On a snowy afternoon last winter, I attended a meeting for Two Spirit activists and allies – those who, in Native American communities, are bearers of both male and female spirits. The group was meeting in South Dakota, where the state legislature was considering a discriminatory bill to restrict transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms.
Jamie, an energetic 28-year-old who had just moved to Sioux Falls from the Pine Ridge reservation across the state, told me about some of the discrimination she’d faced after coming out as transgender in her early teens. In high school, she’d been harassed by other girls who wouldn’t let her use the girls’ restroom, and in college, she’d been kicked out of an all-female class. Jamie came to the meeting after hearing of comments by a state senator who called transgender people “twisted” and said they needed psychological help.
On January 6, almost a year after that meeting, Jamie’s body was found in her apartment in Sioux Falls with multiple stab wounds, making her the second transgender woman of color to be a victim of homicide this year.
At least 26 transgender people were murdered in the US in the first 11 months of 2016 – more than ever recorded in a single year. Globally, there were almost 300 recorded murders of transgender people, with the US ranking third behind only Brazil and Mexico.
Transgender women of color like Jamie are at an especially high risk of violence, facing transphobia, sexism, and racism. Often, they are also socially and economically marginalized. The laws of most US states do not explicitly protect transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, or credit, leaving them acutely vulnerable.
In Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, lawmakers are again seeking to limit transgender people’s access to bathrooms and locker rooms, often by painting them as predators and stoking fear among the public. At the federal level, it is unlikely that protecting transgender rights will be a priority these next four years, and advocates fear that existing protections in education, healthcare, and housing will be reversed by the incoming administration.
The night I heard about Jamie’s death, I reread the notes I’d jotted down as we talked almost a year ago. One of the most heartbreaking was a quote about not understanding the intense hostility toward transgender people: “I’m really just trying to be a normal, productive citizen.”
Lawmakers across the United States have too often focused on stigmatizing and excluding transgender people instead of attempting to make the life that Jamie envisioned a reality. In 2017, that must change.