Trans Lives Are Being Lost at an Alarming Rate — So Why Aren't We Talking About It?
"I am a boy, even if the world doesn't see me as one. But I know in my heart I am a boy."
Fifteen-year-old Zander Mahaffey wrote these words in a heartbreaking farewell note before killing himself on Feb. 15. In his note, which was pre-scheduled to be published on his Tumblr account, Mahaffey alleged that his mother was emotionally abusive and unsupportive of his identity. "I just wanted to escape," he wrote.
Mahaffrey's death is a stark reminder that many homes, schools and social spaces still remain deeply unsafe spaces for trans people. Unfortunately, his story is the latest in a sad yet steady trend in 2015, a year in which at least eight trans or gender nonconforming people have either died by suicide or been murdered. That's the equivalent of roughly one death per week.
One might expect to see broad news coverage in the face of such staggering violence. Why, then, has this reality elicited little to no mainstream discussion about fostering inclusive environments for individuals across the gender spectrum?
Most of these deaths are the result of violent crimes, which particularly affect trans women of color. As Buzzfeed reports, the rate of these deaths in 2015 is already "quickly outpacing" that of last year. Mere days after Mahaffey's death, in fact, local reports in Miami indicated that yet another trans woman's death would be investigated as a homicide, after 46-year-old Kristina Gomez Reinwald was found unresponsive in her home. What's more, these are only known incidents; not all police or news reports may be aware of a victim's gender identity.
Despite this violence, the majority of network news outlets have failed to give the recent string of trans murders and suicides a meaningful semblance of visibility in 2015. This lack of coverage contrasts with the media's frequent reporting on gay teen suicides roughly four years ago, which fell into a larger narrative about the battle against school bullying. Today, mainstream talk about transgender lives often turns into sensationalist gossip, like that surrounding Bruce Jenner's alleged transition, or discussion of ludicrous legislative measures that curtail basic rights for trans people, such as discriminatory bathroom bills.
Even when local news outlets report on the tragic crimes committed against trans people, another layer of injustice may persist: The victims may be misgendered, an act amounting to trans erasure. When 22-year-old Ohioan Bri Golec was stabbed to death by their father on Feb. 13, for example, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer failed to reflect Golec's gender-fluidity, instead referring to them using masculine pronouns. When trans woman Penny Proud was shot dead by her boyfriend in New Orleans on Feb. 10, NOLA.com referred to her as a "male" and a "man." And in Florida, a video shows an anchor at WTVJ referring to Reinwald as a "transgender man."
The gender identity of trans victims of violence may not be explicitly included in reports as a potential motivating factor, either — an egregious oversight, given the demonstrated connection between transphobia and violence. In some cases, it'll take a trending hashtag on Twitter or the work of bloggers and online advocates to bring awareness to trans murders. Even after the fact, the conversation rarely continues.
Although deaths by suicide and murder are often discussed separately, transphobic stigma often plays a major role in both of these tragic occurrences. Clearly, there's a need for swift action ensuring that trans and gender nonconforming people have their basic rights and freedoms protected. And not only must we more vigilantly fight transphobic violence, but we must also work to recognize the more personal dangers of societal intolerance.
A 2011 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force revealed that 61% of trans people reported surviving at least once instance of physical violence. 41% of respondents said they had attempted suicide, an alarming statistic when compared to a rate of 1.6% of the general population.
Indeed, Mahaffey's death is eerily reminiscent of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn's suicide in late December. Like Mahaffrey, Alcorn posted a prescheduled Tumblr note before her death, detailing the alleged social isolation and degradation she endured from a non-supportive family. "My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year," Alcorn wrote. "I want someone to look at that number and say 'that's fucked up' and fix it. Fix society. Please."
After Alcorn's death, many members of the trans community used the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult as a means of connecting trans youth with messages of support, both near and far, from people who know what they're going through.
Trans lives deserve our attention. But at present, there's little to no conversation about creating an environment where trans adults and young people can navigate everyday life with safety and support. These deaths must be both a wake-up call to action and a call for everyone to break free of the ignorance that stigmatizes people who don't fit society's limiting ideas of gender.
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, you are not alone. Seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call the Transgender Crisis Hotline at 1-877-565-8860.