At least 48 trans or gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people have been murdered in the United States in 2021, making it the deadliest year on record for that demographic, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Most of the people killed this year and in past years were Black and Latinx transgender women.
Of the 10 murders of Black trans women that have taken place over the years in Chicago that Windy City Times profiled, only two casesthe murders of Dejanay Stanton and Selena Reyes-Hernandezinvolved the arrest of suspected offenders. The other eight cases remain open and unsolved.
Channyn Lynn Parker, the director of strategic partnerships at Howard Brown, said the violence Black trans women experience is just one symptom of the systemic injustice BIPOC TGNC people face.
Research from the National LGBTQ Task Force showed Black transgender people have an extremely high unemployment rate, at 26%, four times the rate of the general population. They're more than five times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population and eight times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with a household lower than $10,000, the research showed.
Parker explained these disparities in living conditions make BIPOC TGNC people more vulnerable to violence.
"We have a tendency to think very myopically about the murders of trans women as violence perpetrated against them through brute physical force," said Parker, who formerly worked as an advocate for LGBTQ+ people impacted by crime. "But there are much larger issues at hand. Those are the systemic injustices you see folks facing, like unemployment, a lack of housing, a lack of affirming resources."
Caitlyn Tupper, the director of the Anti-Violence Project at Center on Halsted, works to help connect victims of crime and their families to resources, whether that involves law enforcement or linkage to health care.
Tupper explained "there are so many different barriers" for BIPOC LGBTQ+ people and their families who try to access resources after experiencing violence.
On top of the trauma people face after experiencing a crime or losing a loved one, people often fear discrimination when dealing with law enforcement or accessing other supportive resources, Tupper said.
This fraught relationship with law enforcement can make crimes against TGNC people more difficult to solve because "a lot of solving homicides has to do with community cooperation," CPD Officer and LGBTQ+ liaison Megan Woods explained.
To improve the relationship between the Chicago Police Department and the LGBTQ+ community, six LGBTQ+ liaison positions were created in June.
"There are wounds caused by historical treatment from the police onto the community, and we're here toI mean, we can't go back in timebut we can make sure moving forward we build bridges and close those service gaps," CPD Officer and LGBTQ+ liaison Phoebe Flores said.
These liaisons work to connect members of the LGBTQ+ community to law enforcement and other resources. A large part of the liaisons' work involves making themselves visible to LGBTQ+ people.
"The biggest thing is just to be seen in the community and to be recognized so they see that they have representation," Woods said. "And you can see there's a huge difference in the way they speak with me or other liaison liaisons than just a regular beat cop on the street because it's more of a comfortable relationship."
Liaisons help victims of crimes or their families navigate the criminal justice system by checking in with them, offering updates on ongoing investigations and connecting them to outside resources, like LGBTQ+ affirming healthcare and therapy.
"The whole idea is that we don't want the trans community to feel like they don't have access to everything that everyone else in the city has access to when it comes to anything that the police do," Woods said.
LGBTQ+ people can also choose to file police reports or share information about an ongoing investigation with the liaisons if they feel uncomfortable going to another member of CPD. In part, this is to help increase community cooperation so police can more effectively solve investigations.
"We're just here as another avenue of communication in a way to disseminate such information that allows the LGBTQ family to feel more comfortable," Flores said.
Liaisons also partner with various LGBTQ+ organizations like Center on Halsted to share additional resources with people who come to CPD and to make the criminal justice process more accessible to those who seek community resources first.
Tupper said this partnership has been particularly helpful because speaking with liaisons that are part of the LGBTQ+ community "alleviates some fear" for those who are hesitant to go to the police.
Center on Halsted also provides LGBTQ+ sensitivity training for CPD officers. Earlier this year, CPD adjusted its policies so that officers are required to address TGNC people by their names and pronouns and prohibited from stopping someone solely due to their gender identity, among other things.
CPD largely investigates the murders of TGNC people the same way it investigates other murders, unless they're specifically labeled a hate crime due to the way Illinois laws are written, CPD Deputy Director of Community Policing Michael Milstein said.
Parker said she thinks the police should approach murder investigations in a way that acknowledges that discrimination against TGNC people plays a part in any violence done to them.
"In a perfect world, our investigations are handled with more equity," Parker said. "And the police force, as I see it, when it comes to investigations, the government has a very one size fits all approach to things, and with all of the investigations that they have, well, people are going to get lost in the shuffle."
The "one-size-fits-all" approach Parker described also makes it difficult to record how many TGNC people are affected by crime because crime reports label everyone as male or female based on how they identify, without additional information about their gender identity.
Milstein said CPD takes every homicide seriously and investigates each case "to the best of our ability."
"There are always going to be barriers at some points just based on the individual and their background," Milstein said. "A challenge, to be frank, is that right now we have seven hundred homicides this year so far, so it's hard to keep up with every single one."
Parker said she's noticed an increased "pressure" on law enforcement and other systems to address violence against BIPOC TGNC people in recent years. Though she said more representation in the police force is helpful in achieving justice for TGNC victims, more needs to be done to improve the resources available for people while they're alive.
"We have the LGBTQ flag on the doors and we can say trans-affirming space all day long," Parker said. "But if these spaces aren't actually consulting with community members to determine what trans-affirming actually means, then they're just spaces projecting onto the community their own idea of trans-affirming."
Tupper agreed that addressing violence against TGNC people involves reforming society as a whole. This includes creating more options for victims of crime that are separate from the criminal justice system but also addressing the dominant culture's perception of TGNC people, she said.
"We need to create more equitable opportunities for folks to be able to access care and housing and employment," Tupper said. "All of that is really important to prevent violence from occurring as well and just continuing to reduce stigma and transphobic rhetoric. These things are creating this environment where we're not valuing trans folks and it's actively harming them."
As a part of this work, Center on Halsted tries to "combat erasure" of violence against TGNC people by honoring the names of those murdered and creating spaces to "combat isolation and show folks they're not alone in their experience," Tupper said.
"We can name the violence that's happening and how horrific it is and how we need to continue to do more work to protect the community," Tupper said. "And we also want to affirm and celebrate folks while they're here too. We want to highlight trans brilliance and trans creativity and trans wellness."
"Every year on Trans Day of Remembrance, we read off the names of people who've died," Parker said. "I look forward to a day where we don't have to read off names anymore."
See the Trans Omnibus Project introduction page for links to other stories in this series: