HOW do race, gender, and sexuality shape the murders of transgender people in the United States? – Gender and society

HOW do race, gender, and sexuality shape the murders of transgender people in the United States?  - Gender and society
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Author: Laurel Westbrook

Many people believe that transphobia is the sole cause of trans violence. If this were true, all transgender people would always be at risk of violence. However, there are actually different patterns of this violence across gender, race and sexuality. These social systems interact to increase the risk of violence for some transgender people and reduce it for others. Identifying these patterns is critical to developing effective policies and practices to prevent this from happening.

To date, violence against transgender people has been grossly understudied, limiting our ability to effectively identify the factors that shape this violence. To address some of this knowledge gap, I used an innovative approach to create an original dataset of all known homicides of transgender people in the United States over a 30-year period from 1990 to 2019. This dataset is the first of its kind. consisting of information gathered from activist, mainstream news and government sources.

As I detailed in my recent article Gender and Society, transphobia, both from individuals and from social institutions, increases violence against transgender people. But transphobia is not the only form of gender inequality that shapes this violence. The gender system also creates a large homicide gap between transgender women and men, as transgender women are murdered at a much higher rate than transgender men. Between 1990 and 2019, at least 508 transgender people were murdered in the United States. Of these, 494 (97%) were transgender women and 14 (3%) were transgender men.

Furthermore, my dataset reveals that not all transgender women are at equal risk. Trans women of color are murdered at a much higher rate than white trans women. Although whites made up 69 percent of the US population between 1990 and 2019, only 13 percent of murdered transgender women were white. In contrast, 66 percent of transfeminist homicide victims were black, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the total population.

Looking at the relationship between perpetrators and victims reveals factors that may contribute to high gender and racial disparities in the risk of fatal violence among transgender people. Transgender homicide perpetrators and victims have a wide range of relationships, from strangers and friends to family members and sexual partners. However, sexual interaction is the most common situation in which these murders occur. It is important to note that black and white trans women are killed in very different sexual interactions. Black trans women are more likely to be killed through sex-for-money, while white trans women are more likely to be killed through non-monetary sex.

This knowledge is vital because if we want to prevent violence, we must first understand the patterns of that violence. I strongly believe that research on violence against transgender people should be used to improve anti-violence policy. As my analysis shows, participation in sex work is associated with homicides of transgender women. Reducing violence against sex workers should therefore be a priority. Research shows that legalizing prostitution greatly reduces violence against women who sell sex.

Homicide scholarship finds that living in poverty greatly increases the risk of being murdered. Therefore, those working to reduce violence against transgender people must address the factors that drive transgender people, especially transgender women of color, into poverty. Family rejection and discrimination in education and employment due to transphobia greatly increase the likelihood of transgender people being poor. It gets worse for transgender people of color, who also face individual and institutional racism. Finally, transgender women experience both sexism and transmisogyny –bias based on hatred of women and transgender people. All of these must be addressed in order to reduce violence against transgender people.

Fortunately, recent research suggests ways to reduce transphobic beliefs, including webinars and other educational programs that involve guided activities that ask cisgender people to look at a transgender person and interact face-to-face with a trans person or a cisgender LGB person. These relatively short strategies (10 minutes to an hour) can be easily implemented in places of business, schools, government offices, churches, and parenting classes. Such programs are vital to reducing violence against transgender people, as are ongoing efforts to reduce racial and gender inequality. Rather than ignoring how intersecting social structures shape violence against transgender people, we need to use the growing knowledge about this violence and ways to reduce it to implement effective anti-violence programs.

Laurel Westbrook is a professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University. Their research focuses on gender, sexuality, race, violence, and social movements. They are the authors of an award-winning book Unlived Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism. Their scholarship has also been published in Social Problems, Sexualities, and Sociology Compass, among other journals. They are a co-founder and former chairman Trans justice sociologists.

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