LGBT — November 20, 2015 at 12:00 pm

An open letter to LGBT civil rights ballot initiative organizer on International Transgender Day of Remembrance


Today, November 20th, is International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). TDOR was started by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998. The day is intended to bring awareness to the violence experienced by the transgender community on a daily basis. The trans community faces an inordinate level of violent crime including murder and assaults, crimes that, more often than not, go unreported as the hate crimes that they are.

Since the last TDOR in 2014, 24 transgender people have been murdered in the USA alone. Of those, 17 were people of color who face a disproportionate level of the violence directed at this community. The number of trans people who were murdered in the USA doubled from 2013 showing that things are not only not getting better, they are, in fact, getting worse.

An article in Buzzfeed this week delves into how this is manifesting in the city of Detroit where six trans people have been murdered in the past three years. The article is a raw look at the desperation that trans people experience as they simply try to live:

In a three-month span, three black trans or gender-nonconforming people were killed in Detroit this year, two near Palmer Park. During one week in summer 2014, three transgender women were shot, one fatally, near the park. Those incidents don’t include countless other stories relayed to BuzzFeed News by police and trans women about robberies, knifings, sucker-punchings, more homicides, dismemberment, charred bodies, trans women being shoved out of moving cars, and other acts of violence against trans women nearby in recent years. […]

Personal anecdotes and academic studies echo common explanations for how transgender women end up working in a survival economy: Families ridicule or beat transgender girls when they try to come out. Kids tease them at school, and teachers punish them for wearing clothes that clash with gender expectations. They leave home young, often without diplomas, and move to cities and neighborhoods where they can find transgender families that offer emotional support. And then, turned away from employers who make empty promises to “call you back,” the women come to places like Six Mile and Woodward for money.

Joblessness among transgender people was at 14% in 2011, double the national average at the time, according to the most comprehensive survey to date on anti-trans discrimination. Black transgender respondents were unemployed at double that rate, 28%, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s survey.

The article also shows how law enforcement officials in some areas are actually making the problem worse:

The city of Detroit surrounds the small city of Highland Park. The jurisdictions share a border at Six Mile Road — in the middle of the strip of Woodward where many women work and walk. These women cross the border regularly, as do police for the Highland Park Police Department, responding to emergency calls or stopping transgender women on the street, several women said in interviews.

“They will pull over and, on the bullhorn, say loud as hell, ‘What the fuck are you nasty-ass men doing out here? Get your triflin’, ugly asses across the street,’” said Abad, the activist. “They call you a man, a fag.”

Carter recounted the same: “They do it to humiliate.” […]

[Trans woman Lakyra] Dawson said the Highland Park police’s behavior could actually encourage more violence. “When they are the ones doing the harassing, it makes it looks like it’s OK for everyone else to harass us.” She says people think, “If police are doing it, maybe we can do it.”

A 2014 study of transgender women in Detroit, published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, reported that police in the area — the study doesn’t specify which departments — “were also implicated as participants in sex work as johns or clients.” In two cases, participants told researchers:

“Oh, the police are no different than johns to me. They use their authority to get what they want… The same thing that the rest of them want, but they want it for nothing… Because they are police, ‘I can take you to jail if you don’t suck my dick.’ […]

Highland Park Police Chief Kevin Coney, reached by phone, did not say whether his officers have had sex with trans women. “What people do in their personal life — you heard that some officers were dating transgenders [sic] — I don’t know if it’s a fact or a lie.”

“I don’t listen to hearsay,” the chief continued. “If it’s not on paper, I don’t listen to it.” Coney also could not confirm whether his officers had ever interacted with transgender people, saying it was “a possibility.”

Asked if he knew of violence against transgender women, Coney said: “Not that I am aware of, any violence.” And he described his thinking on transgender identities like this: “If you say you are transgender, then that’s what you are. I might say I am Superman. Some people might say I’m crazy.”

Please mark this important day by reading the entire article. Also, please educate yourself about the words we use when discussing the trans community (for example, people are not “transgendered” and calling them “transgenders” is insulting and demeaning.) GLAAD has a great page to help with that HERE. Finally, there are a number of events in Michigan which you can find listed HERE. If you’re not in Michigan, click HERE.

It’s against this backdrop of violence against trans people that there has been such concern raised by a recently-launched effort to put expanding LGBT civil rights to a vote in Michigan in 2016. I have written about this HERE and HERE. The organizer of effort – dubbed “Fair Michigan” – is civil rights attorney Dana Nessel who etched her place in the pantheon of leaders in the civil rights movement by being a lead attorney in the legal case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage a constitutionally-protected right in the entire USA. She is moving forward with her ballot initiative without the support of any of the major LGBT groups in Michigan, including members of the trans community that will bear the brunt of the hideous negative campaigning and the potential for increased levels of violence against transgender people like what has been reported during the successful repeal of the Houston Equal Right Ordinance in Houston, Texas this fall. As the Buzzfeed piece says, “Violence against transgender women [is] a problem worsening at the same time awareness about transgender people has been growing.”

Yesterday, two members of the trans activist community penned an open letter to Nessel at Pride Source, the blog for Between the Lines, Michigan’s premier LGBT newspaper. In it, they lay out their many reasons for opposing putting LGBT civil rights to a vote in 2016. I am reprinting their letter below in its entirety with permission.

I personally have mixed emotions about ballot proposal as I noted one of my previous pieces:

When I look at this issue, I see compelling arguments on both sides. While I understand that you only get one bite at the apple if you go the ballot proposal route, I also understand that our state legislature is dominated by ultra-conservative religionists elected by a gerrymandered system rigged by Republicans to maintain their power. I will be interviewing Dana Nessel in the next week or so to get her take on why she believes her approach is best and why it’s worth risking going it alone, at least in the near term. That’s a perspective worth hearing.

I had planned to sit down with Dana Nessel for a full interview about her effort. However, she declined my offer after I chose to write about the issue before interviewing her personally (my personal time constraints made this impossible since interviews take several hours to conduct and transcribe and I was out of the state the weekend she made her announcement.) This is despite the fact that I have described her as “the rock star Michigan attorney who was part of the legal team that made same-sex marriage the law of the land in the USA” and that I have acknowledged that there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue. My offer to give Nessel an opportunity to discuss her effort in a full interview at Eclectablog remains open.

Here is the open letter which originally appeared HERE yesterday:

Editor’s Note: This open letter was penned by Michelle Fox-Phillips and Charin Davenport speaking as the organizers of a meeting of Michigan’s transgender community which took place in Ferndale, Michigan on Nov. 14, 2015. Over 40 transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming community leaders attended this diverse gathering including, trans men, trans women, and trans people of color. What follows is the consensus reached by Michigan’s transgender community at that meeting.

Dear Ms. Nessel,

After learning of your efforts to place LGBT Civil Rights on the statewide ballot in the November 2016 general election, representatives of Michigan’s Transgender Community met at Affirmations to discuss what your proposal means for our community. Knowing that transgender people would be the target of the most vicious anti-LGBT attacks in a ballot campaign, we struggled to understand why you did not find it important to engage the community most at risk before launching a campaign that so critically affects our welfare. Nonetheless, by the close of our meeting, we reached a general consensus that it would be helpful to request you meet with the leaders of Michigan’s Transgender Community in order for us to understand your position and in the hopes that you would listen to our concerns, as well.

However, we were dismayed when, just two days later, Mlive published a piece by Tim Skubick, in which you are quoted as saying: “We are full steam ahead. I won’t talk to anybody about stopping [the ballot initiative]”. After reading this and other comments over the last several days, it appears to us that you have chosen to ignore the very real and serious danger your actions pose for Michigan’s Transgender Community.

It is our fundamental belief that we cannot be represented in the discussion about our civil rights if transgender people are not included in the discussion. To shut us out is demeaning and denies us the dignity we deserve.

Therefore, we feel we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we did not make this appeal to you and your better judgment. We hope that you will seriously consider the following principle concerns Michigan’s Transgender Community has with your proposed statewide ballot initiative:

First among our concerns is safety. Nowhere in the United States is anti-transgender violence more horrific and discrimination more egregious than Michigan. A statewide political brawl with anti-equality forces places Michigan’s Transgender Community at grave risk of further violence spurred by hate-filled rhetoric. In Houston, anti-transgender violence increased during the recent ballot campaign and has not abated since. Transgender people in Houston live in fear, while the anti-trans forces feel more emboldened than ever.

Second, our basic civil rights should be protected by law and not subject to the capriciousness of a largely uninformed or worse, misinformed public. The transgender community is afforded very few privileges and our rights should not be decided by those who are able to take their privileges for granted. If the opposition succeeds in convincing the majority of voters that we are a threat to their way of life, their beloved institutions, and their families, we cannot win at the ballot.

Third, relatively few voters have any knowledge of the transgender community beyond the stereotypes of pop culture references and the fear-based images conjured by transphobic leaders. Proposing a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of a transgender community in such an environment will likely reinforce those negative messages. Make no mistake, the hate-filled, fear-mongering message used by our opposition is simple, cheap and incredibly effective. To counter it will require a massive campaign to educate Michigan’s voters about the nuances of what it means to be transgender and then convince them to approve a change to our state’s constitution. To believe that this massive undertaking can be accomplished within the time frame of your ballot campaign is naïve at best.

Fourth, if voters turn down this ballot initiative, it will be very difficult if not impossible to convince our legislators to amend the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act. Even a failure to get the requisite signatures needed for the ballot will signal a lack of support to amend ELCRA in the near future. Lawmakers would only have to point to either one of those failures as evidence that the lives of transgender people simply don’t matter and, therefore, are not worth the political risk it would require to extend our civil rights under ELCRA.

Finally, the millions of dollars that would go into a single ballot campaign would be put to better use building a healthy culture of inclusion and awareness in Michigan. This includes working to elect transgender friendly candidates and training transgender people and our advocates to increase community awareness and acceptance.

Clearly, Ms. Nessel, you are passionate about LGBT civil rights. The transgender community of Michigan shares that passion. However, we are also passionate that transgender people are the authoritative voice for and about transgender people and to exclude the transgender community from deliberations about our own freedoms, rights and safety denies us the agency we have fought so hard to attain. If you believe, as we do, that transgender people deserve to have their rights fully protected, then certainly you must agree – decisions about us cannot be made without us as full and equitable partners in the process.

In light of the reasons stated above, we the Transgender Community of Michigan do not believe that a ballot initiative should move forward at this time.

[Image modified from CC image via Paradox | Wikimedia Commons]