Ghosts of D.C.: Violence Against Trans Women In The Nation’s Capital

Over the past few months, trans women in the Washington, D.C. area have been targeted for violence and hate crimes. Since July alone, there have been four reported shootings of trans women in the D.C. area, as well as multiple other reports of crime towards them. Back in mid-August, Kenneth Furr, an off-duty cop, drunkenly fired his gun into a car, leaving its passengers, three trans women and two young men, injured. The incident came fresh off the heels of the still unsolved death of Lashai McLean, a twenty-three year old woman who was walking home from The Wanda Alston House, a home for LGBTQ youth and project for Transgender Health Empowerment. Eleven days later, in a distance that now seems ominous, a still unidentified male fired a shot at Tonya Harell, barely missing her, one block from where McLean was shot.


Image courtesy and copyright of TransGriot. February 2009.

Early Sunday morning, another unidentified trans woman was found dead in D.C., in what is being treated as a suspicious attack and potential homicide, just days after another incident, where a twenty-year-old was charged with assault with intent to kill, for the shooting of another trans woman. The woman is currently in stable condition after being shot in the neck. If the city had been ready to write this off as just another death, an unrelated, yet telling incident brought into focus the frightening pattern of violence when police arrested a man in south D.C. after he threatened three trans women with a gun, merely an hour after police had found the unidentified woman.

These incidents only further cement the fact that D.C. has been overlooking the widespread violence against trans women for quite some time now, a point that can be backed up with the six open homicide cases with victims who were all transgender. The rash of these crimes are bringing into the light of day that these women are a target for violence and often systematically overlooked and ignored. However, just because the city has acknowledged that this violence is now something they should be aware of, it does not mean that the trans community is left feeling any more secure or confident that they will be taken seriously.

“The transgender community is now in crisis,” said Ruby Corado, in a press conference with fellow activist Earline Budd. Both addressed the startling number of attacks aimed at trans women over the past year. “”¦You become a target, your property is taken away from you, you’re beaten because there is this perception you are not as valuable as the rest of society. And then the tip of the iceberg, you get killed.” Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham, who has been involved in several of the cases across D.C issued a statement saying, “We don’t seem to have a pattern here”¦Unfortunately, members of the transgender community are victims of crimes on an all-too-frequent basis”¦ I think those have received a little bit more attention over the last couple of days.” A tepid understatement and moreover, an overwhelming denial, it is concerning that even with the sparse amount of data that is collected from these crimes, D.C. ranks as the city with the highest rate of violence against trans women in the nation. While Newsham’s claim is highly problematic, he further added that the department “will not tolerate task force members who do not take these types of crimes seriously.” “If they are treated inappropriately … bring it to our attention and we will deal with that, because we’re not going to tolerate that as a police department.”

The violence against most of these women, while often a product of bias or hate towards their identities, also comes from a swath mix of other social forces that deeply plague the D.C. area: poverty, rapid gentrification, racism, draconian drug laws targeted at POCs, police brutality, the failure of the legal system, and anti-sex work laws. All these things, combined with what writer and activist Julia Serano calls the backlash against the feminine, add to the stigmatization and brutalization of trans women:

The fact that transsexual women are often singled out to bear the brunt of our culture’s fascination with, and demonization of, transgenderism is a subject that has been ripe for feminist critique for about half a century now. Unfortunately, many feminists have been extraordinarily apathetic or antagonistic to the experiences and perspectives of transsexual women. In fact, the few non-trans feminists who have written about us in the past have usually based their theses upon the assumption that we are really “men” (not women), and that our physical transitions to female and our expressions of femininity represent an appropriation of female culture, symbolism, and bodies. Besides being disrespectful of the fact that we identify, live, and are treated by the world as women, such flawed approaches have overlooked an important opportunity to examine a far more relevant issue: the ways in which traditional sexism shapes popular assumptions about transsexual women and why so many people in our society feel threatened by the existence of “men who chose to become women”¦ Examining the societal-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity. Today, while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudice to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered to be fair game. The idea that masculinity is strong, tough, and natural while femininity is weak, vulnerable, and artificial continues to proliferate even among people who believe that women and men are equals. And in a world where femininity is so regularly dismissed, perhaps no form of gendered expression is considered to be more artificial and more suspect than male and transgender expressions of femininity.

In July, The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released their 2010 report on hate crimes, cementing the fact that transgender women of color experienced violence in rates that staggeringly outnumbered gay, lesbian, trans men and queer persons. Other startling facts included:

44% of LGBTQH murder victims were transgender women, yet only 11% of total reports came from transgender women. This continues a problematic trend from 2009 figures when 50% of LGBTQH murder victims were transgender women.

25.4% of transgender women did not make a report, compared to 19.1% of non-transgender women and 20.9% of non-transgender men.

48.3% of transgender people of color reported that police attitudes were indifferent, compared to 38% for overall survivors. Only 7.7% of non-transgender and white survivors experienced indifferent attitudes.

GBTQH people of color comprised 70% of all LGBTQH murder victims in 2010 but only represented 55% of total reports. This continues a disturbing trend from 2009 when people of color represented 79% of murder victims.

50.1% of survivors did not report to the police.

We’re not even sure a crime occurred, and it may not be a homicide,” said Captain Michael Farish of D.C.’s homicide division. While it is true that the victim’s death has yet to be confirmed as a homicide, the awaiting forensic reports will not ultimately fix what is a serious issue in the D.C. area. Furthermore, by denying that such a problem exists or that there is no pattern, it enforces the erasure of these women, denying their personhood and relegating them as ghosts, unreal things that the city or the police department, just don’t need to be concerned with.

“Folks feel like, ‘I can rob a transgender woman and kill, shoot, or harm her and at the end of the day, I am not gonna suffer any consequences,'” said Budd in a blunt response to the further scratching heads of the D.C. police department. If Budd needed any further proof of how serious this situation is, other than the track record of violence from 2010, all she would need to do is remind people of the vicious  2009 murder of “Nana Boo” Mack. Mack was stabbed to death in the middle of the day. Her murder is still unsolved.

“We do not need to be in a position because we come out in public, our lives are taken away,” Corado said.  In the wake of what is a shamefully violent time in the city of Washington D.C., there is no longer a reason to blindly turn away, to only half accept that there might be a problem. Much like ghosts, these women’s experiences are continually relegated to the realm of make-believe, that everyone is just “overreacting” and that these things just aren’t real. It’s all a ghost story. From Newsham’s words, you would get the impression that’s what they were hoping for: people who would hear these stories and think, there’s no such thing as that. But unfortunately, it’s all too very real.


*All data present is from the NCAVP’s 2010 report demonstrating that anti-LGBTQH violence remains widespread and severe in the United States. If you would like to help by making a donation to the following organizations, please click the following links. The Wanda Alston House, The DC Trans Coalition, and The Anti-Violence Project.




3 replies on “Ghosts of D.C.: Violence Against Trans Women In The Nation’s Capital”

Also there is this follow up to a Baltimore beating, from Colorlines:

“Five years.

That’s how long Teonna Brown, the 19-year-old who beat transwoman Chrissy Polis in a Baltimore-area McDonald’s while an employee videotaped and giggled, is going to spend in prison. Brown’s 14-year-old accomplice—who is also Internet-famous thanks to the YouTube posting of the brutal video—remains in juvenile detention.”

I would just like to note that the person who died on Saturday has been identified – there is more information here in The Washington Post:

I knew Gaurav, though not well, but zie was loved and will be greatly missed in the Washington, DC theatre community.

(I’ve used gender neutral pronouns here because what I have heard from people who knew zim is that Gaurav had recently begun presenting as female at times, but did not identify as transgender or female; however, I do not want to erase zir gender expression.)

Thank you so much for the follow up on Guarav. While I was researching the piece, there were definitely some questions on zie’s identity, one source going so far as to claim that zie was just in drag and was therefore mistaken as a trans woman, so there is always a danger in someone erasing the experience of someone who can no longer speak for themselves. I am sorry for your loss, as well as the surrounding communities and hope that the city begins to recognize that this is a problem.

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