Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted about Denali Berries Stuckey, a black trans woman who was murdered recently in South Carolina. She called the repeated murders of black trans women a “crisis,” saying we must “fight back.”
Stuckey is the 12th known trans woman killed so far this year, and as the 2020 presidential campaigns ramp up, Democratic hopefuls are feeling moved to speak out against the longstanding epidemic.
In early June, former Vice President Joe Biden mentioned the murders of trans women of color during a Human Rights Campaign event in Nevada, before claiming that the best way to end the violence would be to elect him as president. Sen. Cory Booker brought up the issue during the first Democratic primary debate earlier this month. Other candidates in the Democratic field have also tweeted about the violence faced by black trans women throughout the early campaign season. But thus far, none of them have proposed a concrete plan for protecting the vulnerable demographic.
While it’s a sign of progress that this epidemic has come to the attention of Democratic presidential candidates, that recognition has been slow and often fails to examine the candidates’ lawmaking roles in perpetuating the crisis.
It’s unclear if the candidates even understand the systemic causes of the violence against black trans women.
The intersectional complexities of violence against black trans women
The overriding cultural assumption is that trans women are typically killed after withholding their trans status from potential sex partners. Once men discover that a woman they’ve had sex with is trans, the story goes, they fly into an uncontrollable and murderous rage.
This faulty assumption forms the basis for the “trans panic” defense, a legal argument claiming that the discovery of a partner’s trans status puts people into a state of mind where violence is justified. The defense has now been outlawed in six states, New York most recently, and many cases have proven that oftentimes, a killer’s claim of ignorance is a lie.
If discovery that a woman is trans is the sole factor in male violence against us, why is it that black and brown trans women are killed at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts? The truth is the reason trans women of color are particularly susceptible to violence involves a complex intersection of poverty, overpolicing, housing insecurity, and race.
A lack of employment and housing protections throughout most of the country contributes to financial insecurity for these women. As a result, transgender workers are more likely to be unemployed versus their cisgender counterparts, and 34 percent of black trans women face housing insecurity compared to just 9 percent of nonblack trans people. With astronomically high costs for transition-related surgeries, many trans women end up turning to sex work in order to survive.
Sex workers, particularly trans sex workers of color, face a disproportionately high risk of violence, up to and including murder.
2020 candidates’ voting records show they don’t understand the epidemic
Candidates ignoring the material conditions of black trans women’s lives while using vague calls for “acceptance” as campaign fodder is endlessly frustrating. A closer look at some of the candidates’ voting records on sex worker rights proves even more infuriating.
Many of the members of Congress currently running for president — Cory Booker, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA, a bill that purported to introduce criminal penalties for web businesses found facilitating sex trafficking. The key flaw in the bill is that it does nothing to differentiate between consensual and nonconsensual sex work, forcing website operators to crack down hard on anything related to sex work. In reality, the bill has made the lives of sex workers more dangerous since President Trump signed it into law last July.
Almost immediately, websites such as Craigslist and Backpage shut down their personals sections. Social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter targeted the accounts of sex workers who were advertising their services. This left sex workers suddenly cut off from online community resources such as lists of potentially dangerous clients. Anecdotal and researched evidence suggests that sex workers are safer when they can prescreen potential clients and take advantage of online safety forums. Without the ability to prescreen through online chats, sex workers have been forced out into the street in order to survive.
The country has seen a spike in violence against sex workers in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, including against black and brown trans women sex workers. The candidates who voted for the law, including Warren, who co-sponsored it in the Senate, have trans blood on their hands.
To her credit, Warren, along with Sanders, has signaled to activists that she may be open to considering their position, and Sens. Booker and Harris and Reps. Seth Moulton and Tulsi Gabbard told BuzzFeed News that they support decriminalization. But sex worker rights as an issue largely remains on the margins of US politics.
That could change in the near future, as activists have taken to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and Albany, New York, to lobby lawmakers for legislation that would make their lives easier, including the decriminalization of sex work. Besides decriminalization, high on the legislative agenda for activists is the repeal of so-called “walking while trans” laws, which allow police officers to treat any trans woman walking down the street with suspicion.
Recently, an NYPD officer testified at a deposition that he would drive down the street looking for women with Adam’s apples to stop on suspicion of solicitation. Under the law in New York and many other states, discovery of a condom in a purse is sufficient evidence to arrest a trans woman on prostitution charges. A black trans activist in Arizona was infamously arrested in this fashion in 2014, while another black trans woman traveling through Iowa was arrested after hotel staff called the police suspecting that she was a sex worker.
Candidates who really want to make a substantive, material difference in the murder rate of trans women must reconsider their positions on sex worker rights and FOSTA-SESTA. Black trans women and other trans women of color deserve real policy proposals while they’re still alive, rather than their deaths being used as stump speech applause lines and candidate hashtags.
Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She was the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history. Her work can be seen in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Vice, and many others.