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Trans Violence in Detroit Is All Too Common. These Advocates Are Working to Change the Narrative.

How local orgs, dedicated community leaders keep hope alive

By |2022-11-07T15:17:07-05:00November 7th, 2022|Michigan, News|

Hayden Davis. DeDe Ricks. Ray Muscat. Naomi Skinner. Four lives lost to violence in the Detroit area in 2022. Other than the abrupt and horrifying way their lives were lost — to homicide — they all had something in common: identifying as transgender. 

It’s not the only common thread. Each of the victims left behind a broken family and a network of people who loved and cared about them. Each had interests and identities encompassing a world beyond personal pronouns and the political warfare being waged across America against the trans community. 

Hayden Davis, 28, regaled her Instagram followers with her takes on fashion and the ever-scandalous Kardashians. Ray Muscat, 24, loved his cat, Milo. Naomi Skinner, 25, loved her “fabulous life,” said her grieving sister, Shycuria Harris. Not much is publicly known about DeDe Ricks, 33, except that she was from Ohio and that she, too, was murdered in Detroit. 

The latest victims of trans violence in Southeast Michigan were more than talking points or statistics, but their deaths will be included in a list of disturbing trends, nonetheless. 

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reports that 57 trans people (mostly Black trans women) were murdered in the United States in 2021 (officially — HRC says many of these crimes are underreported). Internationally, Forbes reports, 375 transgender individuals were murdered in 2021. 

As the year comes to a close, the U.S. total of trans murders for 2022 is 30 (again, mostly Black trans women), but, as a survey conducted by National Center for Transgender Equality in 2016 revealed, many trans people — nearly 70% of respondents — said they would be unwilling to reach out for help from police if they were to experience violence. It’s an unsurprising statistic when the ugly truth is that even in 2022, an untold number of murders are left unclassified as trans homicides when victims are deadnamed and their trans identities ignored by police and, often, the media. 

Detroit’s highly visible efforts to curb trans violence 

Trans violence knows no geographical boundary, but Detroit is unique to many other U.S. cities in how it is dedicating resources to changing the narrative. 

In her role as LGBT Liaison, Detroit Police Corporal Danielle “Dani” Woods has long been a supportive force in the department and the city at large, helping to link police resources to an umbrella of other LGBTQ-supportive local resources. 

In some places, an entity like the Detroit Police Department’s LGBTQ Community Council, a group of advocates that provide outreach to the community under the guidance of Corporal Woods, might stand as little more than lip service, but here, real work is being done. One case in point is representation. 

It’s one thing to claim to represent trans voices in the vital conversations happening at the city and state level, but it’s another to center actual trans voices when tackling issues impacting a community. Both the Council and the Detroit Police Department include trans members, Woods tells Pride Source. “This creates an intersection where community and law enforcement can work together to maintain and grow a relationship with the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. That relationship paves the way for a continuous collaboration and opens an avenue for addressing dissension between police and the community.”

Wood stresses that her stance is not for there to be preferential treatment to LGBTQ+ community members. Her goal, she said, is “equality across the board and surety that our community is treated respectfully and with dignity as human beings, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.” One of Wood’s key duties is providing LGBTQ+ sensitivity, awareness and diversity training to officers and civilian members of the police department. 

Woods cited several specific ways the Council is working to affect change in public and not-so-public ways. 

The Council makes an effort to be visible in the community, hosting events like coat and holiday food drives, a visibility bike ride, a community “family reunion” picnic and publicly supporting events like the Motor City Pride Parade. 

Behind the scenes, the Council has made moves like placing LGBTQ+ advocates in the Major Crimes division and working to create policies around topics like using accurate gender-identity markers (including pronouns) within systems at the police department, courts, jails, businesses and organizations. The Council also advocates for policy that fosters respect for sexual orientation. 

Trans voices are integral to this work. Ultimately, Woods said, “Our trans community is part of the conversation, has a seat at the table and has a voice and platform to ensure that any specific need from their police department, city government or community is met — and heard.” 

The Detroit Mayor’s Office also allocates resources to LGBTQ+ advocacy. Mayor’s Office Liaison Brad Dick is the senior adviser to the LGBT employee resource groups and serves on the boards of several organizations working to “make sure that crimes like the tragic and senseless killing of trans women do not happen,” he wrote in an email to Pride Source. 

Dick views his role in tandem with people like Woods and other City of Detroit advocates. Together, he said, they are engaged in a shared goal: ensuring the city is a safe place for all, including LGBTQ+ residents and visitors. 

Community advocacy plays a key role

Outside the walls of City Hall and the Detroit Police Headquarters, the impact of crimes like trans homicides hits differently. Viewed through a wider lens, the efforts being made at the city level are indeed important, even vital, but when another murder hits the news, the shockwaves reverberate through the trans community at an individual level. 

People like Laura Jadwin-Cakmak, research director of the Resilience + Resistance Collective at the University of Michigan, are working to pinpoint those individual impacts. To that end, the Collective often partners with the Trans Sistas of Color Project

Jadwin-Cakmak said Black trans people in Detroit are “absolutely” aware about the frequent violent crimes committed against Black trans people — Black trans women, especially. These crimes are not new, but she said increased media attention is. “This awareness in the media and among trans communities is because of long community activism and political and media advocacy by Black and brown trans women in Detroit,” she said. 

Jadwin-Cakmak points to organizations like Trans Sistas of Color Project, which, under the guidance of longtime advocate Lilianna Reyes, provides direct services and resources like emergency funds, self-defense training and psychosocial support programs. Trans women of color in Detroit also routinely partner with police and prosecutors to increase reporting and prosecution of crimes against trans people.

Despite the work being done to protect trans lives, “the threat of violence is ever-present for many of the Black and brown trans women I’ve spoken with,” Jadwin-Cakmak said. “Folks are aware of their surroundings and prepare self-defense strategies, [and] check in with each other to make sure they are safe.”

Initiatives like the Love Her Collective, a community-academic partnership with the Trans Sistas of Color Project, connect women with mental health and trauma resources. The collective’s Kicking It with the Gurlz helps trans women of color heal from trauma through group sessions and individual peer counseling. 

Rachel Crandall Crocker, executive director of Transgender Michigan, says her group believes in bringing the community together to support each other. To that end, the organization offers peer help groups and events like a recent Halloween celebration that coincided with Transgender Michigan’s 25th anniversary and Rachel’s 25th birthday (as Rachel). “All our events are so people won’t have to be lonely by themselves,” she notes. “They are joyous events.” 

While Transgender Michigan is often at the forefront of political and social issues, Crandall Crocker says the social events serve an equally important purpose: providing a safe place for people to just “be” and to see the larger community of assistance available to them.

Another local organization, Stand with Trans, hosted its third annual Trans Empowerment Month in October, themed “THRIVE 365.” Trangender and non-binary youth and young adults up to age 24 participated in workshops, panels and performances in person and online aimed at helping this community “live their best lives,” according to a news release. 

TGDetroit’s annual TransFUSION convention is another example of how organizations are working to lift up the trans community while educating society at large. The annual event, as Pride Source reported in August, focuses on empowerment, self-love and the power of simply existing as individuals in public. This year, event organizers took around 100 attendees to MGM Grand Casino in downtown Detroit, where, by the end of the night, the women were dancing together with the mainstream crowd. 

Looking ahead, it’s challenging to imagine a Detroit that feels truly safe at all times for trans community members, but this is one issue where individual contributions are making a measurable impact. In so many ways, it all comes down to three simple, critical facts that remain true whether detractors acknowledge it or not: Trans people exist, are loved, and their lives matter.  

About the Author:

Sarah Bricker Hunt, a proud Eastern Michigan University alum, is a freelance writer and editor who dabbles in a little of everything.
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