'She Is Already Dead, Why Do You Care': The Systems Putting Trans Lives at Risk
Nearly 300 trans and gender-diverse people were reported murdered in the last year, according to Transgender Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring project—and migrant trans people who are involved in sex work are particularly at risk.
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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.
When Turkish LGBTQ activist Kivilcim Arat heard that Nilay, a 33-year-old transgender woman and sex worker, had been repeatedly stabbed and strangled by a bathrobe belt in her own home in Istanbul in the middle of the day, he called the police in an effort to find out more information. His questions were met with a curt response: "She is already dead, why do you care?"
Every 36 hours, a transgender person is reported murdered, according to Transgender Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring project. Between October 2015 and September 2016, this meant that 295 people lost their life, often in ways as brutal as Nilay. And while no death is more unjustifiable or heinous than another, TGEU has released new research that reveals the unique vulnerability that migrant, transgender sex workers face.
According to the report, 113 trans and gender-diverse people have been reported murdered in Europe in the past eight-and-a-half years—one-third of those victims had migrant backgrounds, and 86 percent were sex workers. It is at this intersection that the unique peril arises: transgender people, migrants, and sex workers all individually face forms of discrimination, so when one person identifies as two or all three, the combination can be lethal.
The danger that trans people face just by existing is unquestionable. Just months ago, trans activist Hande Kader was raped and burned to death in Instanbul, and while Turkey is the most dangerous country in Europe to be a trans person, there are also countries like Brazil, which saw 868 murders reported between 2008 and June 2016. Treated as hate crimes, the murders of trans people are often motivated by sexual and racist prejudices, and the violence that characterize killings is often extreme—stabbing repeatedly, killing assassination-style, setting a living person on fire.
In Europe, just being a migrant alone can be treacherous. According to Pew Research, 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in European countries in 2015, and from general xenophobia to anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, migrants often find themselves victims of economic, legal, and social discrimination.
And while sex work is technically legal in many European countries, the often unregulated profession has many loopholes, especially as it relates to trans people. In Turkey, for example, which saw the most trans murders of any European country with a total of 43, sex work is legal in the form of state-run brothels. However, the system discriminates against trans people, forcing them to work on the street instead of in brothels. Without the legal paperwork, trans sex workers also have no legal recognition or protection.
"'Girls do what they have to do to survive,' as do homeless boys, undocumented immigrants, transgender people of color, and other marginalized social undesirables," Melinda Chateauvert writes in Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk. "They hustle, using sex—the one form of labor capital they possess—to obtain food, shelter, clothing, medicine, physical protection, and other necessities."
Jessica Stern, Executive Director at OutRight Action International, speaks to this trajectory, noting that migrant trans people often face discrimination at both the social and legal level in Europe.
"We know how governments across Europe fail migrants when it comes to health care, worker's rights, and basic safety," she says. "We know that transphobia exists, and that trans people face a higher risk of school dropout, that they have lower-quality health care, and they're less likely to be treated fairly in the labor market. So, they often turn to [unregulated work] like sex work. And in general, sex workers are dehumanized."
In the TGEU release, Senior Policy Officer Richard Köhler calls upon European governments to include trans people in the protection they offer in hate crimes, specifically mentioning that the EU Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia should "include trans people, such as including gender identity and gender expression as a protected ground." He also believes that sex work should be decriminalized, as many sex worker activists argue that "decriminalization [is] the first step to improve sex worker safety."
Stern also echoes Köhler's sentiments, adding on specific ways to aide each marginalized community (and therefore, those who identify with all three). The conversation around sex work has to be treated as a labor rights issue to ensure that sex workers have legal protection to ensure safe working conditions, she says, and the process trans people must go through to declare their gender cannot be as difficult and time-consuming as it currently is in many places around the world.
Trans people shouldn't have to explain their narratives.
"[All countries] have to give [trans people] and refugees full legal recognition and provide them legal safety net," she says. "When we don't do that; we're increasing crime, not deterring crime."
To minimize trans discrimination, much of the work starts at the micro level in the form of making the trans narrative more pervasive.
"Let's continue to tell the stories of trans people in our lives and talk about their realities," she says. "It's about creating a new consciousness. Trans people shouldn't have to explain their narratives."