A Year Later, "Nothing" Has Changed Since Transgender Woman Islan Nettles Was Killed
"You'd like to think that it's improving, but we've just had our worst recorded month of murder in the history of the transgender movement."
When Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old black transgender woman, was brutally beaten near a New York City police station in Harlem and later died from her injuries on Aug. 22, 2013, transgender activists, LGBT and anti-violence advocates, public officials, and allies took to the streets to demand justice and an end to the staggering amount of violence perpetrated against transgender people.
But a year after Nettles' death, many in the transgender community say that justice has not been served, and that despite their calls for action and recent strides in the visibility of transgender Americans, nothing has changed to reduce violence against their transgender brothers and sisters both in New York and nationally. They still feel endangered.
"Trans people still face the problems with violence, housing, employment, healthcare, and discrimination," said Tanya Asapansa Walker, a transgender woman and U.S. Army veteran who lives in New York City, in an interview with BuzzFeed. "Nothing has changed. We are marginalized in society and we feel — I feel — unsafe."
Walker and dozens of transgender women and men, advocates, and allies gathered at Harlem's Jackie Robinson Park on Monday evening to remember Nettles and several other transgender women who have been killed across the country in recent months, as well as to demand an end to the violence after recent incidents in New York and Washington, D.C. They chanted the names of the sisters they have lost, like Nettles, Mia Henderson, Kandy Hall, Tiffany Edwards, Zoraida Reyes, and Yaz'min Shancez and declared "not one more, not one more, not one more."
"These trans women are being murdered in the streets and it is no coincidence," said Lourdes Ashely Hunter, co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, at the rally. "It is linked to how our community continues to make advances for lesbian and gay people, but they continue to leave trans people in the dust, under the bus, out in the cold."
To this day, nobody is behind bars for killing Nettles, and many other transgender homicide cases remain unsolved throughout the country.
Nettles was attacked early on Aug. 17, 2013 after she and some friends encountered a group of several men on a street not too far from her Harlem home. Nettles was severely beaten when the men became violent and she was taken to a local hospital, where she fell into a coma. Days later, on Aug. 22, doctors declared her brain-dead at Harlem Medical Center and took her off life support. Shortly after the attack and before her death, a man was charged for assault, but those charges were later dropped. Last November, police and the Manhattan District Attorney's office said they were "aggressively investigating" the case.
Pastor Vanessa M. Brown of Rivers at Rehoboth Church in Harlem gave Nettles' eulogy last year and told BuzzFeed that the lack of progress in the investigation and what she describes as "no change" in reducing violence against transgender people since then is "very heartbreaking."
The rally also comes on the heels of video that surfaced online earlier this month showing a transgender woman of color in a violent altercation with a man at a New York City subway station in Brooklyn. The video shows witnesses standing by and photographing the incident and captures the man making anti-gay comments, like "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Both land several punches to each other's faces, but the man overpowers the transgender woman. At one point, both nearly tumble onto the tracks as a train enters the station. After learning of the video, police said they have little information on the incident as a victim has not come forward.
Recent attacks are not isolated to New York. In Washington, D.C., in the shadows of the nation's capitol and the headquarters of national LGBT rights organizations, a transgender teenager was stabbed after she was harassed on a D.C. Metro train and, in a separate incident, a transgender woman was robbed at gunpoint near her home earlier this month.
Nationally, more than a dozen transgender people have been killed since Nettles' death, along with several other instances of attacks on transgender people. Advocates point out, though, that these numbers do not account for what they say could be countless attacks on transgender people that are not reported to authorities. Out of 18 anti-LGBT homicides in 2013 included in a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, almost three-quarters, or 72%, of homicide victims were transgender women, and 67% of homicide victims were transgender women of color.
"Unfortunately, this crisis is nothing new," said Elliot Fukui, program coordinator of the TransJustice group at the Audre Lorde Project. "The loss of trans life is nothing new. There is more attention to this crisis being paid and that is progress, but when this starts happening, there is also backlash."
One thing that has changed, or is different, in recent months is that more journalists are reporting on violence against transgender people, according to Cecilia Chung, senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center, a national advocacy group. This could be due to increasing awareness around transgender issues, she said.
"If we look at this year alone, we've definitely seen an increase of deaths related to violence and I think that's what made it stand out more," Chung said. "Until we actually change some structural barriers and really provide resources to support the resilience of the community, this will continue to be a trend."
Chung said that violence against transgender people occurs so frequently because they are marginalized by the systems and institutions in society. "If you look at some of the data, a high number of trans people of color make less than $15,000 a year and in order to survive they must be exposed to a lot of high-risk elements in their lives," she said. "Where they live, or the type of relationship they end up in — those all play a huge factor. The bottom line to that is, violence is an indicator of the marginalizing that our community faces."
Chung and Fukui are among a handful of transgender advocates who told BuzzFeed that economic and employment disparities, and lack of access to healthcare, housing, and education lead to transgender people becoming targets of violence.
"We have a long way to go in addressing issues with housing, employment, and affordable healthcare," Fukui said. "This is about racism, control, and policing of our community in ways that are violent and actually increases violence. Our communities have the solutions and know what we need in order to survive. I think once we break this really intense spiderweb of oppression at work in the United States, we'll be able to really break this down."
Mara Keisling, executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, also said that the violence stems from cultural and economic problems. Because of these factors, "you're going to have more violence," she said. "You'd like to think that it's improving, but we've just had our worst recorded month of murder in the history of the transgender movement and we're not hearing about all of them, too."
Part of the solution, advocates say, is educating society so that "people will start to recognize that trans people are no different from them," Chung said, and points to the example of Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox, who is a transgender woman of color. Additionally, fixing employment programs so that they include transgender people, establishing nondiscrimination and hate crimes laws, confronting homophobia and transphobia, and ensuring the education system meets the needs of transgender students, will ultimately impact violence.
"This is the tipping point," Chung said.
In Harlem on Monday, transgender women and activists like Walker and Hunter and many more who came together at the rally, though, said they fear that even a year after Nettles' death and the ongoing national movement for transgender equality, change isn't happening soon enough. Several of the speakers at the rally, who stood and spoke passionately into a white and blue megaphone to the crowd, acknowledged that after the rally ends and they go their separate ways, that some might not make it home.
Hunter and other members of TWOCC asked transgender people of color in attendance to gather in front of the park's stone bandshell and led them in a chant.
"We must love each other and protect each other," they yelled loudly across the park. "We have nothing to lose but our chains. It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
Here is a timeline of the more than 20 incidents of violence against transgender people since Islan Nettles died Aug. 22, 2013, that have been reported on and investigated by authorities.
Note: This is not a list of every instance of violence against transgender people, as many of these crimes are not reported. Additionally, when some of these attacks are written about in the media, victims are sometimes misgendered or identified by their birth names and not by their transgender identities, advocates said.
Aug. 22, 2013, New York City
Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman of color, died Aug. 22 — five days after she and a group of friends were attacked by a group of men while walking on Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 147th and 148th Streets in Harlem. Doctors at Harlem Medical Center declared Nettles brain-dead and took her off of life support due to the blunt force trauma injuries she suffered during the attack, the New York Times reported.
Sept. 1, 2013, Savannah, Texas
Artegus Konyale Madden, a 34-year-old transgender woman, was found dead by friends at her Savannah Estates home Sept. 1. Officials in the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Madden's death as a homicide, saying she suffered a gunshot wound to the neck in her living room, reported the Dallas Voice.
Sept. 9, 2013, Baldwin Park, Calif.
A 26-year-old transgender woman was reportedly found dead in a motel room in a city near Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2013. The Advocate reported the victim as Melony Smith, who investigators said was apparently beaten to death, and classified the case as a homicide investigation, according to the report. Authorities arrested Stephen Gonzales, 28, in connection with Smith's killing, and accuse him of killing Smith during a robbery, according to Baldwin Park Patch.
Sept. 19, 2013, Baton Rouge, La.
A 31-year-old transgender woman identified in reports at the time as Shaun Hartley was found beaten to death Sept. 19 in Baton Rouge, La., according to The Advocate. A local paper reported Hartley feared she was in danger after speaking to police about a murder she witnessed earlier that year.
Sept. 24, 2013, New Brunswick, N.J.
Eyricka Morgan, 26, died at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital after she was reportedly attacked and stabbed by a roommate at a boarding house where she lived. The next day, New Brunswick police arrested Devonte Scott, 21, and charged him with murder, unlawful possession of a weapon, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose in connection with Morgan's death, The Advocate reported.
Nov. 8, 2013, Detroit
The body of a 53-year-old transgender woman was found burned inside of a trash can in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2013. Authorities said it took 11 days to identify the victim, who died of a gunshot wound, according to MLive.
Nov. 9, 2013, Richmond, Va.
Amari Hill was found shot to death in a Richmond, Va., alley in early November of 2013 — just days before turning 23. Family and friends told local media that in the months leading up to her death Hill had started to transition to a female identity and that she may have been targeted for this reason, reported WRIC.
Dec. 5, 2013, Cleveland
Betty Skinner, 52, was found dead on the morning of Dec. 5, 2013, in her Cleveland home by a healthcare worker returning for assisted-living-related care. Skinner, who was physically disabled, suffered blunt force trauma to the head, according to preliminary information released by investigators at the time. Police said they were investigating Skinner's death as a homicide, but have yet to announce any arrests in the case.
Dec. 6, 2013, Cleveland
Just a day after Betty Skinner was found dead in Cleveland, police found Brittany Nicole Kidd Stergis, a 22-year-old transgender woman of color, in a car with a gunshot wound to her head. EMS responding to the scene pronounced her dead shortly after 2:30 a.m., Dec. 6. Investigators said they were investigating the death as a homicide, but noted that they did not believe the two cases were related.
Over six months after beginning their investigation, police arrested a man they believe to have killed Stergis on June 5. Authorities said that homicide detectives arrested Delshawn D. Carroll, 19, and charged him with aggravated murder in connection with the case. Around that time, Sergeant Ali Pillow, public information officer for the Cleveland Police, told BuzzFeed there are no updates in Skinner's case.
Jan. 8, 2104, New York City
A transgender woman was having a meal at the popular Neptune Diner in the Astoria Queens neighborhood of New York City on Jan. 8, when she and another person were hit with a plate by two women who were verbally assaulting her. At the time, NYPD said detectives were investigating the incident as a hate crime. Both victims were treated at Mt. Sinai hospital in Queens, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Jan. 27, 2014, Washington, D.C.
A transgender woman was attacked and beaten with a handgun at a convenience store in Washington, D.C.'s Burrville neighborhood in the early hours of Jan. 27, according to a report by Metro Weekly.
Michael Phillips, 36, of Fairmount Heights, Md., was sentenced June 16 to 28 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to a count of assault with a deadly which included a bias — or hate crime — enhancement. Prosecutors said Phillips entered the store and made derogatory remarks about the victim, and an altercation ensued in which Phillips took out the gun and struck her in the face with it several times, according to District of Columbia prosecutors.
May 10, 2014, Anderson, Ind.
A 50-year-old transgender man was punched in the face at Big Baby's Bar and Grill in Anderson, Ind., May 10, leaving him with shattered bones around his eye and his jaw out of alignment, according to a report by The Herald Bulletin. Dawn Taliaferro, sister of the bar owner, initially faced a Class C felony battery charge, but Madison County prosecutors told the paper May 15 that the charges have been dropped due to evidence that Taliaferro may have acted out of self-defense.
May 20, 2014, Atlanta
Two trasgender women of color, Janell Crosby and Tyra Woods, were verbally harassed and brutally beaten by men on a MARTA train in downtown Atlanta. Video of the violence surfaced online showing one of the women stripped nude during the attack while other passengers watched and photographed the incident. Two suspects have since been arrested in connection with the attack, according to The Advocate.
June 3, 2014, Baltimore
Kandy Hall, a 40-year-old transgender woman, was found dead in the early hours of June 3 near the 1400 block of Fillmore Street of northeast Baltimore in a field between a post office and the Coldstream Park Elementary-Middle School. Police launched an investigation into the killing, but acknowledged they had little information in the case. So far, no suspects have been arrested.
June 5, 2014, Ajax, La.
A coalition of Louisiana authorities announced the arrests of three people in the rural, unincorporated community of Ajax, La., in Natchitoches Parish, who allegedly kept an unidentified transgender woman as a slave and forced her to perform sexual acts — among other things against her will — for several months.
"In thirtysomething years of law enforcement in this area, this is probably one of the most gruesome deals that I've ever heard of, and I never experienced anything like it before," Natchitoches Parish Sheriff Victor Jones Jr. told reporters, according to The Town Talk. Police arrested and charged three suspects — a couple, David Rodriguez Jr., 37, and Christina Marie Harper, 39; and Ambre Tubbs Lomas, 39 in the case.
June 11, 2014, Seattle
A Seattle woman was taking pictures of a garbage problem near her home when she was attacked and beaten by two other women who shouted transphobic and anti-LGBT slurs — calling her a man, a transexual, and a tranny, according to a report by KIRO 7. The victim captured the attack on video with her cell phone. At the time, Seattle police arrested Artega Jackson and issued an arrest warrant for Marjorie Marple in connection with the attack.
June 12, 2014, Anaheim, Calif.
Zoraida Reyes, 28, was found dead at about 10:50 a.m., June 12, in a parking lot in the 200 block of North State College Boulevard behind a Dairy Queen in Anaheim, Calif., local police said, according to a report by NBC4. Police said the circumstances of her death were suspicious and could not immediately say whether her death was a homicide. Reyes was well-known in the community as an immigration activist, having immigrated herself from Mexico.
June 14, 2014, Los Angeles
About 200 people were evacuated from a film event June 14 as part of the annual Trans Pride L.A. festival in Los Angeles due to a bomb threat. Organizers of the event said in a statement it was the second of two bomb threats made against the festival in the same day. At the time, the LAPD said it was investigating the threats but had no suspects or leads.
June 19, 2014, Fort Myers, Fla.
Yaz'min Shancez, a Florida transgender woman, was found shot to death and burned behind a dumpster at a rental business located at 2807 Fowler St. in Fort Myers, Fla., on June 19, according to Fort Myers Police Department Lt. Jay Rodriguez. She was 31. On June 30, police arrested and charged Terry Lynn Brady, 45, of Fort Myers in connection with the slaying. Investigators have yet to indicate any reason to believe the killing was a hate crime.
June 26, 2014, Cincinnati
Tiffany Edwards, a 28-year-old transgender woman, was found shot to death and left on a street in the Walnut Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati around 8 a.m., June 26, reports Outlook Ohio Magazine. At the time, the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) said in a statement Edwards was targeted because of her gender identity and that her death was hate motivated.
Police named Quamar Edwards, no relation, as a suspect in the case and on July 2, Edwards turned himself in to police at Cincinnati Police Headquarters, according to a report by WLWT. Edwards was indicted on charges of murder, aggravated robbery, felonious assault, and tampering with evidence as well as a weapons charge, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Edwards was the fourth transgender woman killed in June and the fourth transgender woman killed in Ohio in the 18 months since January 2013.
July 1, 2014, Atlanta
A series of videos were posted on Vine July 1 showing a violent altercation outside of the Stratosphere Skateboard store in Atlanta. In the days after being posted, the videos were widely shared on Twitter with many saying the victim of the attack was a transgender woman. One of the videos shows a man throwing the victim to the ground and stomping on their head. Atlanta police told The Georgia Voice nobody reported the attack to authorities.
July 16, 2014, Baltimore
Mia Henderson, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was found dead around 6 a.m. July 16 near the 3400 block of Piedmont Ave. in Baltimore — the second transgender homicide to rattle the city after police discovered the body of Kandy Hall on June 3.
Henderson was the sister of Los Angeles Clippers player Reggie Bullock, according to Baltimore's WJZ. At the time police did not say if they were investigating the homicide as a hate crime, but within hours, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts held a news conference to assure the community that he is pressing investigators to solve the crimes. "We need to solve this case, we need to solve the cases that are open," Batts said. Police have yet to announce any arrests in the cases.
July 23, 2014, New York City
A transgender woman suffered cuts to her lips and one of her ears after she was followed into a deli near East 149th Street in the Bronx in New York City and reportedly beaten by two men, according to WABC-TV New York. Police said Aug. 8 they are investigating the incident as a hate crime and are searching for two men shown in surveillance imagery suspected of the attack, according to the report.
July 26, 2014, New Orleans
An African-American transgender woman was robbed and beaten in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans just before 5 a.m., July 26, according to a report by WDSU. Authorities said the victim was robbed of her purse and beaten by three men and that she was targeted because of her gender identity.
July 30, 2014, Washington, D.C.
A 15-year-old transgender girl was stabbed on a southbound Metro Green Line train in Washington, D.C., on July 30 and suffered non-life-threatening injuries to her upper left back, Metro Transit Police told BuzzFeed at the time.
Police said they intercepted the train and promptly arrested Reginald Anthony Klaiber, 24, in connection with the attack. Witnesses said Klaiber allegedly accosted the victim and a group of friends on the train, insulting her for her wig and appearance, before stabbing her with a 3.5-inch folding knife. Klaiber has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a count that could include a bias — or hate crime — enhancement, police said.
Aug. 2, 2014, Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. authorities said they were investigating a second crime against a transgender victim within the same week after a 30-year-old transgender woman was robbed at gunpoint around 4 p.m., Aug. 2 while walking to pay bills on Martin Luther King,Jr. Avenue SE, according to a report by News4.
The victim said she felt a gun against the back of her head before the assailant said he would shoot and kill her if she didn't give him her money. Authorities said they are investigating the robbery as a potential hate crime, according to the report.
Aug. 15, 2014, Detroit
Two transgender women were shot and wounded within the span of four days in Detroit, police told BuzzFeed. The first victim was shot Aug. 15, and the second victim was shot in the early hours of Aug. 18. Both were treated at local hospitals. Another victim police have identified as a man was also shot and died Aug. 15, but police could not say whether that person identified as transgender or LGBT. Police Sgt. Michael Woody told BuzzFeed investigators have identified a person of interest in the cases but that nobody is in custody as of Aug. 21.