In high school, I had a fierce Black transgender classmate, who at 16, strutted down the halls with the best designer bags, hair, and nails. Watching her live her truth despite the snickering and attempts to snuff out her joy inspired me to live more comfortably in my own skin. I came out to my friends as gay not long after meeting her. At our 10-year high school reunion in 2015, I asked about her. I was hoping deep down that I could tell her how much she impacted my life and that I was now full-time working for LGBTQ+/Same Gender Loving (SGL) equality and equity. I never got the chance to tell her. I learned from another classmate that my transgender classmate moved from Tampa, Fla., to Miami shortly after we graduated and was murdered. Back then, mainstream media didn't cover the deaths of Black transgender women. Such deaths didn't even make the local news.
When I knew her, my high school classmate hadn't undergone the steps to physically transition that some transgender people choose later in life. She was often misunderstood or subject to abuse caused by people who insisted on putting her into strict gender boxes and stereotypes. This kind of abuse only serves to uphold misogyny (prejudice against women), patriarchy (a system where men have sole power over women), and white supremacy (the belief that the white race is superior and should dominate all others).
As I read the recently released annual FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report, thoughts of the harassment my transgender classmate faced as a teenager came back to me. My heart broke, knowing she likely faced even worse treatment as a young adult and was eventually killed for living her truth. Even with a large number of counties refusing to submit hate crimes data, our nation saw an alarming 18 percent increase in crimes committed against people just because they refuse to conform to visual stereotypes of their gender. This year has also seen the highest number of transgender people killed because of acts of violence in one year — and we still have almost another month to go.
The incomplete 2019 FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report also shows that nearly 17 percent of all hate crimes targeted people because of their sexual orientation, including an increase in anti-bisexual hate crimes. Most disturbingly, nearly 50 percent of all reported hate crimes were committed against Black or African American people. This data combined with that of the LGBTQ+/SGL community shows that more work needs to be done to protect all Black people and to continue to fight for accurate data from every law enforcement agency in the nation. The disproportionately high number of hate crimes committed against Black, Jewish, Latinx, and Muslim people are likely evidence of the rise of far-right white supremacist ideals that we have seen from both individuals and coordinated groups in this country.
Throughout our nation's history, we have seen acts of domestic terrorism pass without justice for the victims or their families. It is telling that over a century after civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells' first national anti-lynching campaign, we still have not passed federal anti-lynching legislation. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 signed into law by President Barack Obama was a great first step. However, there is more work to be done to ensure that people who want to cause harm to others think twice due to the consequences of their actions under the law.
The lack of reporting by so many local law enforcement agencies shows that some agencies do not see protecting people from hate crimes as important. The low number of arrested and jailed murderers and attackers of Black LGBTQ+/SGL people also shows the lack of interest in making true the ideal that all lives matter and reminds us why the Black Lives Matter movement exists to begin with. Some law enforcement agencies are not only indifferent to Black lives when murdered by their own but also when it is done by others.
There is a glimmer of light. In Philadelphia, we have seen that prioritizing justice for Black trans women is possible. The city's law enforcement agency has made it a point to highlight that they both report hate crimes against our community and they work hard to identify and arrest the perpetrators. For these statistics to decrease, Philadelphia's actions in this instance must become the norm, not the exception.
One of the ways that our systems fail our community is that the FBI and law enforcement agencies can have different definitions of what qualifies as a hate crime. Data submission is also voluntary, meaning the data is incomplete and there is no organization or mechanism at the federal level that tracks hate crimes nationally.
There must be a policy at the federal level that requires all law enforcement agencies to track hate crimes and then report the information they find to the federal government. Clear and consistent federal policy should be supported by state and local efforts to ensure accurate and complete data collection and reporting. Data matters. Not knowing the full scope of the problem prevents us from coming up with comprehensive solutions. This is echoed in the inability to easily access data on harm caused by the way two or more identities merge together — a Black, transgender woman is one example. Getting a precise understanding of the context of the crimes and the people and motives involved allows us all to create better solutions to minimize the number of hate crimes that occur. One thing is clear, we need more accountability and justice when Black lives are taken, including those of us who are LGBTQ+/SGL.
November 20th was Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance that honors the memory of transgender people who were killed in anti-transgender violence. This year, we had more names to remember and uplift than ever before due to lives taken by hate and bias, in addition to those taken by the two pandemics of COVID-19 and systematic racism. Black transgender women and those who refuse to conform to gender stereotypes have been attacked and murdered at increased rates because of the way their identities as both Black and transgender/gender-nonconforming people intersect and show up in the world. Sadly, too many deaths are at the hands of other Black people. There are internal conversations about gender and sexuality that need to happen with more regularity and authenticity in our community to stop the harm, assaults, and death. Although missing important data, the FBI's Hate Crimes report underscores the importance of our advocacy and continued vigilance as Black LGBTQ+/SGL people to ensure justice for people like my classmate, who was taken far too soon, and too many others.
Victoria Kirby York, MPA is the deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, America's leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ+/SGL) people, including people living with HIV.