I started reading the online comic Questionable Content so long ago. I’ve gone through more than half a decade of quirky storylines that only marginally relate to my life as a trans sex worker and social worker living in the Bay Area: a pro-domme mom, a lesbian couple—one of whom is a coffee shop owner and the other a librarian—and now a trans girl, Claire. In the years that I’ve read it, the comic strip has seemed separate, something I read between scrolling through the never-ending emotional self-exposure of queers on Facebook or news stories about alternating apocalypses. It performs the same function as Gossip Girl—something that allows me to imagine a reality where mistakes made in life could be avoided if people could only be honest, or just learn some direct communication skills.
Recently Claire has started dating the straight cis male protagonist. It’s going well in that way that almost detracts from a storyline. She asks him how he feels about dating her and he replies that he’s “cool with it.” Upon further probing he muses, “I worry about messing up or hurting you, but that’s part of any relationship I think. We’re still figuring things out, but that’s exciting! So it’s not so much that I’m passively cool with things, I’m actively happy with them.” The end of the comic has their heads in anime form with the text “Relationship Status: OPTIMISTIC” above them.
I don’t know why the author, Jeph Jacques, decided to veer this hipster coffee shop comic into the realm of trans advocacy, but I can’t help but imagine it has something to do with a desperation that is felt out there in Internetland for something pleasant for trans women to hold onto.
In the years that I’ve been part of trans communities in the US, I’ve never witnessed such a hard moment as right now. Eight trans women and trans feminine people have been murdered in the first two months of 2015—a painfully high number when you consider that there were 12 transgender women killed from January to November 2014. Each time a sister dies people talk about it both more and less; instead of writing stories about who people were, what they were like, what they enjoyed, even what was going on when they were taken from this earth, these women’s faces become clumped together in articles about a growingly obvious genocide.
Two massacres are part of the public consciousness of my community right now: the one of black men killed by police and the one of transgender women whose killers will likely never be found. Then there is of course the intersection of the two—black trans women, who make up five of these eight recent deaths.
The stories about the murders of Lamia Beard, Goddess Edwards, Yazmin Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Taja Gabrielle De Jesus, Penny Proud, Bri Golec, and Kristina Gomez Reinwald take up less airtime than I would have thought given how much my friends repost videos of Janet Mock. Maybe because its hard to engage with the helplessness. For a while I didn’t post anything on Facebook when I felt there was nothing I could do to shape a better outcome, for fear of creating a tunnel of overwhelming trauma.
With the systematic discrimination that trans women face, where does the fault lie? In the hands of the person who dealt the death blow, or in a society that teaches men—and it’s always men—that if women are worthy targets for sexual violence and physical assault, then trans women are undoubtedly more so? I do not believe it is useful to focus solely on the desire to punish the individual responsible for the crime. It muddies the fact that we are all complicit in the narrative that trans lives hold less value, from our acceptance of a status quo that reinforces that message on every institutional and cultural level of US society.
Taja DeJesus was a friend of mine—not the kind of friend to justify how central she feels in my brain right now, but close enough that if I close my eyes I can imagine her voice in my head, a kind of frantic laugh, and words tumbling out so fast that the emotion translated way before context. We didn’t have much in common. She was often homeless and extremely religious; on Facebook she sent me a message saying, “Cyd, I honor you, my angelic brother,” and photos of pages from the Bible. At the time I laughed about it but didn’t reply. I work 40 hours a week on top of running a porn company; even my tarot cards are dusty. I’m white-skinned and a trans man who has access to a lot of choices in my life. She was a Latina trans woman with very few.
Two hours after I heard Taja was murdered in San Francisco there was an emergency meeting to respond publicly. The room was filled with people, many of whom knew Taja, some of whom didn’t but understood the death of a trans woman as a political situation. Almost everyone was trans, most were people of color. In the conversation that happened there was a tension that existed even sometimes within the same individuals, of wanting to spell out the specifics and deconstruct the situation vs. the pain of speaking—of transitioning from saying is to was.
That people were able to shift a conversation from tears to a negotiation of asks was a testament of how many times they’d done this task before. The sharp discomfort I felt in trying to find something constructive in a moment of grief was based on the relative privilege I own in not having had most of the people who’ve died in my life been so directly linked to governmental neglect.
Over a weekend and a day, a coalition organized out a three and a half hour political funeral on the steps of City Hall and inside the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ meeting. Over 400 people witnessed trans women of color speaking about what it was like to live with constant barriers in their way—to employment, housing, healthy relationships, familial support, documentation, immigration, walking home without fear of harassment escalating into physical violence from passersby or police. A young woman, Vanessa Warri, told the audience that she fully expected that her name would be on the list of dead women one day.
Since writing this essay in mid-February, I have updated it twice to include more names. Last week a young trans girl took her own life. I had met her in December at a political rally. She spoke to the gathered crowd about how trapped she felt in an unfriendly world, about the painful decisions she’d made because there was no other choice. In a picture taken of her on that day, her hand-scrawled sign reads: “My Parents Call Me Filth. Am I not Human Too?”
It feels like too much, too much grief shared by too few. I start to feel paralyzed and panicky. At the clinic where I work, I talk to trans women every day who struggle to get their basic needs met, and now it feels overwhelming, like if I can’t find one person housing or help another person work through feeling alone, then next week may be too late. I know this feeling is unhelpful, even though I have to honor it as real. The trans women in my life feel anxiety waking up, waiting to discover who will be the next gone.
Are you sad? I hope so. Are you angry? You need to be. We need you to share this work.
There were four demands voiced by the folks of TAJA’s Coalition. They were:
- That cisgender (non-trans) people commit to long-standing, active alliance in ending violence against trans communities—from telling your friend that his joke about “tranny hookers” isn’t okay, to intervening in street harassment, to naming and protesting against systematic and interpersonal violence faced by trans communities.
- That money to be spent on construction of new “trans specific jails” and law enforcement targeting of trans communities, be immediately rerouted into trans community programing.
- The creation of safe and accessible housing for trans people living in poverty.
- A peer driven transgender task force to be built to inform the city supervisors how to designate funds and resources to our community.
During the last part of the action, I sat in the spillover section of the board meeting period of public comment, where we ate snacks and watched person after person plea their case in front of a silent jury, the sound of the one-minute warning punctuating their sentences. Afterward, a friend of mine told me that she understood it for the first time—not just everything that you are supposed to get as a politically active person—the lingo and the numbers—but a glimpse into the visceral understanding of what it’s like to know that the statistical probability of you being murdered in your lifetime is 1 in 12. How that affects you when you wake up in the morning, when you dress, when you go to school, when you decide to smoke, or invest in your future, or do drugs or any goddamn thing.
I like that Claire is in Questionable Content, but it’s obviously not enough. It’s not enough that Janet Mock or Laverne Cox are on TV, or that the Internet debate over the word “tranny” has made it onto Ru Paul’s drag race. It’s not enough that you accept or tolerate or date a trans man, or even put a word in for a trans woman of color to get a job. Stepping up means understanding that there is no Band-Aid to this horror and, in the words of BobbieJean Baker, you “do the work” anyway. It is vital that we examine the ways that we collaborate and enforce a system of cisgender privilege, that each time we act in ways that reinforce the dominance of cis people we take a step back and change our actions. It is vital that all of us that work in jobs that discriminate or create unfriendly environments for trans people that we make active steps in challenging that. It is vital that we undermine the concept that when someone does not conform to society’s standards they are complicit in the violence they experience.
It is vital that we talk about the murders of trans women, that we talk about why the murders of trans women seem less newsworthy than other crimes. The moment for real action is now—not one more person needs to die for you to know in your heart that this is an unacceptable way to live.
Feature photo © David Steinberg. All other photos © Shelly Prevost.