Last Sunday at 5 a.m., a trans woman named Michelle Washington — who also went by “Tamika” — was found shot in the head and left for dead in North Philadelphia. Coming just a day after another trans woman, Muhlaysia Booker, was found shot and killed in Dallas, this homicide marked the fifth trans woman violently killed in the United States this year. Last year, we lost more than two dozen trans women to violence. More than half of those women were African American, and this year, all five recorded trans victims of homicide are African American women as well.
In April, a video surfaced in which a man named Edward Thomas savagely beat Booker until she was unconscious, while a crowd of people watched and other men joined. Eventually a group of women intervened and pulled her to safety, possibly saving her life at that moment. But a month later, the same woman would be found dead due to homicidal violence, without a suspect identified.
With two trans women of color found dead within 24 hours in different parts of the country, and 2018 being one of the deadliest years on record for trans women — especially black and Latino trans women — it’s past time we address this violence. This includes adding measures to combat anti-trans violence to the top of the page on progressive agendas. In particular, we need to end shoddy legal defenses used to justify this violence.
The gay and trans “panic” defense is “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder,” as the National LGBT Bar Association defines it. This strategy can include arguments that the gay or trans victim of violence made a sexual advance that caused “panic” in the attacker, or that the victim’s identity was reasonably viewed as “threatening” by the attacker, who then acted in self-defense. These defenses may even be employed when the attacker and the victim had a prior relationship, and the attacker wants to claim that they were “tricked” regarding the victim’s identity.
These arguments wrongly suggest that gay or trans identities pose an inherent safety risk, and that violence against LGBTQ people is justifiable simply when another person objects to their identities. Such an excuse for violence is flat-out wrong — yet it succeeds in some cases, reducing the sentences of those who commit hate crimes. This defense was put forth to justify, for example, the 1998 beating and killing of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
In recent years, lawmakers have pushed back against this line of defense. Here in Pennsylvania, State Rep. Michael Schlossberg (D., Lehigh) introduced a bill addressing gay and trans panic defense, but the bill didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee. In July of last year, State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Philadelphia) began to lobby his colleagues to pass similar legislation, but we have yet to have anything for the governor to sign.
Pennsylvania — which still does not include LGBTQ people in its laws protecting against hate crimes — needs to step up on this issue. It’s time to start protecting women like Michelle Washington, and like Shantee Tucker, a 30-year-old black trans woman shot and killed in Philadelphia last year. Those are two lives we cannot bring back. But we can do more for the trans community in the future.