In the last post I made the statement that workplace discrimination is often a matter of life and death for some transgender persons. When I wrote that statement, I was thinking about some of the cases I’ve researched and written-up for The LGBT Hate Crimes Project, like the murders of Bella Evangelista, Emonie Spaulding, Erica Keel, and Nireah Johnson, just to name a few.
What all of these women have in common is that they were transgender, they were murdered, and were murdered by men who discovered they were transgender. What they also have in common is that each of them turned to sex work at least part time in order to support themselves, because of difficulty getting legal employment, a direct result of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender presentation. In the wake of the murders of three transgender women — including Evangelista and Spaulding — transgender activist spoke out about how gender identity discrimination places transgender women in danger.
Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista’s or Emonie Spaulding’s often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it’s a form of blaming the victim.
“The implication is that it’s your fault for being beaten or killed,” says Jessica Xavier. “But a lack of privilege means you don’t have a choice.” Or as Mottet puts it, “Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living.”
“The classic profile,” says Mara Kiesling, “is a 13-year-old who’s thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She’s kicked out of school for wearing girls’ clothes. She can’t get a job because her says ‘Andre’ but she looks like a girl.
“What’s going to happen? Most likely, she’ll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable – living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival.”
Some D.C. activists made a relevant distinction between sex work and “survival sex work.”
During a press conference following Evengelista’s murder, Budd told how transgendered women informed her that they turned to prostitution only after they had been denied jobs because of their appearance.
“It’s a matter of simple survival,” Budd said. “Some of the girls have no other choice but to turn to the streets for survival.”
… Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said about 50 people attending a transgender “speakout” meeting in the District on Sept. 9, discussed a wide range of issues and problems faced by transgendered people, including the issue of prostitution.
“It’s about economic opportunity or the lack of opportunity,” Keisling said. “I call it survival sex work, which is not the same as commercial sex work,” she said.
“If you were thrown out of your house at 10 and you didn’t finish school, what are your chances of going to college at Georgetown?” she said.
The individual stories are anecdotes. The statistics are grim,
The D.C. media, in contrast, wants you to believe that it was the “lifestyle” that Bella and Emonie were living that led to their deaths – as if their transgender status was a simple life choice, and that this choice somehow forced their killers’ hands.
Being transgender can be a recipe for a difficult life. Many transgender people are cut off from the employment and education opportunities that are basic expectations in our culture, and discrimination leads many into sex work as their only means of survival. Such may well have been the experience of Emonie and Bella.
Some studies have put transgender unemployment as high as 70 percent, well above even the worst levels in these economically troubled times. While many places have enacted legislation to protect the rights of individuals seeking and keeping employment – regardless of their gender expression or identity – no such protections exist nationally, or in Washington, D.C.
There are a many things that need to be done, and many things changed to avoid more stories like Evangelista’s and Spauldings, among others. Ending the harassment that drives so many transgender young people away from educational opportunities is one. Making it possible for those same young people to find shelter and avoid living on the street, thus addressing the crisis of homelessness among LGBT youth, is another.
Ending the employment discrimination that closes so many doors, doors that lead away from the dangers of the streets, is another. That door, which for man means the difference between having a future and not having one, remains closed. For how long? Who knows?
But that some LGB activists say that for now it has to remain closed is only slightly less shameful than what’s not said; that for now, stories like Bella Evangelista’s and Emonie Spaulding’s must simply continue to happen, because ending anti-trans discrimination is not something we’re going to do right now. What else we’re going to do, besides wait, remains to be seen.