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Killing of transgender women in US reach alarming high

/ 12:03 PM November 22, 2015
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, NOV. 22, 2015 AND THEREAFTER - This Monday, Aug. 17, 2015 photo provided by Randall Jenson, lead advocate of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, shows an altar made by the friends of Tamara Dominguez during a memorial service for her at her home. Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger, violence and mourning.  (Randall Jenson/Kansas City Anti-Violence Project via AP)

This Aug. 17, 2015 photo provided by Randall Jenson, lead advocate of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, shows an altar made by the friends of Tamara Dominguez during a memorial service for her at her home. Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger, violence and mourning. AP

For a few transgender Americans, this has been a year of glamour and fame. For many others, 2015 has been fraught with danger and mourning.

While Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox prospered as a popular actress, other transgender women have become homicide victims at an alarming rate. By the count of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there have been 22 killings so far this year of transgender or gender-nonconforming people — including 19 black or Latina transgender women.

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The toll compares with 12 last year and 13 in 2013, and is the highest since advocacy groups began such tallies a decade ago.

“Most Americans think it’s been an amazing year for transgender rights,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But for the transgender community, it’s been one of the most traumatic years on record.”

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Kiesha Jenkins was beaten and shot dead by a cluster of assailants in Philadelphia. Tamara Dominguez was run over multiple times and left to die on a Kansas City street. Police said the most recent victim, Zella Ziona, was shot dead in Maryland last month by a boyfriend embarrassed that Ziona showed up in the presence of some of his other friends.

There’s no question that anti-transgender hatred fueled many of the killings, yet activists and social-service professionals say there are multiple factors that make transgender women of color vulnerable. They have documented that numerous victims were killed by intimate partners and many while engaging in prostitution.

“For many of these women, it’s chronic unemployment or participation in survival sex work,” said Louis Graham, a University of Massachusetts professor who has studied the experiences of black transgender women. Some ending up in coercive and violent relationships, Graham said.

Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said that for many perpetrators of the violence, “there’s a sense of transgender people being less than human.”

The high death toll this year may stem in part from greater awareness of anti-transgender violence, and more vigorous efforts to identify homicide cases in which it was a factor.

“The violence has been going on for a long time,” said Chai Jindasurat of the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “We’re now able to identify and document and report on it better.”

Examples of heightened attention to the issue:

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—On Tuesday, amid a week of nationwide events remembering transgender victims, the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus held the first-ever hearing in Congress on anti-transgender violence.

—Two national advocacy groups — the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition — recently issued a report on “the epidemic of violence” against transgender people. It calls for passage of a federal nondiscrimination act that covers transgender people. According to the report, 15 percent of transgender homicide victims in the past three years were killed by intimate partners, and 34 percent may have been engaged in “survival sex work” at the time of their deaths.

Activists say there are no easy solutions to the violence.

Many Americans are uncomfortable with transgender people, Jindasurat said.

In Detroit, Yvonne Siferd has worked with many transgender women as director of victim services for Equality Michigan, an LGBT-rights group. She’s impressed by their resilience, yet dismayed by the challenges they face.

“We all grow up with this myth that you can be whatever you want when you grow up,” Siferd said. “When you do grow up and become your authentic self, the fact that you could be targeted for just being you is terrifying.”

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