Violence against transgender people at all-time high in Georgia, nationally

Advocates say ‘it has got to get better than this’


Candace Towns was found dead in Macon, Ga. between two neglected houses on Halloween. 

Reported missing a day before, Towns, 30, was last seen on surveillance video of a gas station near the Roadway Inn where she was living. She had been shot and abandoned. 

Towns was the fourth reported transgender person killed in Georgia this year, and 25th nationwide, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s tracker. Twenty-one of the 25 killed were women of color. Over 60 percent of the deaths have occurred in the South. 

Zahara Green, 27, had been in Macon a couple weeks before Towns’ body was found. A transgender woman of color herself, Green said Towns’ murder was upsetting. 

“This could [have been] me at any point in my life,” she said. 

Despite political strides — including the first transgender women elected to serve in the Virginia state legislature and locally, on the Doraville City Council — violence against transgender people is at an all-time high. The first 10 months of this year have seen two more violent deaths of transgender people than all of 2016.

In Georgia this year,

  • Ava Le’Ray Barrin, 17, was shot during an altercation in the parking lot of an Athens apartment complex on June 25. The man who allegedly shot her initially claimed self defense, but was charged with murder and aggravated assault in connection with Barrin’s death. 
  • TeeTee Dangerfield, 32, was killed in Atlanta on July 31 while sitting in her car. Police said gender did not play a role in her death, but the family has its doubts. “All lives matter,” the woman’s aunt, Alesa Dangerfield, told Channel 2 Action News in August. “No one has the right to take someone’s life.” Three weeks after her death, Tyrone Kemp was charged with malice murder. Police said there was evidence that Kemp was with Dangerfield when she was killed. 
  • Scout Schultz, 21, was shot by a Georgia Tech police officer on Sept. 16. Schultz, who identified as neither male nor female, was seen walking toward police yelling for officers to shoot him and ignored numerous orders to drop what appeared to be a pocket knife, the AJC previously reported

With stories like these and Monday’s observance of national Transgender Day of Remembrance,  it gets very sad, said Christian Zsilavetz.

“I work hard to continue to ... create space for [transgender people] in the South,” said Zsilavetz, a transgender educator and activist. “... to do that outreach, to create space for trans people to be successful. It has got to get better than this.”

Barrin, Dangerfield and Schultz were the 15th, 17th, and 22nd deaths nationwide, according to the tracker. 

But that total is not completely accurate. Green said she knows at least two more transgender people that have been killed in Georgia in 2017, both in the Atlanta metro area. She said police often misidentify the gender of victims in reports, which leads to incorrect identification by news outlets. Family rejection of a person’s gender identity, she said, also contributes to inaccurate data. 

Social media has become a major factor in helping record and remember transgender people killed in violent acts. 

“The gift of social media is that people in the community are talking about it,” Zsilavetz said. “But talking about it does not change the laws.” 

Legal protections

Georgia is one of five states nationally that does not have a hate crime statute on the books. Fifteen other states have hate crime laws, but do not address sexual orientation or gender identity. 

An FBI report released last week on hate crimes showed an increase against the LGBT community in 2016 compared to the previous year. Almost 1,200 such crimes committed last year were motivated by bias of sexual orientation, accounting for one in six hate crimes committed. 

Crimes motivated by an anti-transgender bias also increased to 111 incidents in 2016; up from 76 a year prior. 

As more people come out and refuse to be silenced by homophobia and transphobia, “more conversations that sometimes turn ugly are going to happen,” Zsilavetz said.

And in addition to violence against transgender people, discrimination against them — including being denied housing, employment, or other services — often also go unreported, Zsilavetz said. 

Billie Marie Wood, a transgender woman in metro Atlanta, recounted her experience after she was seriously injured in a car wreck last fall. She said doctors and other workers stared at her from across the room. She said she was “made a spetacle of.”

“Once the doctor discovered I was trans, she had to point that out,” she said. “The emergency staff was standing on the other side of the ER and they said ‘that is one of those Caitlyn Jenner people.’ It was really embarrassing to me.”

And then there was the time at a convenience store, when a man paced around Woods’ car as her girlfriend was inside. 

“He came out in the parking lot and just stood there,” she said. “[He] looked into my windshield and looked into my door and kept staring like I was some odd being or alien or something.”

Reporting, Zsilavetz said, can lead to even more harassment.

“Many people are not out to their families,” he said. “They don’t want to be identified in the news, they don’t want to be identified in the crime blotter.” 

Dangerous alternatives

Georgia does not have explicit protections for housing, education, employment or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Neither do most states across the South. 

Green, a co-founder of TRANScending Barriers, Georgia’s first trans-led and trans-issue based nonprofit, said a lack of protections mixed with family rejection often forces transgender people into sex work that leads to an increase of ”risky situations” that contribute to violence. 

Harassment from police also contributes to the violence, especially against transgender women, Green said. According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 57 percent of transgender people said they were either somewhat or very uncomfortable asking the police for help. 

Green uses her own experiences as an example. She was 17 when a man on the street pulled what she thought was a knife on her. She immediately ran and searched for police. 

In an area of Midtown Atlanta known for sex work, Green said cops harassed her with questions even though she was doing nothing wrong. 

“I am telling you this guy is trying to kill me and [police] are asking what I am doing out here, that I should know what was going on out here,” she said. 

Green said the cops let the man go and did nothing about it. 

“For a lot of trans people who are put in situations that are hazardous to them,” she said, “... they are the ones who are asking the police for help, but are (instead) the ones that are treated as the criminals.” 

And if they report the violence against them, their pleas are often not taken seriously.  The response, Zsilavetz said, can basically be, “You put yourself in that situation. You made your bed, now lie in it.” 


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