It took a public outcry after she was overlooked for the annual “Time 100: The 100 Most Influential People” list, but transgender activist Laverne Cox is on the cover of Time magazine this week. The Orange Is the New Black star took the opportunity to talk about her struggles but also to warn America about violence against the LGBT community.
“We have to look at the intersection of race and gender to stop violence,” Cox told Time, adding that the homicide rate for the LGBT community is highest among trans women of color.
The attention couldn’t have come at a better time. A report released Thursday by the advocacy group National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that physical incidents of hate violence against the LGBT community are on the rise nationally, with a 21 percent increase in the number of incidents in 2013, compared with 2012.
Cox is right: In 2013, 12 of 18 anti-LGBT murder victims were transgender women of color.
This tide of violence has claimed victims all over the country, but three cases in New York City alone tell the tale. A year ago this month, a 32-year-old gay man was shot and killed in the city’s streets after being called “faggot” and “queer” by his assailants. Last May, blocks from Times Square, Eugene Lovendusky, a gay man who cofounded LGBT rights group Queer Rising, was assaulted after a 19-year-old man tormented him with homophobic slurs. He was not seriously injured. Months later, transgender woman Islan Nettles was beaten to death on the sidewalk near a Harlem police precinct, after being called “she-male” by her attackers.
“The severity of violence we’re seeing is increasing,” said Osman Ahmed, a research and education coordinator for the advocacy group that studied the violence.
In 2013, incidents of physical violence totalled 460, as opposed to 381 in 2012, Ahmed said, adding, “Of course, this is alarming.”
Despite the increase in violence, LGBT survivors of hate attacks were far less likely to report their assaults to police than they were in previous years, the report found. Only 45 percent of survivors reported their incidents to the police, down from 56 percent the year prior.
“There remains a lack of cultural competency by law enforcement agencies in dealing with LGBT communities,” he said. “These are communities that have historically been criminalized by police. The transgender community in particular has suffered bias motivated violence from police.”
Condom laws, for instance, in which police are allowed to use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, have often been used to arrest transgender women—particularly transgender women of color. The mistrust born of these interactions makes an already vulnerable population even more susceptible to violence.
Of the incidents that were reported to police, only 24 percent were characterized as bias crimes, potentially further damaging relations between the LGBT community and law enforcement. That’s a huge drop from 2012, when police characterized 77 percent of attacks against LGBT targets as bias crimes.
Aside from fear of law enforcement, many victims of acts of violence do not report them because the victim and the perpetrator know each other. Unlike the random acts of violence that made news last year, the majority of anti-LGBT hate crimes occur behind closed doors.
“There’s a common misconception that hate violence only takes place in the streets,” said Ahmed. “This year, we saw that 47 percent of hate violence offenders knew their victims. It’s your coworkers. It’s your landlord. It’s your neighbors. Sometimes it’s your family.”
Improved relations with law enforcement could also help reveal this closeted violence—in which the word of victims is often pitted against the word of their attackers.
Despite the rise in violence and the impediments to curbing it, Ahmed said he remains optimistic. “What makes me hopeful is that there are a lot of people in law enforcement working with [anti-LGBT violence] partner organizations, trying to make this situation better. We do see improvements year-to-year in how police react to these communities.”
Just this month, the New York Police Department finally vowed to stop using condoms as evidence of sex work.
“That progress is uplifting,” said Ahmed. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”