Partners Prey on Transgender Women Who Struggle to Escape Domestic Violence

In January alone, three transgender women of color were murdered.

A sidewalk memorial for Yazmin Vash Payne in Van Nuys, California. (Photo: Facebook)

Feb 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

While most Americans were caught up in Super Bowl festivities this past Sunday, a group of Southern California LGBT supporters spent the evening mourning a recent loss in their community. Bearing flowers, candles, and posters demanding action, dozens stood outside the apartment of Yazmin Vash Payne, a transgender woman of color, who was killed in her Van Nuys home on Jan. 31.

Yazmin Vash Payne. (Photo: Courtesy CBSlocal.com)

It’s long been understood by experts that transgender women of color face a higher rate of discrimination and violence than the rest of the LGBT community—from deaths that result from strangers taunting them in the street to transphobic comments that are often tinged with misogyny and racism, too.

Payne’s death marks the third murder of a trans woman of color in the first month of 2015. Trans women of color represented 67 percent of LGBTQ-motivated murders in 2013, according to a National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.

“The level of violence targeting transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, is a national crisis that the LGBT movement has a responsibility to confront,” said Chad Griffin, president of LGBT rights group Human Rights Campaign, one day before Payne was found stabbed to death. He was referring to the recent unsolved shooting deaths of two other transgender women of color, Lamia Beard and Ty Underwood.

In 2014, there were 13 reported murders of transgender people; all of the victims were women, and only one was white. Alarmingly, not a single murder was reported until June last year. Some quick math indicates that violence toward the group could be growing at an alarming rate. But the numbers may not tell the whole story.

“What looks like an increase in murders of transgender women may actually be an increase in our awareness of these crimes,” Beth Sherouse, an HRC spokeswoman, told TakePart. “Because victims are often misgendered by police and press—even families—tracking trends over time is extremely difficult.”

Whether the rise is in incidents or awareness, three deaths in one month indicate dire circumstances, and a pattern that extends beyond hate crimes and random violence.

Especially because Payne’s murder wouldn’t be categorized as a hate crime—it was domestic abuse. Her live-in boyfriend, Ezekiel Dear, confessed to the murder and turned himself in to LAPD custody two days after he killed Payne, according to LA Weekly.

But the culmination of mistreatment that Payne likely faced in multiple aspects of her life goes hand in hand with the abusive relationship that resulted in her death.

Transgender people are 1.9 times more likely than the rest of the LGBT community to experience physical violence from an intimate relationship.

“The safety nets that are designed to help women—like domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers—often discriminate against women who are transgender,” said Sherouse. As many as 29 percent of transgender people seeking help from a shelter were turned away, according to a 2011 study cited by the HRC. An additional 47 percent reported leaving emergency housing due to unfair treatment.

Many transgender women also avoid calling the cops for help, fearing disrespect, harassment, or violence.

Without assistance from shelters, crisis centers, or police, there’s nowhere left to turn. These women are made even more vulnerable considering that transgender people of color are between seven and eight times more likely to live in poverty than the general public, and 57 percent have reported suicide attempts.

The pipeline to poverty starts way back in grade school, according to the HRC and Trans People of Color Coalition’s joint report published last month. School dropouts due to bullying, coupled with countless and expensive barriers to receive identification documents that match a transgender person’s gender expression, impede finding gainful employment.

And don’t forget about the discrimination they’re likely to face when trying to find a job or place to live, even with proper ID and a higher education.

The HRC and Trans People of Color Coalition recommend a holistic approach to address discrimination in all areas of life that lead to poverty and violence. They’re calling on educators to create safe school environments that promote learning without exclusion. They request that federal agencies prohibit discrimination in emergency housing. And they’re asking for an overhaul of police response policies that favor using proper pronouns and investigations into violent crimes against transgender people.

The road to change is a long one, and discrimination won’t just evaporate overnight.

“There’s not one easy fix,” said Sherouse. “This is going to be an ongoing struggle, and these calls to action are just a place to start.”