Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

How Society Let This Happen: The Transgender People Killed in 2016

In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to violence and suicide this year, we're taking an in-depth look at the social institutions that deny trans Americans simple opportunities that many people take for granted.

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Nov 20 2016, 3:59pm

Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.

Every year on November 20, men and women around the United States light candles to mourn the murder of their transgender sisters and brothers whose lives were extinguished by extreme acts of violence. The same words are spoken at these vigils again and again as community leaders invoke the spirits of the fallen and call the community to action: These killings need to end. But they never do and, in fact, they seem only to grow in number; the reported murder rate of trans women of color continues to rise, breaking national records year after year. The media tracks these murders, chronicling the dead. There will likely be more names added to our lists before the year ends.

Last year, Broadly investigated the nature of these crimes. We examined the cases of 23 victims in 2015 and reported on the facts as we knew them. Here are some: The killers are virtually all men. The majority of the victims are trans women of color and, more often than not, they're killed in the context of sex or a relationship. The violence itself is excessive and extreme. In this past year, one victim was stabbed 119 times; another was beaten to death and then set on fire. In an interview last year, acclaimed gender theorist Judith Butler offered a reading of our data, theorizing that the men who kill transgender women perceive them to be a threat to their own masculinity.

Butler also affirmed something that many transgender people know too well—it isn't possible to parse out gender from other aspects of one's social identity, like race or class. She imagined that we could approach liberation from oppression only through a social justice movement led by women and queer people of color. Advocates have said that the life expectancy of transgender women of color in the United States is 35 years, which has not been statistically validated, but is similar to numbers cited in other parts of the world. One study found that forty percent of trans people believe that their lifespan will be unnaturally short.

At vigils on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, men and women raise candles and name a problem so big it swallows everything in its path. The issues of racism, class inequality, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia are systemic. At times—especially now that Donald Trump is our President-elect—it seems that issues like these are wound around the spine of America. How do our social institutions help these killings to occur, and to what degree is the country, or the local community, responsible? What can we, as a society, do to ensure trans people are given the same, simple opportunities for success and happiness that other people in the United States take for granted?

This year at Broadly, we turn our focus away from the nature of these killings, and toward the social institutions that are failing transgender people. Over the next three days, in honor of those lost to violent attacks and suicide in 2016, we will be looking at the institutional injustices that recur in the stories of their deaths. We'll examine the way that issues like family rejection, unstable housing and homelessness, economic disenfranchisement, and barriers to education contribute to the marginalization of transgender people and make it more likely that they will be victimized.

How are transgender youth supposed to prepare for adulthood when they're rejected at home, or if they lose their housing? What if they are forced to drop out of high school because of bigoted laws that make it illegal for them to use the bathroom? Forty-one percent of all transgender Americans try to take their own lives. On the street, homeless trans people are sometimes discriminated against, even turned away from shelters—where can they go? Without a home or employment, some trans people are forced to start exchanging sex for money to survive. Will one of the men that they meet kill them? Or will they just be fed into an unjust criminal justice system, and cycled in and out, over and over, for as long as it takes to ensure that there's no hope they'll ever get free?

Transgender people have survived throughout the darkest chapters in history, and they have created some of the richest and most beautiful subcultures despite their circumstances. This population is resilient. They have shown throughout time that they will persevere despite inequality and violence—but there are some threats that prove inescapable. This year, we attempt to name them.