Comment: Trans deaths must not be forgotten

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

November 20th is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. It focuses on people who have lost their lives, usually through violence, because they were trans, or were perceived to be trans. This year the London trans community, in association with Camden LGBT Forum, held a vigil on the following day, Saturday 21st, at the 52 Club in Gower Street.

TGDoR started 11 years ago and has been growing since. This year’s London vigil saw a crowd of about 130 people turn up to remember the dead and to pay their respects. Those there were mostly trans people themselves, but it was heartening to see a number of non-trans lesbian, gay and bisexual people turn up to show solidarity with the trans community, just as non-LGB trans people had turned out to mourn Ian Baynham, the man was killed in a homophobic attack in Trafalgar Square in September.

The event started with poetry and music written and composed for TGDoR by trans people. One trans man who was at university with Andrea Waddell, a Brighton trans woman found strangled in her flat on October 15th, spoke about the woman heʼd known. He gave a poignant speech while the now familiar graduation photograph of Andrea was displayed on the screen behind him.

The brother of Destiny Lauren, a trans woman who was found strangled in her Kentish Town flat on November 5th, spoke about his sister. Visibly distraught and fighting back the tears, he went on to say how the police had caught the man they believe responsible, and that justice will be done. Sadly, precedent is not on his side. Those charged with murdering trans people are often acquitted. Use of the controversial ‘trans panic’ defence frequently finds favour with juries around the world, and skillful defence lawyers can sew doubt by portraying the victimʼs character in a way which appeals to widely held transphobic prejudice.

In August 2008 Shanniel Hyatt, the man accused of killing Kellie Telesford, a trans woman found dead in London in November 2007, walked free from court after being found not guilty of her murder. He had been filmed by CCTV leaving Telesford’s flat in the early hours of November 18th, 2007. He used her Oyster card to board a bus and at the trial it was revealed that he had stolen her mobile phone and other equipment. Hyatt was found not guilty after DNA evidence was inconclusive. Trans commentators reacted with anger to the defence’s suggestion that Telesford may have died during a consensual “kinky” sex game, or that she may have strangled herself with her own scarf.

The names of those who died in the last year, that we know of, were then read out. There were around 70 names in total, and after each one a candle was lit. Destiny Laurenʼs name was the last one on the list and her brother lit the final candle. In addition it was stated that there were over 200 more reports in which the victims were not named. The figures are sobering – it amounts to the murder of nearly one trans person every single day, and those are just the ones being reported. Most of the people reported killed were trans women of colour. Most of the reports were from the western hemisphere, specifically Latin America. There are very few reports coming out of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India and the Far East. This suggests that the vast majority of murders of trans people are simply never getting reported in the west.

Ben Thom of trans campaigning group Press For Change spoke at the end of the vigil and put this in context. Transgender Europe, or TGEU, works to monitor the murders of trans people worldwide. The numbers they report may initially seem small, but trans people make up a tiny fraction of the population. Estimates vary, but the British government has suggested the size the trans population of the UK (and the vast majority of the deaths are of transsexual people) is 5,000, or less than 0.01 per cent of the population. If the two murders of trans women in the UK in 2009 were representative of the rest of the population of the country, we would expect to see around 24,000 murders in the UK each year. In 2008/09 there were actually fewer than 700 murders in the UK. The seemingly small numbers of deaths worldwide therefore conceal what amounts to the wholesale slaughter of trans people. While trans people are statistically less likely to be murdered in the UK than in many other countries, Thom also reported that attacks on us here are far more likely to be violent when they do occur.

TGDoR, and the ongoing crimson tide of death and violence it highlights continues to receive little or no mainstream media attention. Itʼs starting to be noticed a little more in the wider LGBT community, but it needs far more exposure. While governments around the world, including the British government, continue to turn a blind eye to transphobia, and while the human rights of trans people continue to be widely ignored in legislation, our would-be killers will continue to get the message that weʼre disposable people, that our deaths donʼt matter, and that theyʼll probably get away with it.