April has been a cruel month for North Carolina’s transgender community.
The General Assembly has debated bills that would exclude them from sports teams, bar them from receiving gender-transforming surgery before they’re 21, and allow doctors to discriminate against them.
Now the community is also mourning the murder of two young, Black trans women in Charlotte.
These crises are linked, LGBTQ advocates say. Anti-transgender rhetoric and legislation drives the rising violence in North Carolina and nationwide against transgender people, many of whom already face staggering health and social inequities.
“Being a Black trans woman in America means you’re far more likely to experience inequities and prejudice, including extreme poverty and systemic, state-sanctioned violence and murder,” said Rebby Kern, director of education policy for Equality NC, at a press conference this week.
“The Black transgender and gender-nonconforming community experiences unemployment twice as a high as the rate for non-Black transgender people and four times as high as cisgender people,” Kern said. “They experience houselessness at a rate five times higher than cisgender people and experience poverty at a rate eight times higher than cisgender people.”
The recent violent deaths of the two Black transgender women reveal a larger, ongoing crisis.
Jaida Peterson was found shot to death in a Quality Inn & Suites near Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Easter Sunday. She was 29.
Remy Fennel was also fatally shot. She was found early on the morning of April 15 in a room at the Sleep Inn in Charlotte’s University City. She was 28.
In a statement last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they weren’t sure whether the two murders are connected. But they said both women were sex workers and issued a warning to “members of the LGBTQ community engaged in sex work to exercise extreme caution and immediately report anything suspicious by calling 9-1-1.”
Early this week, police arrested and charged two men with the murders. But the police handling of the cases, and the lack of attention to the community’s needs, show two arrests do little to protect the safety of transgender people.
At a press conference this week, LGBTQ advocates said the lives of women like Peterson and Fennel should not be dismissively reduced to sad stories of sex workers who met violent ends. Nor, they said, can the community begin to address the true crisis without acknowledging the conditions and environment that leads to the targeting of transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.
“This crisis did not start a few days ago with the murder of Jaida and Remy, who should still be here today,” said Nada Merghani, programs manager for Charlotte Pride and co-founder of Feed The Movement. “And it will not end with the apprehension of two of the many killers and perpetrators of violence against Black trans women and girls. We must acknowledge this crisis of transphobia and begin working collectively to support them and provide true pathways for personal safety, upward mobility, and economic stability.”
Last year, at least 44 transgender people were killed, according to tracking by the Human Rights Campaign; so far this year, at least 15 have been. At least six Black trans women died by violence in Charlotte since 2016, according to the same tracking. That makes it the second deadliest city in the nation for transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
The true number is likely much higher. Transgender victims are frequently misgendered in death as they so often are in life.
Many transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, face employment discrimination from which they have no legal protections in North Carolina. They are denied economic and educational opportunities. They are discriminated against in housing and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. For many experiencing homelessness, engaging in sex work and living in temporary housing like low-cost hotels are day-to-day realities. The economic pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that worse.
This week, the Campaign for Southern Equality, Charlotte Pride, Equality NC, and Transcend Charlotte committed $10,000 to support housing, food and other emergency needs for the transgender community in Charlotte.
The organizations are also challenging the larger community to match their donations, raising an additional $10,000. Funds will go directly to the local grassroots organizations like Charlotte Uprising, Feed the Movement, and House of Kanautica, which provide direct services to Black trans women in Charlotte.
That support will help some transgender people who are struggling to meet basic needs in Charlotte, but it’s a small step on a long journey, advocates said.
An environment that encourages hatred
Elena Rose Vera, executive director of Trans Lifeline, said she’s been thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has given people a glimpse of what life is like for many transgender people.
“We’ve all gotten a little bit of a taste of how hard it is to be apart from one another,” Vera said. “When we do go out, we’re treated as dangerous by the people we meet. Many of us have experienced for the first time this year what it’s like to have people cross the street when they see you or pull their kids and their dogs away from you like you’re contagious.”
“Many of you for the first time have had to endure your basic medical health and well-being determined by politicians and TV pundits and your least thoughtful neighbors instead of you and your doctors and your trusted loved ones,” Vera said.
For transgender people, especially those who are young, this has been the reality since well before the current pandemic.
“All of these things that everyone has been experiencing together — this pain and isolation and loss — this is what our young people have been dealing with for years and years,” Vera said.
That has eased a bit as transgender visibility and education about gender identity has gotten better, Vera said. But the current political moment, in which transgender rights are being assailed by a wave of legislation filed by Republicans nationwide, is making a bad situation much worse.
At a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday night, transgender activists and experts addressed the hostile environment created by a slate of legislation aimed at transgender people — particularly transgender youth.
“These bills that have been put forward affect the mental well-being and physical well-being of each of us,” said Dr. Kate Whetten, director of the Center for Health Policy & Inequalities Research at the Duke Global Health Institute. “We know know that when bills like this are put forward, even having them out there really are directly related to people saying, ‘Yeah, I can go hurt someone, I can shoot someone, I can rape someone. It’s okay I can bully someone. It’s acceptable.’”
Studies have shown immediate increases in hate-fueled violence when discriminatory bills kick off public policy debates on LGBTQ issues, Whetten said.
“As gay marriage passed, you immediately saw decreases in anxiety in sexual and gender minorities broadly, whether they wanted to get married or not,” Whetten said. “When you saw those policies repealed, we saw increases in mental health needs. Those then also translate into chronic diseases.”
LGBTQ people now live in an environment in which their lives, rights and identities are constantly being debated, politicized and negotiated, Whetten said. That sort of stress and related behavioral reactions lead directly to worse health outcomes including higher rates of substance abuse, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
“Having these sorts of bills introduced, let alone pass, is already hurting who we are,” Whetten said. “We can fight back. But it’s really hard.”
This week a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said Senate Bill 514 — the controversial bill that would prohibit treatment for transgender people under 21 — will not come to a vote.
But that isn’t because the General Assembly’s Republican majority rejects it on principle.
“We do not see a pathway to Senate Bill 514 becoming law,” Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told Charlotte radio station WFAE.
Gov. Roy Cooper would almost certainly have vetoed the bill, and Republicans no longer have the numbers in the General Assembly to overturn his veto without Democratic support. Given how extreme the bill is — going further in targeting transgender youth than other similar bills filed across the country so far this year — that support was unlikely.
The bill would also have required state employees, including teachers and counselors, to inform parents in writing if they had knowledge of a minor who exhibits “gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor’s sex.”
Gender nonconformity can include anything from young men who paint their nails and young women who prefer to dress in clothes traditionally considered masculine, to non-binary and gender-fluid people who do not identify strongly as male or female. The bill would require those children’s teachers and counselors to report them to their parents if they “exhibit symptoms” of gender nonconformity, even if they do not consider themselves transgender.
The bill also seeks to legally protect so-called “conversion therapy,” a scientifically discredited practice that attempts to “cure” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The practice, which research has repeatedly found causes depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, has been banned in 20 states.
Taken together, these provisions would establish a legal mandate to identify and report children who might be transgender, prevent their parents and doctors from making medical decisions about their care, and legally protect methods of “curing” them that have been established to be harmful.
That bill’s demise is cause for celebration, Whetten said. But its introduction makes it clear to transgender people, and especially transgender youth, just how much of a threat lawmakers consider them. Had Republicans in North Carolina maintained their once veto-proof majority, the bill might be on its way to becoming law, as similar bills have in other states. Two other anti-trans bills — one which would let doctors refuse to treat transgender people and another which would exclude transgender women from women’s sports teams — still appear to be alive this legislative session.
In a hearing last week, transgender people across the state watched as proponents of a banning transgender women from sports repeatedly called them “biological men” — a rhetorical choice advocates said is particularly damaging.
Kern points out that except in footnotes or quotes from other sources, the trio of anti-trans bills do not even use the word “transgender.”
“They have to use this this incredibly aggressive, harmful language that is attempting to create who we are,” Kern said.
Transgender people have to craft their own narratives, Kern said.
That attitude is working, Kern said. In the face of so much opposition in the last few years, transgender people are now seeing themselves reflected in places they never did — in popular music, television shows, movies and government from local boards to federal appointments and the United States congress.
Diego Sanchez, director of Advocacy, Policy & Partnerships for PFLAG National, said he has to remember that when facing such strong opposition.
“What we have to remember is the reason we’re a target is because we’re visible, because we’re strong,” Sanchez said. “Because we have a strong place and people who love us who have power. If no one near us had power and if we had no power, we would be drawing no attention.”