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Hate-Crimes Against Transgender People Grow but Community Response Deepens

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The ten-year remembrance of Matthew Shepard’s murder is also the ten-year remembrance of Rita Hester’s.  Rita was a transgender woman from Boston, Massachusetts who was viciously stabbed to death on November 28, 1998.  Rita was murdered only one month after Matthew was brutally attacked and died in Laramie, Wyoming.

Rita Hester

Rita Hester

Rita’s murder prompted activist Gwen Smith to begin the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day which marks the many lives lost in the transgender community due to hatred and bias. This year, the Day of Remembrance will be observed on the 20th of November, although local observances vary.

In 2008, the transgender community and its allies suffered some of the highest incidents of violence against people targeted for their gender identity or expression. High-profile murders of transgender people and people targeted for their gender expression reached double digits as we lost Adolphus Simmons, Ashley Sweeney, Sanesha Stewart, Lawrence King, Simmie Williams, Ebony Whitaker, Angie Zapata, Jaylynn Namauu, Nakhia Williams, and most recently Ruby Molina. You can click here to learn more about their lives.

These people were multiracial, native Hawai’ian, Black, Latina, and white. They ranged in age from early teens to mid-40s and spanned the US from coast to coast.

In many of these cases GLAAD worked closely with the families and friends of the victims, forming responses to these senseless crimes. By meeting one-on-one with family members and local activists we helped to heighten awareness that hate crimes against transgender people still happen across the nation. Members of our staff strongly advocated for accurate and fair reporting on these murders, issuing Calls to Action against the papers that used dehumanizing language to describe Sanesha Stewart and Nakhia Williams after their deaths.

When hate crimes against transgender people are reported they are often sensationalized, as was the case with the brutal stabbing of Sanesha Stewart in the Bronx, New York. The New York Daily News used defamatory language to describe Sanesha by running the headline “Fooled john stabbed Bronx tranny” which not only used an offensive term, but also implied that she “fooled” the people in her life, a common attitude towards transgender victims.

New York Daily News reporters continuously used improper terminology and male pronouns in three separate articles despite numerous quotes from her neighbors and friends who used female pronouns.

When media refuse to use proper pronouns they further dehumanize the victims of hate crimes, as the murders of Jaylynn Namauu in Honolulu and Nakhia Williams in Louisville, Ky show.

Jaylynn’s murder generated two news reports both of which innacuratley referred to her as a “transvestite” and used male pronouns. GLAAD worked with the local organization Kulia na Mamo to ensure that the papers would refer to her as a woman and use female pronouns in future coverage.

GLAAD also reached out to the Kentucky Fairness Alliance to correct inaccurate coverage of Nakhia Williams’ death when initial reports used her birth name and male pronouns, and GLAAD later issued a Call to Action. However, no other outlets have covered Jaylynn’s death, and only one other publication, the Louisville Eccentric Observer, has covered Nakhia’s story.

Like so many other transgender victims of hate-crimes, their stories are at risk of being forgotten.

While local and national publications did cover the death of 15 year-old Lawrence King in Oxnard, Calif, few local papers covered the murder of 17 year-old Simmie Williams of Fort Lauderdale, Fla who died the day after Lawrence.

Simmie was a bright, energetic person who often wore dresses and makeup when out with friends. Our Media Field Strategy Team worked with Simmie’s mother, Denise King, to bring media attention and accuracy to the murder of her child.

When Angie Zapata from Greeley, Colorado was brutally murdered, the national news media did pick up her story, and papers all over the country turned a spotlight on the hatred that led to her death.  As with many hate crimes it took advocacy, this time by Colorado Anti-Violence Program, a local organization, and GLAAD, a national organization, for news media to give her story significant print space and responsible coverage.

Angie’s sister, Monica, recently wrote a beautiful op-ed about Angie’s life in The Denver Post that relayed how proud Monica was to have a transgender sister.

"My sister came to us as a family, when she was 15, to let us know she was a transgender person. I admired her for the bravery and courage it took to share, but it wasn't a surprise — I always really knew she was my little sister, and I loved her every bit for it.

[...]Angie was a transgender Colorado girl. But more than that, she was our sister, daughter, aunt and friend. Her murderer failed to see her as human, as a member of our family and our community"

The Denver Post also published an inclusive article that covered the commemoration of Angie’s 19th birthday party. Angie didn’t live long enough to reach 19, but her family and friends gathered that day to both mourn her absence and celebrate the beauty of her life.

The shock so many people felt about the absolute hatred of Angie’s killer brings back the shock we felt when Rita and Matthew were murdered. Ten years later hate crimes against  gay and transgender people are still pervasive, and they have yet to receive the level and depth of responsible media coverage that these crimes deserve.

These cases spotlight not only the violence that our community faces across the nation, but also the climate of intolerance that fuels that violence.  Until both our culture and our laws make it clear that violence against gay and transgender people is not okay, our nation will continue to be scarred by these horrific acts of violence.

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