16 October 2011

Thoughts at the end of the Summer of Violence

I was asked to provide commentary on anti-LGBTQ hate violence in DC following the September 29 performance of STOP KISS, produced by No Rules Theatre Company. I was joined on a panel by Hassan Naveed of GLOV, and we made a few remarks and took questions from the audience and cast. Below are the notes I developed to shape my comments.

I was sitting in one of my countless activist meetings one night, when my good friend, a long-time trans community leader, started weeping beside me. “I’m so tired of picking up bodies!” she wailed, and buried her face in her hands. We were in the midst of two brutal months, filled with shootings, beatings, muggings, and, yes, killings. Nerves were -- and are -- frighteningly thin. Our days have been spent planning vigils, visiting victims in hospitals, and identifying the dead. Our nights are interrupted by calls we don’t want to answer, uniformly featuring some grim news from some police official whose number we wish we didn’t have to save. In the thick of all that, the murders go unsolved, we sit in meetings with a coldly insensitive police chief that get us nowhere, and we get a morbid media following that is both essential and that we wish we never had.

Welcome to DC’s latest Summer of Violence. Studies show that transgender women of color bear the brunt of anti-LGBT hate violence. Recent events in DC seem to be going out of their way to reinforce that fact.

It started with shots fired on Dix Street NE in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 20. Lashai McLean, all of 23 years old, was dead. The friend she was with ran to safety -- outside DC -- and took days to find. Less than two weeks later, less than a block away, two young men approached another trans woman, asked her for money, then opened fire. She was able to flee unharmed. The two attacks are nearly identical in terms of location, time of day, and description of perpetrators. Police now say they’re unrelated.

Then it continued. Early on August 26, Kenneth Furr, a drunk, off-duty police officer, climbed on top of a car at First and Pierce Streets NW, and fired five shots at the three trans women and two men in the vehicle. Three people were hospitalized. Furr was pissed off that one of the women had failed to live up to stereotype by refusing his proposition for sex an hour earlier. In Officer Furr’s world, if a trans woman refuses to give a blowjob for a little cash, she deserves to die. Police say it’s not a hate crime.

Throughout all this, there were multiple robberies at gun point, some with shots fired. HIPS, an outreach organization for sex workers and others on the streets, reports a 300% increase in “bad date” reports from 2010 to 2011. That pattern of violence is nothing new, but the volume most certainly is.

Still, it continued. On September 10, a body was found on 11th Street NW, between Fairmont and Euclid. Police told us the deceased was an unidentified Latina trans woman. We spent the morning, and again that night, working the phones, taking inventory of literally every Latina trans woman in town. If we knew of someone who lived nearby who didn’t answer her phone, we went and knocked on her door. We sat at the crime scene for hours, talking to neighbors, trying to figure out what happened, and to whom. We laid flowers on the tree beside where the body was found. 

Two days later, another woman was shot in the neck by someone she knew. She was able to get herself to a police station for help. That afternoon, the police held a press conference, where they released an autopsy photo of the person found dead on 11th Street. You could hear the sinister disgust in the assistant police chief’s voice as he described the victim as “a man in women’s clothes.” Activists standing right beside him raised eyebrows. I muttered a string of expletives under my breath. Within a day, the victim was identified as GiGi Gopalan, originally from Nepal, who had come out as trans to friends in a letter just 12 days before her death. About 200 people showed up at a candlelight vigil this past Sunday. Police still don’t know what happened, and I doubt they ever will.

After weeks and weeks of this, suddenly it was my turn to weep. On Friday, September 16, some people burned the memorial to Lashai McLean that had been put up in the days after her death. There was a giant teddy bear, flowers, and a picture, all placed against a tree. All that was left were two charred paws. The thought of not just taking a life, but taking a memorial too, was just too much.

In tonight’s show, we saw just how much hate violence can tear lives apart in an instant. Violence doesn’t just hurt victims -- it rips through whole communities. Though Stop Kiss is a work of fiction, I want you to remember that it reflects an all too common reality. In the first phase of the DC Trans Coalition’s needs assessment study, we found a pervasive concern about safety and risk that was expressed by every single participant. When they are victimized, trans people are often reluctant to call the police, because they know all too well that there is more than one Officer Furr out there.

It’s time to be blunt about why this violence keeps happening. Our society has a long history of criminalizing queer and trans people, and DC is no different. When it’s easy to be profiled, picked up, and arrested for some sort of perceived deviance, it makes it that much harder for someone to secure a job in the formal economy. When our schools are unsafe and people are forced to drop out, it makes earning a living that much more difficult. With healthcare costs perpetually soaring upwards, people have to do whatever they can to meet their medical needs. These circumstances often force people to work the streets, which both jeopardizes their personal safety and perpetuates the cycle of criminalization and poverty.

DC is particularly aggressive in its enforcement of anti-sex work laws, and frequently declares spaces as “Prostitution Free Zones.” These profiling zones, where trans women can effectively be arrested for “walking while transgender,” force those who do work the streets -- and the many folks who hang out with them there to provide support and build community -- into less safe areas. Many of this summer’s crime scenes are on the peripheries of these Prostitution Free Zones. Thus the campaign to curtail a nonviolent crime that merely irritates this city’s gentrifying classes directly leads to the violent, bloody loss of trans lives.

This Summer of Violence, then, is nothing new. Systemic discrimination in this country has always led to the deaths of those deemed to be disposable. We will continue to resist this violent degradation, and we will continue demanding justice. We will force the police to take crimes against us seriously, and we will insist upon solutions to break these cycles.

13 June 2011

The marriage vacuum and the future of the LGBT movement

I've been doing some thinking about the Uniting Against Hate conversation I was involved with last night. It's led me to some reflections -- not altogether uplifting -- about the state of the LGB[sometimes]T rights movement, and where we might go from here.  

At some point in the conversation, I noted that lesbian, gay and bi people have been known to be especially transphobic, and haven't really been the advocates for trans rights that they could be.  An audience member questioned me about that observation, and expressed an alternative view.  In my response, I noted that there were, indeed, abundant examples of the LGB leaving behind the T, the 2007 debacle over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act chief among them.  My critique was (and is, and has been for some time) that the focus on marriage rights above all else has done a huge disservice to other, frankly more important fights.  Marriage is a policy goal of the relatively well-to-do who can afford such things.  Sadly, too many in the LGBT community (such as it exists), have other, far more pressing issues to deal with.  I constantly harp on the four issues that the Sylvia Rivera Law Project so poignantly mapped out:  healthcare, education, employment, and housing.  

12 June 2011

Thoughts on hate crimes and their impacts on trans communities

I was asked to speak at a panel earlier today called Uniting Against Hate, following a showing of Robert O'Hara's new play BOOTYCANDY at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Below is the essay I wrote to frame my remarks for the event. Thanks for reading.

11 November 2010

Celebrate 8 years of your favorite activist couple!

Elijah and I are celebrating our 8th anniversary in November 2010, and we decided to celebrate in a big way.  There shall be a party (comment/email if you want details), and you can bring us presents help us support a noble cause!  We're working with a bunch of awesome people to support the first transgender/gender non-conforming needs assessment study in DC in over a decade.  It's a major undertaking, and such things aren't cheap!  So as we celebrate our many, many, many years together, we hope you'll join us in supporting a cause that's near and dear to our little world-changing hearts.  Please donate as little or as much as you can using the handy tool below!


P.S.  We're handing over the cash to Latin@s en Accion, the fiscal sponsor for the study.  They're one of those 501(c)3 things, and so we can get you a receipt for a tax-deductible donation if you really want it.

P.P.S  If you're mean and don't like queer people, you can give us money to buy a KitchenAid.  We'll take one in either Pear, Ice or Green Apple.

03 October 2010

Sunday news: red edition

It's Sunday again!  There's a nice fall breeze in the air, and you know what that means:  a surge of evil left wingers are plotting the disastrous overthrow of life, liberty, and capitalism.  At least that's how the story goes.  Join us as we explore the downfall of humanity, subtly disguised as being nice to poor people.
  • In Britain, the out-of-power Labour Party has a new leader, Red Ed Miliband, aka Miliband the Not-As-Cute.  He says that if in government, his party wouldn't dramatically slash the national budget deficit in one fell swoop, as the ORLY coalition is doing now, and thus would attempt to avoid wide-scale economic upheaval.  Clearly Ed is a commie, and should be vilified by the Daily Mail immediately.  Oh, wait.
  • Yesterday in Washington, a rally endorsed by over 400 organizations called for more jobs, real justice, and genuine improvements in education.  Your humble blogger was in the midst of the fray, and can confirm that no marginalized groups were demonized even once during the festivities.  Obscenely wealthy corporate overlords didn't fair so well though.  Clearly these people are commies, and should be vilified by Glenn Beck immediately.  Oh, wait.
  • Also here in Washington, our recent primary election has led to the likely downfall of our very own Tyrant Education Queen, Michelle Rhee.  This reality has made affluent, largely white, "concerned citizens" who in many cases don't actually have kids in DC schools piss their pants with fear.  This reality may also diminish the chance that the largely poor parents of children in DC schools will be talked to as though they were the peers of their children.  Clearly these parents are commies, and should be vilified by the Washington Post editorial board immediately.  Oh, wait.
  • This Supreme Court opens its new term this week, and it's full of girls.  They'll probably want to rule on things.  They may even want their faces in a museum.  Clearly these lady justices are commies, and the ever-oppressed man should vilify them immediately.  Oh, wait.
So there you have it.  Go out and be a-feared, or something.  Oh, wait...

14 September 2010

Decision time for the DC primary: my picks and armchair analysis

For those few lucky DC residents just returning from a summer's long hibernation at Rehoboth Beach, you may not have noticed that we're engaged in a heated election battle for truth, justice, and stuff.  I've been following along closely, going to candidates forums, listening to radio debates, following tweets, reading interviews, dissecting candidate questionnaires, tracking endorsements, soaking up blog posts, and, of course, perusing candidates' websites.

There have been times when I've truly enjoyed this campaign season.  There were some real high points, good quotes, and fine attempts at outreach.  The conversation has, of course, been dominated by the mayoral campaign, which certainly isn't lacking in heat or energy.  However, it's also been trying.  After awhile it's just the same old crap recycled over and over and over and over and over and over again.  I'd really rather hear genuine debates between adults than the persistent "neener, neener, neener" we've been getting since August sometime. 

But let's get to why you're really here:  the choices!  (As though anyone in the universe gives a live-long day about my political opinions!)  And if, at any point you get bored in reading this, just get up and go vote already. 

24 August 2010

Diving into deep waters in re: millenials and IR

Yesterday Daniel Drezner raised the question of how millenials (meaning folks in their 20s like me) think about international relations.  There are some really thoughtful responses in the comments, mentioning things like the interconnectedness of our current world, the massive sea of information in which we swim, how a huge growth economy that precipitously tanked on us impacts our lives, and how we see a role for the United States to play in the world without necessarily resorting to hyper nationalist imperialist misadventures. 

I want to respond to the piece, but I want to do so by altering the premise a bit.  Like one, if not more, of the commenters, I was a student of both history and political science.  But then, influenced by a Quaker educational setting and my own personal struggles for social justice, chose to pursue graduate work in international conflict resolution, rather than straight up international relations.  Because jobs in conflict resolution are just a wee bit scarce, I've ended up working in international education, while continuing to do very local level activism at the same time.  And in these past few years, an insight that sparked as an undergrad has become a core belief:  we cannot separate the local from the global.  Or, in other terms, the distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy is purely academic.  As I see it, such a division doesn't actually exist.

This insight first came to me, somewhat unexpectedly, while writing my senior project for my history major oh so long ago.  Through a someone circuitous path, I ended up writing on the domestic political constraints that impacted U.S. decision-making in the Korean War -- a war that could have ended two years sooner had Truman not been afraid of appearing soft on communism at home.  Today, we see that a faulty immigration system impacts our relations with our immediate neighbors.  Our unwillingness to provide healthcare to our citizens evokes scorn from some of our allies.  Because we have a massive array of ill-conceived farm subsidies, we dump unneeded foodstuffs in foreign markets and crush local farmers' livelihoods, all the while calling it aid.  We can't actually cut the bloated military budget because people need the jobs.  The United States lectures the world on human rights, and yet contains fully a quarter of the world's prison population -- jails filled predominantly with young black men serving time for petty crimes in an attempt to keep our longstanding racist history going full steam, but with less overt fanfare.

As I see it, the lesson for my peers is that we must recognize that our domestic politics have impacts on our foreign relations -- beyond the obvious choices in fighting wars, managing economic crises, or cleaning up oil spills.  It is arrogant and hypocritical to claim to be a shining city on a hill so long as children are going hungry, the elderly can't afford their medicine, and it is legal in about 30 states to deny employment and housing to people just for being gay or transgender.  We have enduring cycles of poverty and repression in this country, based on racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and all manner of xenophobia's other children that we consistently fail to address.  My family came to this country 400 years ago, and yet I was the first of the line to get a college degree.  It wasn't until my grandfather's generation that my someone in family was even able to earn a steady paycheck, and yet my father has been unemployed for at least two years.  It's still far too likely that if you're born poor in this country, you'll die poor.  In our society, you either have privilege or you don't.  And if you don't, getting it takes work.  And that's an understatement.

In my mind, politics should be about the pursuit of justice.  We have a moral obligation to pursue it domestically and abroad, concurrently.  I don't just mean justice in a legalistic sense.  I mean justice in its fullest context -- social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and everything else.  But that isn't happening in our national politics.  Turn on cable television any night of the week and you'll find blabbering dunderheads of both the left and the right nannering on in a language that isn't the least bit powered by a brain.  Rather than focusing on issues that actually matter, politicians and commentators have spent fully two weeks debating where exactly one single mosque ought to go.  Stephen Walt points out that this kind of blubbering reminds him of the political discourse of the Weimar Republic -- not exactly high praise given what happened next.  If this is the kind of leadership my forbears want to demonstrate to people of my generation, then I'm afraid I must protest.  

Thus it is my sincere hope that my generation embraces a politics -- domestic and international -- rooted in justice that honors our fundamental humanity.  It is incumbent upon us to act where our predecessors have failed, namely to address some of the huge systemic problems we face.  I don't have any grand illusions about what can or might be achieved before my eventual demise, but I do know that we have to do better.  That we have to march on.  That we have to realize that justice is peace and that peace is justice.  And finally, I know this:  we damn sure better get to work. 

22 August 2010

Sunday news: let's embrace our trashy side edition

Are you looking for something more?  Are you looking for something less?  Are you looking for anything at all?   Join me in today's somewhat-weekly exploration of things that make the world tick.
Well now, that's that.  Don't you feel enlightened?  Ladies, don't go nuke anything.