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'We're Being Targeted For Violence': Transgender Day Of Remembrance Honors Lives Lost

A transgender pride flag — striped with two light blue stripes, two pink stripes, and one white in the center — flies on a flag pole.
Flickr/gazeronly

Friday was Transgender Day of Remembrance — a day to honor the lives lost to anti-trans violence.

The Human Rights Campaign of DFW and Prism Health North Texas hosted a candlelight vigil via Facebook Live Friday night to honor the 37 trans or gender non-conforming individuals who were killed in the U.S. this year.

That’s the highest number of deaths recorded in a single year according to the Human Rights Campaign. Their names and stories were read aloud and candles lit to honor their memories.

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What is Transgender Day of Remembrance?

Transgender Day of Remembrance started in 1999 as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a trans woman of color killed the year before in Massachusetts. The vigil sparked what's become an annual tradition. It also launched an effort to track the killings of trans men and women.

Emmett Schelling is executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, or TENT. It’s an organization dedicated to furthering gender diverse equality in Texas through education and networking.

“Up until recently, no one was tracking [trans killings],” Schelling said. "And so that is why it started, was to really point out like, we're being targeted. We're being targeted for violence, for very specific violence and to shine a light on that."

For Schelling, this issue hits close to home. As a trans man and an advocate for his community, he’s been harassed and received threats. He calls them ‘love letters.’

“There’s a specific kind of hurt to know that...a whole population of people just blindly hate you.”
Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas

“One of them contained a picture of me in public someplace. I don't know exactly where. I couldn’t figure out if they pulled it off the internet, but it looked like someone actually took the picture,” Schelling said.

Because of the threatening nature of these messages, Schelling said he worries for the safety of not only himself, but his fiancé and child.

“They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who loves me or what good I’m contributing to the world,” he said. “There’s a specific kind of hurt to know that not just the person sending this, but a whole population of people, just blindly hate you.”

Schelling said some of that hate is a direct result of people in power vilifying transgender individuals.

"We went from invisible to, you know, the scary monster under your bed, right,” he said. “Or rather the scary monster lurking in a public bathroom."

Anti-Trans Violence In Texas

Schelling’s referring to the so-called "bathroom bill" Texas lawmakers debated during a special session in 2017. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led the crusade for a state law to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans — an initiative that resonated with social conservatives but eventually fizzled out.

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Schelling said bills like these perpetuate misinformation about the trans community.

"They are othering people, like of course that's going to see violence,” he said. “Because what you've essentially said is these people are not people really, these people are not as human as you and me. These people are not as worthy of dignity, of respect, of using a public bathroom without being criminalized.”

Texas leads the nation in trans killings. Since 2015, at least 15 trans or gender non-conforming individuals have been killed in the Lone Star State. Five of those killings happened in the Dallas area within the past three years, including 22 year old Merci Mack, a Black trans woman killed in June.

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But, why is this problem so much worse in Texas than elsewhere?

Ricardo Martinez said it’s because the state doesn’t have comprehensive non-discrimination protections for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Martinez is the CEO of Equality Texas, an organization working to secure equality for all Texans through political action, education and community organizing.

“Many Texans are not aware that LGBTQ people can legally be fired, refused housing or denied simple services because of who they are,” he said.

Without those basic protections in place, Martinez said it leads to disproportionate rates of unemployment, homelessness and lack of access to healthcare and public services.

He said if Texas wants to reduce the rising rates of trans violence, it needs to address these issues as well. That’s why Equality Texas is supporting comprehensive, nondiscrimination legislation to be passed during the upcoming 87th legislative session that begins in January.

Possible Solutions

A bipartisan nondiscrimination bill was already filed during pre-filing for the upcoming session. Dallas State Rep. Jessica González (D) and Rep. Rafael Anchia (D) are co-sponsoring the bill, along with Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi (R).

If passed, the bill would give sexual orientation and gender identity protected status under Texas’ nondiscrimination laws for employment, housing and access to public spaces.

Jessica Shortall is managing director for Texas Competes, a coalition of businesses and organizations whose goal is to make an economic case for fair treatment of those in the LGBTQ+ community. She said 70% of Texans support the nondiscrimination bill.

“That's majorities of Democrats and Republicans, it's majorities of every major faith group, including evangelicals,” Shortall said. “I think there's sometimes a false perception that Americans in Texas broadly don't support this or that people of faith don't support this, but we've got 70% of Texans that say that they agree that LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination.”

But the bill wouldn't just benefit the LGBTQ+ community — it could strengthen the Texas economy, too.

According to a 2020 study from the Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm, the passage of a nondiscrimination bill could create 180,000 jobs in the tech and tourism industries, as well as $2.8 billion in state tax receipts by 2025.

Shortall said it could also attract more people from out of state to move to Texas.

“You do get businesses having employees say, ‘I'm not going to move my family to state X or Y because I don't feel safe there or I don't feel safe for my kids there,’” Shortall said. “So it again, would make operations easier, and talent, acquisition and management, easier for big businesses.”

Advocates agree that education is also an area that needs work. Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said Texas needs to improve the educational environment for trans students.

“That might mean anti-bullying policies through the lens of a restorative justice framework, creating public to private training programs specifically aimed at facilitating stable employment, which is kind of a cornerstone of stability, right? If you don't have a job, you can't provide for your family, you can't do very much,” Martinez said.

"When you erase LGBTQ people from everything, especially education, people are socialized to believe that they're an ‘other,’ right? And if you other and marginalize people enough, they become easy targets.”
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas

He’s also concerned about LGBTQ+ students not feeling represented in sex education curriculum. For the first time in more than two decades, the Texas State Board of Education voted Friday to expand the sex ed curriculum, allowing seventh and eighth grade students to learn about birth control and contraceptives. But the revised curriculum will not include information about sexuality, gender identity or consent. Martinez sees that as a problem.

“It's about teaching not only sex; It's about self acceptance, it's about self-esteem, it's about developing healthy, romantic relationships,” he said. “It's also about learning about sexual orientation, gender identity. I think what happens when you erase LGBTQ people from everything, especially education, people are socialized to believe that they're an ‘other,’ right? And if you other and marginalize people enough, they become easy targets.”

Schelling, the director of TENT, said education is the best form of advocacy and community engagement. He said meeting people where they’re at and dispelling misinformation about the transgender community is the first step.

“In doing that,” he said. “We could really move policy...in terms of improving trans Texans’ quality of life.”

Got a tip? Email Rebekah Morr at rmorr@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @bekah_morr.

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