The Value of a Life
The following was originally written for GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine, but because of a misunderstanding, it was replaced by an article on the gene discovery, instead of beng added as a second article, and missed seeing print.
On August 18th, a Philadelphia judge acquitted Terron Oates of murder charges, convicting him instead of voluntary manslaughter, a move which could see him released in as little as 30 days. (At the time of writing, I have not seen an indication that he has been released yet) The ruling generally accepted that because the victim of the 2006 shooting was a transsexual, Oates panicked at the discovery and wasn’t responsible for his actions — the classic defense. Despite the fact that Oates was described as “streetwise” and knew how to obtain a black-market handgun, it was successfully argued that he was unaware that the area in which he picked up Alexis King was a known district for transsexual prostitutes. Despite the fact that she was shot in the back and side, it was successfully argued that she was shot while fighting him for the weapon. It’s amazing how much latitude defendants can be given when little value is ascribed to the victim.
This is sadly nothing new, as people in the trans and queer communities have long experienced the “s/he came on to me and it freaked me out” defense to justify violence and murder. This year alone shows ample evidence of that. DeAndre Blake had been charged in the 2006 murder of Tiffany Berry, but the trial had been put off indefinitely — it wasn’t until Blake murdered his own two-year-old daughter this past August that Tennessee authorities saw fit to prosecute. In London, Shanniel Hyatt was completely acquitted of the murder of Kellie Telesford, despite being the only person seen entering and leaving her apartment during the time of her death and despite being found in possession of stolen items that included her cell phone — by successfully arguing that since she was a transsexual, she must have killed herself by auto-erotic asphyxiation out of grief, after the robbery of her apartment. And then there’s Allen Ray Andrade, who is now mounting a panic defense in the murder of Angie Zapata, a transsexual he met through an online social networking website. Andrade, who was quoted as saying “I think I killed it” during his arrest and later said that “gay things need to die,” has been at least charged with a hate crime, which could cause the case to be taken more seriously than the others. But whether it has any effect will depend on how much sympathy the jury and judge have on him and how much they buy the panic defense. Andrade’s defenders will make the case that her death was her own fault, of course: “When (Zapata) smiled at him, this was a highly provoking act, and it would cause someone to have an aggressive reaction,” defense lawyer, Annette Kundelius, said at his arraignment.
The value of a life is sometimes not much, if the victim is transgender. The same is also sometimes true when the victim is gay — the event is not intended to erase that or to proclaim one community more victimized than the other. The responsibility is invariably placed at the feet of the victim. Even many in the transgender community associated Angie Zapata’s death with deception and trumpeted mandatory disclosure when dating — something that can be just as risky.
And the blaming of the victim and minimization of the crime goes much further than panic defenses. There is the trial by media to consider. Newsweek examined the case of Lawrence King, a 14-year-old who was shot to death by a classmate in an Oxnard, California classroom, and commented, “Larry, being Larry, pushed his rights as far as he could. During lunch, he’d sidle up to the popular boys’ table and say in a high-pitched voice, ‘Mind if I sit here?’ In the locker room, where he was often ridiculed, he got even by telling the boys, “You look hot,” while they were changing, according to the mother of a student.” Hardly anything was said about the shooter and his background. As Alex Blaze wrote, it was almost as if to say, “If only that mean gender nonconforming boy had left Brandon alone, he wouldn’t have had to have killed him.”
And as is typical, the accompanying headlines are often glib, similarly-blaming tag-lines, like “Fooled John Stabbed Bronx Tranny” (Sanesha Stewart; link now gone), or “Police Hunt for 19-year old Suspect in Transvestite Murder Inquiry” (Silvana Berisha). The articles are filled with repetitive references to transsexuals as “man dressed as woman” or “hypermasculine female” — anything that gives good headline. And invariably, they always insist on faithfully reporting only the birth name, occasionally mentioning the name that the transsexual lived by as though it were an illusory alias (often in “quotes”) — even in instances where there had been a legal name change. All of this emphasizes the suggestion of deception, sensationalizes transsexuality as some inscrutible and perverse sexual compulsion and attempts to erase and invalidate a transsexual’s identity.
With public trials like this, there is often little pressure on authorities to do what is necessary to solve trans murders, and many cases each year are resigned to the cold case file. Indeed, sometimes the authorities are even part of the problem, such as the Indonesian public order officers who pushed Elly Susanna into a nearby river and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Or the authorities at the police station and law courts building frequented by protestor Rosa Pazos in the months before her mysterious murder. Or the Philadelphia police officers who gave a courtesy ride to Nizah Morris hours before she was discovered at her arrival point with a fatal head wound — and the department that managed to lose or destroy all 911 transcripts, cell-phone records and radio transmissions surrounding the incident. Just ask Duanna Johnson.
Every year, the transgender community gathers to remember the lives lost in tragedies like those above (nearly all of which I’ve mentioned have happened in the past year).
What’s more chilling is what those numbers don’t include. That number doesn’t include the unknown numbers of transfolk killed alongside gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the ethnic cleansing that has been taking place in Iraq (Activist Peter Tatchell estimates the total number of GLBT casualties at around 300 people targeted by religious extremists since the war began). Bordering Iran, where a GRS-or-die policy has become a horrific distortion of the medical model and has caused many gay and lesbian persons to forcibly transition, Iraq may have a higher-than-usual trans (by birth or legally mandated) population.
These numbers don’t include those deaths that go unreported, or are reported in the media as simply the death of a man or woman, with no outcry from the transgender community to clarify who the person was. They don’t include those murdered in hostile countries where the murder of a transperson is given less import by the media than the details of what the nation’s leader ate for breakfast.
Those numbers also don’t include suicides, which rarely make the news. Of those few that do, the stories are heartbreaking. In February, 10-year-old Cameron McWilliams of Sheffield hanged himself after the reaction from telling his mother that he wanted to be a girl. Later the same month, in an apparent copycat act, 11-year-old Cameron MacDonald did the same. One shocking suicide, which occurred around the time of the Transgender Day of Remembrance last year, had one transwoman, who had been regularily and repeatedly raped by the local police and who was required to return to the precinct every week for more, finally doused herself with gasoline on the front step and lit herself on fire (it was this article, and its disappearance shortly after I read it, noted when I returned to try to find her name, that caused me to begin archiving things — it’s not something I take a particular delight in).
In the end, the numbers blur into a heartbreaking mass. But the Transgender Day of Remembrance is not about numbers, it’s about returning some value to those lives that have been taken as a result of transphobia, lives that have been devalued in the eyes of judges and media and society. And therein is the problem of this event. I can’t make you know and appreciate these people for who they were, when I don’t really know that myself. I can only hope that what we do know will somehow, eventually create awareness, perhaps give their and our lives more value, and staunch the flow of blood.
It’s also a time to remember that hate is not exclusive to one facet of a person’s life. Sometimes (actually, many, if you take a serious look at the stories), it is compounded by additional prejudices (that’s a whole other article right there), such as race or sex trade work (these issues are our issues, because they’re our brothers’ and sisters’ issues!). And transphobia runs hand-in-hand with homophobia, with the general public making little to no distinction between the two. It’s not a time for playing a “we’re more victimized than you” game, which nobody ever wins at — instead, it’s a time to remember our own, and to welcome any allies who choose to join us to do the same.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is commemorated in late November every year, worldwide.
(Addendum: My one experience with transphobic violence was kind of surreal, and most ironically, it occurred while I was still essentially in the closet, aside from some artwork posted and displayed under an alias. I arrived home after work, and there were three people I didn’t recognize sitting on the grass by the parking lot, talking. It looked like they were fixing the fence, some of the boards had come off, and two of them were holding boards as they spoke. The third was leaning on a golf club, which I thought a bit unusual.
Out of the blue, they ask me if I’m _______. Not thinking, I replied, “yeah, why?” and the next thing I knew I was being attacked. Later, I glibly referred to it in an article as beating up a golf club and two fence boards with various parts of my body, but it was not particularily fun at the time. One of the attackers said something about “Bodybag,” and an online gallery, but I didn’t really hear all that was being said.
It was mercifully short-lived. A neighbor was taking out the trash, saw what happened and shouted, causing the three to run off.
“Bodybag” was a piece of artwork that I had done for an online gallery, somewhat anonymously. It depicted a male torso zipping itself up, while two female arms are reaching from inside it, clutching at air. As if it needed it, I had described the piece as “the experience of being transgender.” All I can guess is that someone objected to the piece, saw from my profile that I lived in Edmonton (at that time), followed a link to an old website I had, did a WHOIS and obtained my name and address, so that he and some buddies could personally deliver a critique. I’m speculating, but it’s the only way that what happened makes sense to me.
Sometimes, I feel a little embarassed when asked about my own experience of violence because it pales so much to the heartbreak after heartbreak that we remember during the Transgender Day of Remembrance. But we have to remember a number of things: 1) the violence is rare, usually limited to a few unhinged assailants, 2) we can’t let the fear rule us, and 3) we still have to be somewhat prepared for anything.)
Crossposted to The Bilerico Project