by Denise E. Brogan-Kator
On May 25, a young woman was shot to death in Highland Park; another was attacked and shot in Detroit. Both victims were reported by police to be “commercial sex workers.” In response, and because of concern for others in their situation, the Victim Services advocates at the Triangle Foundation issued a press release urging transgender women to exercise extreme caution.
What happened next is puzzling. E-mails began coming to Triangle with a common theme, saying, “The first thing they can do to protect themselves is to not be sex workers,” or,
“These folks need help, not support of their activities. I question the mental stability of anyone who transgenders and then seeks prostitution as a means of income.”
Five years ago, in Detroit, a young African-American transgender woman was shot in the head and killed. She, too, was a sex worker. The conversations I heard then were strikingly similar to those of today: “If she hadn’t been doing that, if she hadn’t been where she was, she wouldn’t be dead.”
It shocks me how quick we are to judge another person, to condemn someone when we’ve never walked in their shoes. We in the LGBT community should know better than most what it is like to be judged or misunderstood. From that, I hope we have learned compassion.
Perhaps these women were forced into this line of work, perhaps not. We do know that countless transgender women – one of the most marginalized groups in our society – turn to sex work for survival. Detroit is one of the leading centers of unemployment in the nation, and unemployment among African-American Detroiters is higher still. It doesn’t take a great deal of awareness to understand that transgender women, who have often been forced to leave home before they can even get through high school, have the highest unemployment rate of all. How do you get and keep a decent job when your very existence is anathema to many people, there are no laws to protect you and the only legal identification you have says you are not who you say you are?
But whether someone chooses or is forced to work the streets should make no difference in our compassion for them when they are victims of deadly violence. They were brutally attacked by someone who had something against them – perhaps the perpetrators despised their line of work, perhaps they hate transgender people, or perhaps they just hate queers. What difference does it make? They have a hate inside of them sufficient to convince them to shoot another human being to death.
We should all be outraged. But, let us be outraged at this violence, not at the victims. Whatever the hate, whatever its source, it is another attack on one of our family. To lay the blame for a person’s violent death on his or her own actions is no different than saying that a gay bashing is the victim’s fault because he or she shouldn’t have been acting so openly gay. The murderers of Matthew Sheppard made that argument. We didn’t accept it then; we should not accept it now. Please, let us display our compassion, and not our judgment.
Denise E. Brogan-Kator is the board president of the Triangle Foundation. To comment on this column, e-mail [email protected]