was denied food stamps and government housing because of her criminal record.
Dee Dee, like so many low-income transgender women, expressed fear of reaching out to social service providers because many did not honor her gender identity. Gender segregated homeless shelters placed transgender women in men’s facilities, and asked them to dress as men during their stay. The criminal justice system, the police, the government -- all pose barriers to transgender women leading a healthy life, and increase their exposure to violence. This is the environment that Dee Dee, and so many like her, learned to survive in. This Transgender Day of Remembrance, I honor the memory of Dee Dee’s life. She deeply informed my understanding of what it will take to end violence against transgender people.
Police profiling and harassment are major obstacles for many transgender people, particularly transgender people of color. The transgender women in Kansas City who were working the streets were frequently harassed by the police, often for crimes they did not commit: Dee Dee told me that one night she called the police because she was being beaten up in a dope house in Kansas City. The police misheard the location and showed up to the wrong house. Later that night they arrested her on charges of making a false call. That summer another of Dee Dee’s friends was arrested on prostitution charges while waiting for a public bus.
Injustice at the hands of police and the criminal justice system is not the only challenge transgender and gender non-conforming people of color face. They experience severely high rates of anti-transgender harassment and violence as well. Many transwomen of color in Kansas City shared harrowing accounts of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse from clients, gang members, lovers, and others. One transwoman told me, “Baby it’s like going out on the front lines of war every night. You don’t know if you’ll make it out alive.” My experience with these women taught me about the violent realities of living at the intersections of transphobia, racism, and poverty, trying to survive off the grid, as well as root causes of why low-income transgender people of color experience such high rates of severe violence.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance has become sacred to me. It is the only observance specifically for transgender people. It is a sobering day of reflection in which to remember transgender lives lost to violence in the previous year. This year at the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, we recorded a record-breaking 30 anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2011, 87% of which were people of color and 40% of whom were transgender women. Globally, 265 transgender people were murdered in 2011. In the United States and Puerto Rico, 19 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the past year. Each of these numbers represents a real person, a life, people they loved, and a tragic story.
Last year, as the coordinator of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, I received an e-mail that a transgender woman had been murdered in Kansas City. Her name was Dee Dee Pearson. My heart dropped as I read about her murder. Dee Dee was shot six times by a man named Kenyon Jones, who confessed that he hired her for sex and was angry when he discovered she was transgender. Local media reports did not report that Dee Dee was transgender, and instead used her birth name and male pronouns. Dee Dee’s friends and chosen family organized a memorial but her death received little attention from the media or local LGBTQ organizations. Was it too commonplace to take note? Dee Dee’s story and death are one of many from the past year.
In telling Dee Dee’s story, I do not attempt to represent all transgender people of color. I wish to provide an example from my experience that helped shape my understanding about how we can work to end this violence. Reducing and preventing violence against transgender people, particularly those disproportionately impacted by violence, is often intrinsically linked to economic and racial justice. We must work to create more opportunities and remove barriers for those victimized by rejection, policing, employment discrimination, service discrimination, and violence. Federal and state hate crime laws, when prosecuted, can be a source of comfort and justice to surviving friends and family, but they do not address the root causes of violence. Model programs like job programs for low-income transgender people, in cities like Washington DC and New Orleans, and transgender awareness campaigns, are moving in the right direction. Congress must also pass a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), that includes discrimination based on gender identity and expression, to address pervasive employment discrimination and poverty in transgender communities.
Working to change the root causes that place transgender people at risk of violence and murder must be an effort addressed at both community and policy levels. Transgender youth must be safe in their schools and in homes, and all youth must be afforded the same level of education across the country. We must be vigilant in raising awareness and creating a culture of acceptance for transgender people. Social service providers must be equipped to work with transgender and gender non-conforming people to give them full access to support services. We must remove barriers to basic services for people with criminal records across the country. And of course, it is critical for us to address the targeted profiling and policing of transgender people.
In recognition of the Transgender Day of Remembrance let us reflect together on the epidemic of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people, and the work that must be done to bring justice and equity to all in our communities. I hope you will join us in our struggle to prevent and end the violence.