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Why 2018 could be the ‘deadliest’ year yet for transgender women of color

Shantee Tucker is one of three black transgender women killed this week in the United States.

Shantee Tucker
Shantee TuckerRead moreCourtesy of Tatyana Woodard

Milan Sherry knows what it feels like to recite her final prayers while staring down the barrel of a gun.

But as a black transgender woman and a former sex worker, she faces discrimination based on her gender identity on a daily basis.

It's why she identifies closely with Shantee Tucker, a transgender woman who was fatally shot in Hunting Park early Wednesday morning.

Sherry's now an advocate who works with the North Philadelphia-based Trans Equity Project and hopes the program that's organizing an October march to remember victims of violence can make a difference in the lives of transgender women who face disproportionately high rates of violence and discrimination. But she's not naive.

"Our sisters' lives are worth more when they become hashtags than when they are alive," she said. "Unfortunately, Shantee is not going to be the last girl who is murdered."

Tucker, 30, is one of three black transgender women killed this week in the United States and one of at least five transgender women of color killed in Philadelphia since 2013. There has been a documented uptick in homicides reported against transgender women over the last five years, and 2018 could be the "deadliest" on record for the group, according to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, which has counted 21 such homicides this year.

The killing is particularly chilling for advocates in Philadelphia, where a robust network of activists has successfully lobbied the city to implement progressive policies meant to better protect transgender individuals from discrimination in employment and housing.

Nationally, the New York City Anti-Violence Project counted 27 "hate-violence related" homicides of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in 2017, up from 19 reports in 2016. Of those 27 homicides, 22 were of trans women of color. Beverly Tillery, executive director of the nonprofit, said those figures are incomplete — there is little nationwide accounting of violence against the LGBTQ community, and the group relies largely on media reports and its partner organizations to gather data.

Deja Lynn Alvarez, a health system navigator in the city's Department of Public Health and an advocate for transgender people in Philadelphia, said violence against transgender individuals has always been disproportionately high — but one reason it looks as if homicides have increased is that "it's being reported correctly."

She explained that in the past, police or media may have incorrectly identified a transgender person by the gender they were assigned at birth. Today, Philadelphia police operate under a five-year-old directive that requires that they use pronouns and titles consistent with that person's gender identity.

But that slow change in reporting procedures likely doesn't encapsulate all the reasons why there's an increase nationally in these numbers, said Sarah McBride, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest civil rights organization working on issues related to LGBTQ equality. She said there's been a large increase in overall hate crimes in America over the last two years, including anti-trans hate crimes.

READ MORE>> Pa. expands protections for LGBT people, but hate-crime law still doesn't include them

Added Tillery: "This is still a crisis of homicides and violence against trans women and, particularly, trans women of color. No amount of increased reporting can take that away."

Last Thursday, Dejanay Stanton, 24, a black transgender woman, was shot and killed in Chicago, according to local media reports, and the same day, Vontashia Bell, 18, also a black transgender woman, was found shot and killed in Shreveport, La.

In the case of Tucker, who was killed in the 4300 block of Old York Road, Homicide Capt. John Ryan said during a news conference Wednesday that she "wasn't targeted because of her gender affiliation or lifestyle." But activists and advocates say there's no way to be sure that's the case.

"A crime might not qualify as technically a hate crime," McBride said, "but you look at the circumstances and you raise the question of: Was the violence emboldened or enhanced or escalated, even in some way, by the devaluation of trans lives that exists in our society?"

That discrimination can manifest itself in assault and harassment. The NCTE released a report in 2015 showing the results of a national poll of 28,000 transgender people. Nearly one in 10 respondents said they were physically attacked in the last year because of being transgender, and transgender women of color were four times as likely as other transgender people to have been attacked with a gun.

McBride blamed the violence in part on what she sees as "vitriol and cruelty" in rhetoric used by politicians, both in the federal government and in places like North Carolina, where lawmakers in 2016 passed a controversial "bathroom bill," which required people to use the facilities that match their gender assigned at birth. (That bill has since been replaced, but advocates say it still discriminates against LGBTQ people.)

"If society communicates that trans lives are less important and lesser than others," she said, "then the implicit consequence is that people will be more likely to commit harm, discrimination, and even violence."