Before the coronavirus pandemic tore through the U.S., resulting in nearly 600,000 deaths and a slew of collateral damage, transgender people across the Southeast were participating in self-defense classes catered specifically to them. The courses, organized by LGBTQ advocacy group Campaign for Southern Equality, had one goal: to teach trans people to protect themselves should they be the target of an attack.
The campaign saw the classes as a necessity, with trans Americans facing disproportionate levels of violence — including record levels of reported fatal violence against the community.
“When folks are being attacked and murdered, helping with a name change doesn’t really do much good if we can’t keep our people alive,” Ivy Hill, the community health program director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, told NBC News.
Now, as it seems the worst of the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for the U.S., Hill hopes these classes will resume — either through their own organization or local grassroots groups. While the damage spawned by Covid-19 is slowing down, the violence faced by transgender Americans — particularly trans women of color in the South — appears to be accelerating.
This year is on track to be the deadliest on record for transgender Americans, with at least 28 trans and gender-nonconforming people fatally shot or violently killed so far, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking trans deaths since 2013.
2021 is outpacing 2020, when the group recorded a record 44 trans people killed due to violence. By this time last year, the group had tracked 13 trans deaths. Of this year’s 28 known transgender victims, 20 were trans women of color (16 of them Black trans women), and 14 were killed in the South.
The disproportionate violence trans Americans face in the South, and more specifically the Southeast, is due to a combination of issues, according to advocates. These factors, they say, include a lack of discrimination protections, a flurry of recently introduced anti-LGBTQ state bills, high rates of poverty and a host of cultural factors. To combat this dangerous brew, local and regional advocacy groups, like the Campaign for Southern Equality, say they are working to fill the void left by their states to ensure trans people have some form of protection where they live.
The Southeast in general is a hostile region for the transgender community due, in part, to “institutional violence,” according to Austin Johnson, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio’s Kenyon College, who studies the trans community. Trans people face high barriers to health care and housing in the region, and state legislatures in recent years have put forward “persistent attacks” against the community with bills that seek to limit the everyday rights of trans people, he explained.
Add in the high rates of poverty in the region, along with religiosity that promotes a very conservative view of gender roles and sexuality, he said, and there is a combination of factors that contribute to the violence.
“I think those kinds of norms, all of those intersect with the kind of economic deprivation, educational deprivation, we have in the South, and so when you have all of this deprivation, in terms of the different institutions, it’s going to affect every group,” Johnson said. “When there are some groups that are more disadvantaged, it’s going to affect them. So I think that’s why we’re seeing these really drastic rates of negative outcomes for LGBTQ people and trans people in particular in the South.”
Although there is a disproportionate number of reported killings of transgender people in the South, it does not mean the region is inherently more deadly, according to Eric A. Stanley, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The true number of trans people lost to violence each year is unknown, due in part to the lack of a national database to track anti-trans violence, police misgendering victims in official reports and some victims’ closeted status. Absent that, Stanley said, it is impossible to truly judge the regionality of anti-trans violence in proportion to other areas of the country.
“I don’t think anywhere is necessarily safer, as the kinds of anti-trans antagonism that propels so much of the harm is any and everywhere,” Stanley said.
Stanley did note, however, that the Southeast is “less resourced” when it comes to combating violence against the transgender community — and the LGBTQ community more broadly — due to the relatively high poverty in the region and the lack of a social safety net.
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi — three Southeastern states — are also home to the highest homicide rates in the country, further adding to the climate of violence that trans people face in everyday life.
‘Dehumanized’ by state legislatures
Outside of housing…