2015 saw a surge in the number of transgender homicide victims in the United States. In fact, it was the most deadly year for transgender people on record. In November 2015, The Guardian published an article reporting that 21 transgender people were victims of homicide last year. But the discrepancies between official data collected by law enforcement agencies and the reports made by LGBT advocacy groups expose the social and political challenges of addressing violence targeting transgender people.
Congress defines a hate crime as “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” While the F.B.I. has been collecting data on hate crimes since 1992, it wasn’t until 2010 that the civil rights of transgender people became recognized and protected under federal law. In 2009, President Obama signed the Defense Authorization Act, a bill that includes the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It was the first report to include gender identity as a form of bias in hate crimes. Before the bill was passed gender bias was not included bias to qualify as a hate crime.
The F.B.I.’s annual report on hate crimes will be released this month and will include statistics collected between January 2015 and December 2015; it will be the first report to include gender identity as a form of bias in hate crimes. Non-government organizations have collected their own data. The Human Rights Campaign issued a report in 2015 called “Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence,” which echoed the findings published by The Guardian: At least 21 transgender people have been victims of fatal violence this year, the majority of whom were people of color.
The National Coalition of Anti Violence Program conducted its own study, and in its report, which uses a much broader definition of hate crimes, found 1,359 incidents against the LGBT community in 2014. According to the NCAVP, those numbers are down 32% from 2013, although it warns that the decrease is not indicative of a decline in violence against the LGBT community. It attributes it to a decrease in the number of reports to the two largest reporting NCAVP members: The New York Anti Violence Project and The Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The NCAVP is a national coalition whose mission is to “end all forms of violence against and within lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ), and HIV-affected communities.” According to the report cited above, at least 12 transgender people of color were killed in 2014, during what actress, television producer and LGBT advocate Laverne Cox called a “state of emergency.” The report puts what it calls “disproportionately severe violence” against transgender people, particularly of color, in the context of a year that also saw the introduction of “Religious Liberties” legislation.
In July 2014, President Obama signed an executive order outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for federal employees and contractors. Despite the federal order, Arizona passed a bill that allowed business owners to refuse service to people based on “religious freedom.” The Arizona law was eventually vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, although the Supreme Court did rule that a family owned company, Hobby Lobby, could deny certain reproductive coverage to its employees based on the owner’s religious beliefs. NCAVP believes this decision has far reaching implications about the status of protections and rights of transgender people, as well as other members of the LGBT community.
In 2015, gender identity became protected under federal law (this because the F.B.I. is now required to use gender bias to categorize hate crimes). Yet reliable, official data on this form of hate crimes remains a problem. Not the least because of ongoing concerns and questions on how to collect data and define hate crimes. The legislative battle over the rights and protections of transgender people continues; many state laws do not include gender identity in their definition of hate crimes, leaving transgender people in those states unprotected. The debate exemplifies how society is attempting to understand newly-defined ideas of gender, sex and identity – often quite painfully. And as is so often the case, the most marginalized groups of people are suffering the most severe consequences. Thankfully, the debate has just begun.