CI: Remembering Transgender Victims of Structural Violence

November 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, LGBTQ

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Remembering Transgender Victims of Structural Violence
by nancy a heitzeg

For Venus Xtravaganza, Brandon Teena and  more..

Tuesday, November 20th, was The International Day of Transgender Remembrance. This annual event honors those world-wide who have been the victims of anti-trans violence, a violence that is rooted in personal bias and, ultimately fear. Surely there are many victims here  – 265 were commemorated this year.. The transgendered are targeted for interpersonal violence at a stunning rate; a  report from The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs indicates that trans-women in particular make up nearly 50% of all LGBT murders annually.

But the violence experienced by the transgendered – indeed by all oppressed peoples – is structural  as well. Whatever the immediate toll of direct interpersonal violence, the daily grind of systematic barriers carries an immeasurable impact too. In a culture dominated by a rigid gender binary – one linked closely with compulsive heterosexuality – the transgendered face marginalization at many turns —  employment, housing, health care and more. (Tragically, given their major contributions to Gay Liberation, the transgendered often experience marginalization within the mainstream gay/lesbian movement as well.)

Such extreme marginalization not only creates the context that makes the transgendered targets of interpersonal violence, it is in effect a violence of its own. As Iris Marion Young notes in Five Faces of Oppression:

“Many groups suffer the oppression of systemic violence…Violence is systemic because it is directed at members of a group simply because they are members of that group… Violence is a social practice…

Group-directed violence is institutionalized and systemic. To the degree that institutions and social practices encourage, tolerate, or enable the perpetration of this violence, these institutions and practices are unjust and should be reformed.”

Of all the systemic violence experienced by the transgendered, perhaps none is so direct and well-documented as that meted out by the criminal injustice system. (Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock is the definitive sources on the range of abuses here.) At every juncture from policing to prison, the transgendered suffer the systems’ extremes of violence and abuse. Of course, this intersects as always with race/ethnicity and class as documented below by the flow chart form the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

Today, we would like to take a moment to honor and acknowledge those transgender victims of structural violence, remembering those, be they alive or dead, who have suffered at the hand of the legal system, who have endured  criminal injustice. We highlight a few names, a few stories, with the knowledge that there are many many more to be told.

February 2011 marked the release of Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest survey of transgender and gender non‐conforming people. The findings are disturbing.

“Transgender and gender non‐conforming people may have higher levels of interaction with police. They are more likely to interact with police because they are more likely to be victims of violent crime, because they are more likely to be on the street due to homelessness and/or being unwelcome at home, because their circumstances often force them to work in the underground economy, and because they face harassment and arrest simply because they are out in public while being transgender.”

  • 54% of respondents had contact with the police as a transgender or gender non‐conforming person
  • 46% of all transgender and gender non‐conforming people are “uncomfortable” seeking police help
  • 22% of those who interacted with police reported being harassed by police officers due to bias
  • Transgender people of color reported much higher rates: 29‐38%
  • 20% were denied equal services
  • 6% were physically assaulted by police officers
  • 15% of African‐American transgender people were physically assaulted by police
  • 2% were sexually assaulted by police officers
  • 7% of African‐American transgender people were sexually assaulted by police

Stories of Queer (In)Justice: Duanna Johnson
summarized by Andrea Ritchie

One of the stories in the book that I think is particularly powerful is that of Duanna Johnson, a Black transgender woman who was arrested for a prostitution-related offense in Memphis, Tennessee, whose brutal beating by a police officer in the local jail was caught on videotape, and whose murder less than a year later, the third in as many years of a Black transgender woman in Memphis, remains unsolved.

The reason it is so compelling is because it raises so many central themes – the grinding discrimination transgender people face in virtually every aspect of life – employment, housing, access to drug treatment, homeless shelters, and other supportive services – the pervasive profiling and policing of transgender people, and particularly transgender women of color, as being engaged in sex-related offenses, the viciousness and impunity of police violence against LGBT people of color, and the endemic violence and lack of police protection LGBT people of color face in our communities.

It also highlights the relative invisibility of these experiences – Johnson’s case, despite the existence of a “smoking gun” video of the police beating , did not garner national attention or generate widespread outrage among mainstream racial justice, anti-police brutality, and civil rights organizations as Rodney King’s did. Her murder did not draw the nationwide calls for justice Matthew Shepard’s did.

Local organizers’ valiant and thoughtful efforts to do justice by her experiences and her memory went largely unsupported by national organizations of all stripes beyond a sound bite here and there, usually in service of their larger agenda of advancing “hate crimes” laws – which have done nothing to protect Johnson from either form of “hate violence” she experienced. And ultimately, while the officer who beat her was ultimately prosecuted under federal civil rights laws, Johnson was not able to achieve justice through the legal system in her lifetime for the multiple forms of violence and criminalization she endured.

From Arrest through Trial

As Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States  documents, the transgendered are subject to stereotyping. over-charging, limited access to quality representation to financial constraints, hostile prosecutors and  less than sympathetic juries.  In combination, this makes it extremely difficult for  trans people to obtain an equitable legal result.

CeCe McDonald

by Nicole Pulsuka for Mother Jones

Around midnight on June 5, 2011, a 23-year-old African American transgender woman named Crishaun “CeCe” McDonald was walking with four friends past Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis. A group of at least four white people outside the bar began harassing McDonald and her friends, calling the group, all of whom were African American, “niggers” and “faggots.” One of the men in the group, who would later be identified as Dean Schmitz, said “look at that boy dressed like a girl tucking her dick in.” As McDonald and her friends tried to walk away, Schmitz’s ex-girlfriend Molly Flaherty hit McDonald in the face with a glass of alcohol and sliced open her cheek, causing an injury that would later require stitches. The groups began fighting, and when McDonald attempted to leave the scene, Schmitz followed. McDonald took a pair of scissors out of her purse and turned around to face Schmitz; he was stabbed in the chest and died from the wound.

Though she was injured in the scuffle with Flaherty and claimed the wound inflicted on Schmitz was in self-defense, McDonald was arrested that night and then charged with second-degree intentional murder.Since her arrest last June, support for McDonald’s case and her self-defense argument has been steadily growing. According to Katie Burgess, executive director of the Trans Youth Support Network, a Minneapolis organization that McDonald was also involved with, this is because many believe McDonald was “on trial for surviving a hate crime.”..

On June 4, CeCe McDonald was sentenced to 41 months in prison. This is the minimum sentence for second degree manslaughter in Minnesota. CeCe will receive credit for the 275 days she’s already spent in custody. Along with a reduction in time served for presumed good behavior, McDonald will likely be released from prison in under two years.

Because she is transgender, it’s expected that McDonald will be sent to Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, a men’s prison. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, once there “the state will initiate an effort to make its own determination of McDonald’s gender.”


Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey also documented  widespread abuse in prisons and jails. Grievances range from sexual and physical assault to denial of basic medical care.

  • 16% of transgender and gender non‐conforming people had been sent to jail or prison “for any reason” (for the general U.S. public, this figure is 2.7%)
  • The figures were 47% for African‐Americans and 30% for American Indians
  • 21% of MTFs (male to females) had been incarcerated, compared to 10% of FTMs (female to males)
  • 7% were arrested or held in a cell solely due to anti‐transgender bias of police officers
  • 16% of those who had been incarcerated were physically assaulted there by inmates or staff
  • MTFs experience more physical assault in jail (21%) than FTMs (11%)15% report having been sexually assaulted by inmates or staff while incarcerated
  • 34% of African‐Americans experience sexual assault while incarcerated
  • MTFs experience more sexual assault while incarcerated (20%) than do FTMs (6%)

Victoria Arellano
summarized by Kay Whitlock

Let’s put a human face on the issue. Her name: Victoria Arellano, a transgender woman and undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had AIDS, but was doing well on medication. Stopped on a traffic charge in 2007, she was sent to the male facility of the U.S. immigration detention center in San Pedro, California where, two months later, she died in custody at 23 years of age.Despite repeated and increasingly desperate pleas for her life-saving medications, officials simply ignored Arellano’s requests.

She suffered rapid weight loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, high fever and other symptoms as fellow detainees struggled to care for her with nothing more than makeshift measures and their own considerable compassion. Finally, they went on strike to demand that she receive medical care.She was at last admitted to the infirmary where, two days later, shackled to the bed, Victoria Arellano died of an AIDS-related infection.

Later, 20 key detainee witnesses who had direct knowledge of these events were transferred out of the facility and area less than a day before a Human Rights Watch investigator arrived. A number of AIDS-related and human and civil rights organizations spoke out, demanding an investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compliance with basic standards of decent health care.

Moving Forward

If hate crime legislation is insufficient to stop interpersonal violence  against the transgender community ( and it is), then certainly it is entirely inadequate in addressing structural violence. We need solutions aimed at the intersectionss of all structural oppression, solutions rooted in community and a bolder vision.

As Kay Whitlock notes in “Reconsidering Hate: Policy and Politics at the Intersection”:

…processes of criminalization, selective law enforcement, and mass incarceration are structural ways of devaluing and destroying the lives of people of color, poor people, immigrants, and queers…

We must turn to community-based strategies that seek to address structures of violence as well as individual acts. To that end, we might better focus our efforts on increasing the capacity of (underfunded and overstressed) community-based anti-violence organizations and coalitions committed to collecting, analyzing, and reporting anti-violence data that includes law enforcement as an offender category…

Community brokenness, characterized by violence and shattered social and economic relationships, cannot be accurately described or repaired through a diagnosis of hate. If we are serious about transforming the unjust social and economic conditions that lie at the heart of entire structures of violence, exclusion, and inequality, we must find new ways to work creatively and boldly across issues, constituencies, and movements. We must craft new political frames that are imaginative and expansive enough to help us re-energize our efforts for the long haul….


To that end, please support the efforts of :

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Boys Don't Cry just played on tv recently - my daughter watched it with me - she was horrified.  As was I the first time -  and every time I watch it.


Transgender people are PEOPLE for crying out loud.  


Thankyou Nancy, CI and CMP for always keeping the important issues in the forefront.


So heartbreaking. Thanks you for honoring and remembering. 

It just makes a person crazy to think of the horrendous ways that 

human beings are treated in our society. 


Happy Thanksgiving to all. 





Thank you Nancy for remembering (and reminding us of) these women. Thank you and thank you Kay for all of your work too.


for a world without cages,



Nancy, thanks, especially, for emphasizing the "ordinary," everyday structural violence experienced by so many trans people.  This is so important. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @RubySJones We have got to do better ruby.. So glad the Election has given us a chance to go Forward!


Happy Thanksgiving and love to you -- thanks as always for stopping by here

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Vikki thank YOU vikki -- your work is linked in a couple of spots..


always grateful; for your insights


hope allis well ( or at least better) in NYC


 @nancy a heitzeg Thank you, Nancy.  And thanks to all the advocates around the country - indeed, the world - who fight for the human rights of transgender people.


 @nancy a heitzeg  Yes, because it is considered normative, business as usual, in the dominant, heterosexist, gender conforming society.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @KayWhitlock Thanks Kay -- Queer (In)Justice is such a major contributor to change on all this.. As is your work on Re-thinking the hate frame


Indebted as always


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