By Bob Roehr
A report released last week documents the tide of murderous violence against gender nonconformity in the United States over the last decade. “Under 30: Masculinity and the War on America’s Youth” was released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14.
“If the FBI was mandated to track hate crimes based on an individual’s gender identity or gender expression, which they are not, it would outweigh every other category except rape,” said Riki Wilchins, author of the report. “This is a big, big problem.”
One such murder occurs every two-to-three months, said Wilchins, who works as executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC).
Wilchins believes the report undercounts “effeminate gay men who were targeted because they weren’t being masculine enough and butch women who were targeted because they were not being fem enough.”
There is strong commonality to most violence based on gender nonconformity, “it is consistent in method and precise in target,” said Wilchins. Roughly 90 percent of the victims “were biologically male but transgressed gender in some profound way;” were people of color; identified as gay or transgender identified; and were killed by persons about their own age.
In about 75 percent of the murders, it was not a random bullying that grew out of control, “these are crimes of murderous violence that are meant to annihilate the victim. In one of these cases a young woman who was transitioning was stabbed almost 60 times, she was then almost decapitated.”
All of the known assailants are young men; however, the rate of closure on these cases is low, often because the police do not give them their full attention. Most are not categorized as a hate crime, even when there is every indication that they should be. And most are not covered in the mainstream press.
Wilchins said,”There seems to be a unique nexus of vulnerability at the intersection of age, race, gender nonconformity, and economic status. Most of these kids are from economically challenged homes or communities.”
“We know that youth, and particularly youth of color, are much less likely to have the social capital to get authorities to protect them or to assure their own safety. These kids often are more exposed.”
“When you cross gender lines you seem to invoke a gut level hatred, this desire to annihilate … profound hostility and rage. I’d be lying if I said we understand it. There is something out there about gender that is very, very angry, and very, very violent, and is willing to kill to maintain gender boundaries,” she said.
“If you add to that additional factors that make you a disfavored American – you are of color, economically challenged, young – it becomes exponentially more likely that you are going to become the target of an attack.”
Queen Washington is the mother of Stephanie Thomas, a 19-year-old transgender woman who was “assassinated along with her best friend” in August 2002 in Washington, D.C. She recounted the journey she had taken with Stephanie in coming to terms with her son being transgender. “I told her, ‘God hates a liar, so be true to yourself.’
“I had to be there with her. Along the way I had to fight the schools, I had to fight the businesses, I had to fight the neighbors. My child was a human being first.”
Stephanie and her friend, another young transgender woman, died in a hail of more than 20 bullets while sitting in a car a few blocks from home. After four years the case remains unsolved. Washington said she thinks the police did not adequately investigate the case.
“There is no doubt that this is a human rights issue,” said Mark K. Bromley, director of external relations and policy at the organization Global Rights. This violence demonstrates “a consistent pattern of failure to protect an at risk community.” He said they have brought it to the attention of the UN Committee on Human Rights, which noted its concern. “This is becoming an international issue.”
Wilchins said police resources have a lot to do with solving crimes. Police often are less likely to aggressively pursue a case with “particularly unsympathetic victims.” That can take the form of fewer investigative personnel, and lower rewards for leads in such cases.
“These murders are not solved,” she said, “If you kill one of these unfortunate kids, the chances are you will walk.”
Wilchins said GenderPAC hopes that the report will help to raise awareness of the problems among legislators, public policy makers, and civil rights leaders. It is the start of an educational effort to stop the violence.
They and their allies also are pressing for inclusion of gender identity in federal hate crimes legislation so that the crimes can be better tracked and resources directed toward solving these cases.