Julisa Abad said she’s one of the more fortunate transgender women in Detroit’s Six Mile and Woodward area.
The 34-year-old said she’s never worked in the sex industry, but she understands why many others feel as if they don’t have a choice.
“When I first moved to Detroit, despite everything that I brought to the table, I couldn’t find employment,” Abad told ABC News. “I hated that the social stigma, especially within the area that I lived in, was that all trans women are sex workers.”
Abad eventually landed a position as a victims’ rights advocate with the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a program that assists in solving serious crimes targeting members of the LGBT community. Most of the organization’s cases involve transgender women of color subjected to violence from straight men, often an intimate partner.
The Human Rights Campaign has tracked at least 136 deaths of transgender people since 2013 due to fatal violence, with most victims being black transgender women, but the organization said the violence is hard to track due to misgendering and transphobia. The actual number of killings could be much higher.
One of the most-recent victims, 22-year-old Muhlaysia Booker, was fatally shot in Dallas last week, just months after she spoke out against a gang of men who brutally attacked her while yelling transphobic slurs.
“She was always full of life, the life of the party and a jokester,” Booker’s aunt, Lakeitha Lemons, told ABC News. “She knew the things she would have to face. She knew about the violence, the backlash and the criticism that she would receive, but she didn’t care. She would die for her cause.”
Police are investigating to see if Booker’s murder was a hate crime, or if it could be linked to two other attacks that targeted black transgender women in the area. Brittany White, 29, was fatally shot inside her car in southeast Dallas in October 2018 and another transgender woman was nearly stabbed to death in April.
Experts and advocates point to these violent attacks as examples of why the U.S. needs stronger anti-discrimination policies and legal protections for transgender people.
In many states, including Michigan, discrimination laws do not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, leaving transgender people more vulnerable to job discrimination and more likely to resort to illegal activity to earn a living, according to LGBTQ rights advocates. It also makes them prime targets for violence and abuse.
In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 U.S. murders involving transgender victims, with black trans women representing an overwhelming majority, according to Human Rights Campaign, which considers itself the “largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization.”
At least five transgender people have been killed so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. All five were women of color.
Many of the reported cases involved clear anti-transgender bias. In others, the victim’s transgender status may have put them at risk in other ways, such as forcing them into unemployment, poverty, homelessness or sex work, according to HRC’s research.
“While the details of these cases differ, it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable,” HRC said in a statement. “Many of these victims are misgendered in local police statements and media reports, which can delay our awareness of deadly incidents.”
Rebecca Williams, a humanities professor at Essex County College in New Jersey and adviser to the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance program, said she expected to see more outrage in response to such “epidemic” violence.
“Those particular incidents where these black trans women have been murdered, they haven’t been met, as far as I can see, with as much outrage as they should be met with,” Williams told ABC News. “Violence is a problem in our society, but we have to pay particular attention when vulnerable members of our society are murdered and when acts of violence are committed against them.”
“Even though we have our civil rights and marriage equality, and laws against discrimination, there is still violence and there’s still hatred and there’s still harassment going on,” she added.
Williams, a former city councilwoman and current freeholder of Union County, New Jersey, said a lot of the violence stems from rigid religious beliefs and a lack transgender visibility. That’s an issue her county is working to change.
“Governors and mayors can issue proclamations, as we did here in Union County, stating that their municipalities are a safe space for LGBT people. It shows that violence and harassment won’t be tolerated,” Williams said. “They can also host training for city officials and residents to help them understand how to create positive interactions with LGBTQ folks.”
Jamie Powell Horowitz, who serves as the special prosecutor for the Fair Michigan Justice Project, said her organization focuses on LGBTQ awareness and training. The project started by training local police departments on the proper ways to talk to members of the LGBTQ community, and how to make them feel comfortable.
“Unfortunately, yes, you do have to tell people how to talk to people,” Horowitz said. “Basically, the point of the project is bridging that gap between the community and law enforcement, so that when they are targeted, we can actually address it and prosecute those crimes.”
Now, nearly three years later, the organization said it has a 100% conviction rate.
“Today, we’ve had 26 cases that we’ve done, and I would say half, about half, of that caseload has involved biased-based crimes against transgender women of color,” Horowitz said. “The whole community is changing their attitudes towards law enforcement. Now, victims are starting to report and come to court.”
“I think that it helps to keep the community safe because people who go there to rob, to rape, to kill, or take advantage of them now know that they’re they’re going to report and that the police are going to show up immediately,” she added.
Horowitz said she couldn’t disclose specific details about pending cases involving transgender victims, but she said a lot of past cases dealt with transgender prostitutes who were involved with married, straight men who would “rather kill them” than be “caught” with them.
“The majority of the cases that we have involving trans women of color, they involve women who are doing sex for survival work,” she said. “Something will happen — they’ll have a dispute over money, something will go wrong — and they’ll get rough with the girls, and rather than being in a position of getting caught with them, these men kill them.”
Abad, who currently serves as Fair Michigan Foundation’s director of transgender outreach and advocacy, said a lot of transphobic violence stems from the social stigma attached to being with a trans woman.
She said there’s support groups for just about everything except for men who are attracted to trans women.
“They are struggling with it internally because society — their families and community — says it’s not right, and they can’t talk to their homeboys about it because of the stigmatization,” Abad said. “So when you combine all these layers, we — trans women — end up with a higher rate of mortality and violence.”
“We need to change the way things operate, educate people and give these men a safe space to articulate their feelings,” she added. “Society shouldn’t demonize them or try to take away their manhood because they like trans women.”