March 4, 2017

Three Transgender Women Murdered in Louisiana, Community Upset





Emily Lane, NOLA.com | The Times-PicayuneBy Emily Lane, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune 
 
There were always days when Syria Synclaire worried whether, as a black transgender woman in New Orleans, a stranger's taunt would one day escalate to something dangerous, or whether she would face harassment just for walking to the bus stop. 
Then Chyna Gibson, who was like family to Synclaire, was shot to death Saturday (Feb. 25) outside a New Orleans East shopping center. Two days later, a second transgender woman, 25-year-old Ciara McElveen, with whom Synclaire worked at a shelter, was fatally stabbed in the 7th Ward.
"I was shocked," Synclaire said. "I was nervous. And I was ultimately frightened. It's real: people's hatred. People's fear of the unknown of trans experience could lead to my death."
New Orleans police say the deaths of Gibson and McElveen do not appear to be connected, and that neither was targeted for being a transgender woman. Still, local and national LGBT advocacy groups say their deaths highlight a disturbing number of violent crimes against transgender people in Louisiana and elsewhere.
Seven transgender women have been killed in the United States in the first two months of 2017, according to the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which tracks homicides of transgender people.  
Do Louisiana hate crime laws cover transgender people?

Questions raised after two transgender women in New Orleans are murdered in three days

Three of the seven were killed in Louisiana: Gibson, McElveen and 18-year-old Jaquarrius Holland, who was gunned down Feb. 19 in Monroe. A comment on a GoFundMe page seeking donations for Holland's funeral arrangements notes that Holland "never stopped fighting" to be herself. 
"My FRIEND didn't deserve this at all! SHE was beautiful," the post says.
The Anti-Violence Project reports 23 transgender people were the victims of homicides in 2016. Other organizations that track homicides of transgender people, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the LGBT news organization The Advocate, both recorded 27 homicides of transgender people. All three organizations say the totals were the highest on record.
Anti-Violence Project spokeswoman Emily Waters said the reason the counts don't match is the same as the reason total homicides of transgender people are likely understated: Police and media often identify transgender victims by their birth names, a practice known as misgendering.
"We really are just hitting the tip of the iceberg here," said Waters, of efforts to track transgender homicide victims. "Transgender identities are so often erased, and they so often experience violence because of their identities."
While transgender people have always existed, Waters said, records of violence against them have not always been tracked because the victims are so often misgendered as to render the data meaningless.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found 46 percent of respondents reported being verbally harassed in the past year because they were transgender, and nearly 1 in 10 reported being physically attacked for being transgender. 
Those who commit violence against transgender people target transgender women of color at  disproportionate rates, said Nick Adams, director of transgender media for GLAAD, a media monitoring organization founded in 1985.
"Transgender women of color often live at the dangerous intersection of transphobia, racism, sexism and criminalization, which can lead to high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, putting them at greater risk for violence." 
All three of the Louisiana transgender women killed in February were black transgender women.
Misgendering by police
Getting accurate data about the number of transgender murder victims is critical, Adams and Waters say, if the scope of the problem is going to be brought to light.
"The more the public becomes aware of something," Waters said, "the more resources get put into it."
The problem for police and news media is that a victim's gender identity is not always accurately reflected on identity documents, such as driver's licenses, that serve as source material for police reports and crime stories. Often when the victim is a transgender person, those documents "do not match how they live authentically," Adams said.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found more than two thirds - 68 percent - of the 27,715 respondents had none of their IDs changed to reflect the name and gender they preferred, Adams pointed out. 
Legally changing a name can cost hundreds of dollars and often involves jumping through "bureaucratic hoops," Adams said. Moreover, laws in some states require proof of certain medical procedures to change one's legal sex, another financial hurdle many transgender people have difficulty clearing. 
Until police departments and news media make more of an effort to authenticate gender identity by speaking to family and friends, Adams said, "we won't have good information about how to stop them."   
The New Orleans Police Department has addressed the problem in part by having an LGBT liaison, Sgt. Frank Robinson, dedicated to improving the department's relationship with and treatment of the transgender community.
"In the past, there was a lot of concerns within the LGBT community ... that the NOPD was very insensitive to their needs," Robertson, a 15-year NOPD veteran, is quoted as saying in an NOPD press release distributed Wednesday. "I can bridge that gap to bring us together."
Robertson said when NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison first approached him for the job, he was reluctant to take it because he had not yet "come out professionally." He ultimately  decided giving a voice to the LGBT community on the force outweighed concerns about his privacy. 
Members of the LGBT community are comfortable sharing their concerns and information with him, Robertson said, "because I'm out there with them, fellowshipping with them, hanging out with them."
In late January, Robertson recorded a video message posted to NOPD's YouTube channel and NOPDnews.com asking the transgender victim or any witnesses of a videotaped attack in New Orleans to come forward to police. The video, posted that month to social media, showed two men chasing a transgender woman and beating her, talking lightly about the attack, "like it was a game, like they were chasing a rabbit," as Robertson described it in the video. 
After Robertson made the plea for information, the victim came forward to him. The case remains under investigation. 
Although the NOPD has not formally tailored its data collection to capture all LGBT victims in a category, Robertson said Thursday he has recently started his own database. He started on Monday, he said, tracking crime incidents involving members of the LGBT community.
More work to be done
But one officer does not represent a culture change, said Sebastian Rey, a New Orleans-area resident who works with Louisiana Trans Advocates.
Rey said some NOPD officers, like Robertson, "will climb mountains to get you justice." But others come to crime scenes with personal biases on full display. They assume transgender people participate in the "street economy," he said, which may not be the case.
"They view us as being part of the problem, rather than just an innocent victim. And that's not accurate," he said. Some transgender crime victims are reluctant to report crimes because other transgender crime victims have sought help from NOPD only to get their "priors checked" and their "purse searched," he said.  
Many in the transgender community are now eager to improve their relationship with NOPD for a better shot at getting justice, Rey said. NOPD is a "big department," he said, and he understands transgender person's experience with NOPD will vary depending which officer responds. 
"Recognizing their humanity will be a part of them recognizing ours," he said.
A Town Hall organized by advocacy group Transitions Louisiana is planning a town hall meeting Friday (March 10) at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans on Jefferson Avenue. One of the topics will be the transgender community's relationship with NOPD, Rey said. Robertson has been invited to attend.
"We're going to fight back'
Co'Bella Monroe, a 20-year-old transgender woman who lives in New Orleans, said the back-to-back murders of Gibson and McElveen has drawn the transgender community together "just to hold each other, to see where people are hurting and seeing how we can heal."
The local transgender community is tightly knit, she said, like a family. Synclaire, Chyna Gibson's close friend, said that many within that community are less interested in seeking acceptance for living as a transgender person - "Some people will never understand," she said - than in feeling safe.
"We're not causing any bodily harm to anyone," Synclaire said. "We're just literally living our lives and living in our truth."
Synclaire said education is the key to increasing tolerance. She hopes the community understands that Gibson was someone's daughter, someone's niece, someone's sister and someone's friend.
The way she was killed, Synclaire said, suggested the perpetrator took her life "so effortlessly" and thought that because she was a transgender woman, "no one would notice."
"We are going to notice," Synclaire said. "And we're going to celebrate. And we're going to fight back."
Dozens of people on Thursday leaned on each other, some cradling each other's shoulders in their arms, as they gathered at a vigil to remember Gibson at the gates of Louis Armstrong Park. Candles surrounded her portrait, people spoke of their memories, and colored balloons floated into the air.
Beneath many jackets and coats of the people gathered were white T-shirts with a photo of Gibson and the words, "Justice for Chyna."
LOUISIANA'S DEATH TOLL: 4 TRANSGENDER MURDER VICTIMS IN 9 MONTHS
* Chyna Gibson, 31
Shot to death Feb. 25 about 8:30 p.m. outside the Bella Plaza shopping center in the 4300 block of Downman Road in New Orleans East. Police found her lying between two cars parked in front of a clothing store. Family and friends said she was a originally from New Orleans and performed in drag shows across the country. A friend told a reporter she had been living in California but came to her native New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. NOPD on Thursday distributed images to the public of two "persons of interest" in the case.
Murder victim Chyna Gibson mourned by family, friends
"Chyna didn't affiliate herself with any kind of drama," a friend said. "It's a shocker to everyone."

*Ciara McElveen, 25
Fatally stabbed Feb. 27, her body found about 9 a.m. at Columbus Street and North Claiborne Avenue. She was taken to an area hospital, where she died.  According to police, witnesses saw a man in a black car, possibly a Chevrolet Camaro, stop the car and grab something out of the trunk. He walked to the passenger side, where McElveen was sitting, and stabbed her before pulling her from the car. Police on Wednesday released images of a "vehicle of interest," possibly a black Chevrolet Camaro, in the stabbing death.
Pushed to society's edges, 7th Ward stabbing victim 'at peace'
McElveen was the second transgender woman to be killed in New Orleans in a three-day span.

* Jaquarrius Holland, 18
Shot to death Feb. 19 about 8 p.m. on Grammont Street in Monroe, the Monroe News Star reported. The newspaper reported he had one gunshot to the head. Police the next day said Malcom Derricktavois Harvey was wanted in Holland's death on a charge of second-degree murder. The outlet said the gunshot followed a "verbal altercation" between the two. Chesna Littleberry, whose name authored the post on GoFundMe, told Mic.com Holland loved makeup and hairstyling and earned the nickname "eyelash queen." The Times-Picayune's attempts to reach LIttleberry were unsuccessful. She told Mic.com that although Holland was like a younger sister to Littleberry, Holland taught her about self-acceptance.
* Devin Diamond, 20
Found dead June 5, 2016, about 4:20 a.m. in a burning vehicle in the 4400 block of Flite Court in Pines Village. The Orleans Parish Coroner said Diamond died of blunt force trauma. Police announced later that month investigators were seeking an older-model red pickup truck with chrome rims, running boards, tinted windows and rearview mirrors, which the department said was a "vehicle of interest" in the case. Diamond's friend George Melichar said Diamond was on a journey of transitioning into a woman and described her as "full of life." Diamond had dreams of becoming a veterinarian or a make-up and hair stylist, her mother Antoinette Diamond said. 
Times-Picayune staff writers Laura McKnight, Richard Webster, Jonathan Bullington and Beau Evans contributed to this report.

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