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Black Trans Lives Matter!

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hundreds of protesters marching with rainbow flags and signs
A queer pride march on Alberta Street in Portland.

By Margaret Dierdre O’Hartigan

Among signs carried in Portland protests this summer are those reading “Black Trans Lives Matter!”  What you may not comprehend, however, are the many ways in which Black trans lives are dismissed, invalidated – and all too often ended — by a society whose various prejudices intersect with deadly effect.

Transpeople of color are far more likely to be murdered by bigots than are white transpeople. This became obvious in the 1990s when transsexual organizations and publications had become sufficiently organized to track – and share with one another – information that had previously been ignored by mainstream media.

The white-dominated LBGT movement was so eager to show how oppressed it was by straight society, though, that it was colorblind.  As I wrote in the October 27, 1999 Skanner, “[b]y ignoring the obvious factor of skin color, however, the pattern of violence toward people of color is ignored – ‘whitewashed’ – by the authors of articles in LGBT publications.” Among just a few of the many examples was an article in the summer 1999 issue of a magazine for bisexuals, entitled In Remembrance of the Dead – which listed “the violent deaths of 13 transgendered people while omitting any reference to the fact the majority of them were people of color.” I also cited a contemporaneous issue of Transgender Tapestry , which “contained the article Remembering Our Dead, which named almost 100 murder victims and which again failed to remark on the disproportionate number of people of color.” It’s worth noting that it took a Black publication – The Skanner – to print my criticism of the white exploitation of these Black people’s deaths.

Unfortunately, transpeople of color are also at risk of murderous prejudice from members of their own community. In a speech at California State University at Northridge on November 4, 1993, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan declaimed: “Don’t tell me you are a woman trapped in a man’s body. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me that because some of these brothers with these Uzis will put some holes in those bodies and see if the sister will come out.”

A trans lives matter march on Alberta Street.

In 1995, Black transwoman Tyra Hunter – injured in an auto accident — was left untreated and died because the Black EMTs who responded to the emergency call withheld medical treatment while making derogatory remarks about her (for which the Washington, D.C. government was held liable  when Hunter’s mother won a multi-million dollar wrongful death suit in 1998). None of those EMTs were ever even disciplined.

The American legal system itself is prejudiced against transpeople of color. As I wrote in the July 9, 1997 Skanner, “On May 3, a jury in Cambridge, Mass., found William Palmer guilty of assault and battery in the strangling death of Chanelle Pickett, a Black male-to-female transsexual who was found dead in Palmer’s apartment in November 1995. Palmer, who is White, faced a maximum sentence of 2-1/2 years. Less than a year earlier, John Lotter – who is White – was convicted of murdering a White female-to-male transsexual named Brandon Teena and sentenced to die in Nebraska’s electric chair.”

 It isn’t just racism behind those sorts of disparate sentences for the killers of transpeople. The judicial system is denying that transwomen are women — just as it is denying that transmen are men — by considering the killing of what it views to be men as less heinous than the killing of what it views to be women.

Indeed, such invalidation of transpeople is so endemic to the justice system that anti-transsexual prejudice is routinely exploited to actually justify deadly violence. The defense attorneys for Pickett’s killer claimed he didn’t know Pickett was transsexual when he picked her up at a bar frequented by transsexuals. The same ploy was utilized in the defense of Michael Thompson, who was charged with murdering Deborah Forte in Massachusetts in 1996. Forte suffered multiple stab wounds and severe blows to her face and head in addition to being partially strangled.

Local law enforcement employed the same transphobic logic in 2001 when Loni Okaruru was murdered in Washington County just west of Portland. Washington County Sheriff’s Detective Mike O’Connell publicly suggested Okaruru was murdered by someone angry that “she was a man”. The sheriff’s department scenario – as published on the August 20, 2001 Oregonian, — was that “the killer picked up Okaruru walking along Southwest Tualatin Valley Highway, thought he was a woman and became enraged when he found out otherwise.” 

As I wrote in the October 2001 Portland Alliance, “Such speculation – given that no witnesses to Okaruru’s murder have been located and interviewed, no suspects arrested, and no charges filed – indicate a preoccupation with Okaruru’s transgenderism on the part of sheriff’s detectives which calls into question their ability to conduct an unbiased investigation.” As I further argued: “By linking Okaruru’s death to the fact she was transgendered – before a killer has even been identified – the Washington County Sheriff’s Department is not only ignoring the possibility that she was targeted for assault on the basis of race or [her] immigrant status, but is dismissing the possibility that Okaruru was specifically singled out simply because she was vulnerable to attack as she walked alone”. 

My concern that the sheriff office’s clearly preconceived notions could hamper an investigation would seem to be confirmed by the fact that – 19 years later – Okaruru’s death is now Washington County’s longest unsolved murder case.

The “justice” system is anything but when it comes to transpeople of color. But when I hear and see the demands by some protesters to “abolish the police” and “abolish prisons” I have to ask, who, then, is to bring Loni Okaruru’s murderer to account?” And what should be done with the murderers of transpeople of color – of any transpeople?

Isn’t the real goal equal justice under law for everyone regardless of skin color or trans status?

Or do the political goals of abolishing police and prisons matter more than Black trans lives?

Margaret Deirdre O’Hartigan began her trans activism in the mid-1970s. From 1996 to 2006 she was director of the Filisa Vistima Foundation, an Oregon non-profit that worked for legal and medical assistance for transsexuals. Her writings on trans issues have appeared in magazines and newspapers across the United States, including The Advocate, Oregonian, Minneapolis Tribune, Transsexual News Telegraph, and TransSisters: The Journal of Transsexual Feminism.

For first-person accounts by Black transwomen: A Finer Specimen of Womanhood, Sharon Davis, Vantage Press, New York, NY 1985; Honey, Honey, Miss Thang, Leon E. Pettiway, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1996; Hiding My Candy: The Lady Chablis, Simon & Shuster Pocket Books, New York, NY, 1996.