On February 23, Sumaya Ysl, a trans woman sex worker of color, was found murdered in Toronto. Ysl’s death has added to a growing list of trans women, most of them women of colour, who have been lost to violence in North America this year. The confirmed number currently stands at eight.
Just a few days earlier, Latina trans woman Kristina Gomez Reinwald was found murdered in her home, reportedly stabbed by her boyfriend. A few days earlier, B Golec was killed by their own father in Ohio and Penny Proud was murdered in New Orleans. In early February, Yazmin Vash Payne and Taja DeJesus were both murdered in California. Lamia Beard in Virginia and Ty Underwood in Texas were both killed in late January.
In the few media reports that have given attention to this spate of murders, several have misgendered the victims and further stigmatised them by focusing on reported criminal records of some, or by implying that they must be sex workers, purely because they were found in an area known for prostitution. The New Orleans website NOLA.com reported on the death of Penny Proud by calling her a man. In a video, reporter Prescotte Stokes III focused on the area Proud was killed and neighbors’ complaints about “drug addicts and transsexual prostitutes hanging out around their homes late at night.” Following an interview with Stokes at Buzzfeed News, and condemnation from experts in media ethics, the report was edited to identify Proud as a woman.
In an interview with MTV.com, Katrina Goodlett, Co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, said that the sheer number of deaths — though nothing new in a long history of transphobic and racially charged violence — has put their community in “a state of emergency.”
When a false gender or name is reported, Goodlett told MTV, it’s a final insult to the deceased. “It’s violence, essentially … for a trans woman of color to see the murders of their sisters, friends and families and then to see the media mis-gender and use transphobic language? It is violence. There’s no peace when you’re mis-gendered.”
In a post at her website, bestselling author Janet Mock reflected upon the past year in which (due to Laverne Cox’s TIME cover; Monica Jones’ trial for prostitution-related charges, and her own best-selling memoir Redefining Realness) trans women of colour achieved the highest level of media attention in US history. Mock writes:
“But cultural representation is just one piece of the social justice pie, and we must be clear about one thing: Trans women of color have had one year of visibility in the media, after decades of erasure (think about how many times historians, archivists, filmmakers or books mention the revolutionary work of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson or Miss Major Griffin-Gracy). It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling.
“We are not existing in a fairytale where the very recent successes of a few individuals … could quickly and radically transform the lives of our sisters who are resisting in already struggling communities, who are navigating poverty, homelessness, and joblessness while also facing high medical and educational costs, police profiling and incarceration as well as HIV/AIDS, the risks of underground economies as well as the looming threat and reminders of violence.”