Last week, two black transgender women, Dominique ‘Rem’Mie’ Fells and Riah Milton, were murdered in the US, just as protests against racism continued to spread throughout the country. The killings of Fells and Milton, however, went largely ignored by mainstream media outlets and had failed to inspire collective outrage—indicating that rampant transphobia remains a roadblock on the path to racial justice and equality.
Fells was murdered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to local authorities, Fells’ body was found on the banks of the Schuylkill River on 8 June, with both legs dismembered. The motive and circumstances behind her killing are still being investigated and no suspects were apprehended thus far.
On the following day, 9 June, Milton’s body was found in Liberty Township, Ohio. Local investigators reported that Milton was fatally shot during an attempt to rob her and steal her car. Two suspects were arrested in connection with her murder, one of them a 14-year-old girl, and a third suspect remains at large.
News coverage of the murders was sparse and conspicuously absent from mainstream media outlets. And while some prominent political figures, such as Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, did condemn the killings and call to escalate the fight against transphobia, acknowledgement of and outrage over the murders largely came from within queer circles and activist groups.
“Her name is Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells and there shall be no peace until justice is had!… #SayHerName #blacktranslivesmattertoo,” read an Instagram post by Sisters PGH, a Philadelphia transgender advocacy group.
The deafening silence in the face of the brutal killings of Fells and Milton can’t be rationalised by the turmoil unfurling across the country and the world right now, or the dizzying pace of news cycles. Rather, it should be acknowledged as a pattern of public indifference and permissiveness around what has become a global pandemic of violence against trans and gender non-conforming people of colour.
“While we’re talking about racism, while we’re talking about the changes that need to be [done] in this country, we need to talk about the hate towards trans people… particularly towards Black trans women,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez, a trans activist and advocate, in an interview for TIME.
According to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ rights advocacy organisation, at least 26 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in 2019, most of whom were black trans women. Since the beginning of 2020, at least 14 trans women have been killed, including Fells and Milton, HRC reports.
This pandemic of violence does not exist in a vacuum, and is a direct manifestation of a culture that actively erases, marginalises and abuses trans individuals in virtually every sphere of life—healthcare, housing, employment, and civil rights. The situation has markedly deteriorated since Trump took office, as his administration has launched an onslaught on trans rights.
Just last week, on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre and during a global pandemic which disproportionately affects LGBTQ people of colour, the Trump administration had announced the official erasure of protections for LGBTQ people in the healthcare system—a move that would open the door for insurance companies to refuse coverage to trans people. A plea by the Department of Justice to reverse a lower court ruling and permit employment discrimination against trans people is currently being deliberated on by the Supreme Court.
And then there is Besty DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, who took it upon herself to deprive trans students of every vestige of dignity and recognition by, for instance, forcing schools to discriminate against trans athletes as a requisite for federal funding.
Even within the queer community, trans people, and especially trans people of colour, continue to be discriminated against and abused, and although LGBTQ rights as we know them today exist largely thanks to the sacrifice and courage of trans women of colour, their monumental contribution to the movement is only now beginning to, gradually, be recognised.
Policy solutions that would protect trans people and secure their rights are critical—but would not be enough. It would take a complete transformation of the discourse around trans visibility, trans liberation, trans history, and trans rights, and a drastic shift in who gets to shape such narratives, in order to create real, long-lasting change in their status and circumstances.
A quick look at the social media and news landscapes reveals that the discourse the public is exposed to concerning trans rights is heavily dominated by cisgender heterosexuals, primarily white ones. This was most recently exhibited by Daniel Radcliffe’s letter condemning J.K. Rowling’s series of transphobic tweets, in which he, shrewdly, remarked that “transgender women are women.” The letter instantly went viral, had made numerous headlines and was extensively covered by a wide range of publications.
While Radcliffe’s allyship is certainly important, and although (some) media outlets’ attention to his letter was undoubtedly well-intentioned, they nonetheless highlight the ways in which we get it all wrong and, paradoxically, contribute to trans erasure while trying to eliminate it.
As opposed to placing the limelight on cis heterosexuals and waiting for them to grant their stamp of approval or make trans people more palatable to mainstream society, we should clear the way for trans people, particularly of colour, to dominate headlines and magazine covers, lead conversations, speak on news channels, host news programs and have a path to hold political offices both locally and nationally.
To uplift black trans women, as is the case with any marginalised group, means investing resources directly in their endeavours and giving them the platform to tell their own stories, voice their own experience and make their own demands.
“When it comes to serving and protecting trans people, the conventional way of doing things and thinking about these things will not work. It’s time to invest in actual trans leadership,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez to Insider.
The momentum being built against racism could never be fully ceased, and the movement for racial justice reform would never effectuate meaningful change as long as only some black lives matter.