Stacey Monroe first heard about the shooting last week, two days after the fact, via email: Another transgender woman had been shot in Dallas. This time, a man shouted anti-LGBTQ slurs at the woman, then followed her to a bus stop and shot her several times, leaving her with critical injuries.
Monroe, who describes herself as a Latinx transgender activist, was “at a loss for words.” The Sept. 20 attack happened in northwest Dallas, blocks from where she lives. The victim, who is still in critical condition, was also a Latina transgender woman, just like Monroe.
But “anger, fear and sadness” had been swelling in Monroe, and in the larger Dallas trans community, for months. The shooting was just the latest in a string of violent attacks. In May, a month after a video of her brutal beating went viral, 23-year-old Muhlaysia Booker was fatally shot in a second, unrelated attack. Weeks later, the body of Chynal Lindsey, another mid-20s black trans woman, was found in Dallas’s White Rock Lake. A 34-year-old man has been charged for Booker’s murder and the slayings of two other people. Police said the 22-year-old man charged for Lindsey’s murder swapped texts with her before her death.
“The sadness is knowing that this is happening again and again in Dallas. But why?” asks Monroe. “Then you get that fear, like, am I going to be next? Who is next? I don’t know.”
“It’s not just a Southern thing or a Texas thing,” says Monica Roberts, a Houston-based black transgender advocate. “We have trans murders and violence against transgender people all across the country.”
The real problem, advocates say, is that transgender women of color face multiple forms of discrimination: transphobia, misogyny, racism. These factors, plus systemic and institutional barriers, make trans women of color uniquely vulnerable to violence, says Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the HRC.
These prejudices “don’t just add up,” McBride says. “They multiply one another.”
The same day Monroe found out about the latest shooting, celebrities hit the red carpet for television’s biggest night: the Emmy awards. There, stars such as Laverne Cox and Patricia Arquette very publicly advocated for trans rights. But Monroe says that in her own community, many trans women are afraid of speaking to the media — afraid of becoming targets themselves.
In light of the latest violence, however, some feel it’s crucial to do so.
“I understand being an open and visible trans woman, especially a trans woman of color, may put me at risk of being killed, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Monroe says. “I wholeheartedly believe that no future trans woman should have to endure what we’re going through.”
More than 1.3 million people live in Dallas, which sits at the center of a sprawling metropolitan area. But the trans community is relatively tight-knit, says Diamond Stylz, a black trans activist who works in Houston and Dallas.
“Even if you don’t know a girl personally, you’re more than likely to run into her,” Stylz says. “Whether it be a gay club, whether it be a support group, whether it be a march. So when things like this happen, we all are sending each other messages, sending each other links.”
The Anti-Violence Project, a group that tracks hate crimes against LGBTQ people, found that Texas witnessed more anti-LGBTQ homicides than any other state in 2017, the latest year for which they have data. Experts say it is difficult to pinpoint why Dallas has become the site of so much violence against transgender women, but they have some ideas.
McBride, the press secretary, says the HRC often sees violence “flare up” in places that do not have clear laws protecting transgender individuals. According to the independent think tank Movement Advancement Project, Texas is one of a handful of states whose hate crime laws cover sexual orientation but not gender identity.
Ann Cvetkovich, a gender studies professor who has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, also points to the fierce political debate that erupted in 2017 when the Texas legislature attempted to pass a “bathroom bill.” The measure was aimed at limiting transgender people’s access to bathrooms in public schools and government buildings.
The recent El Paso shooting, in which 21-year-old Patrick Crusius killed 22 and said he was targeting “Mexicans,” is also important to consider, says Cvetkovich. The racially motivated shooting factors into a larger discussion of how race- and gender-based violence “circulate and converge” in the state. “Right now, [Texas] is a powder keg of issues,” Cvetkovich wrote in an email.
Wealthier enclaves of Dallas, such as the Oak Lawn district, have been deemed some of the most LGBTQ-friendly in the country by media outlets. But there are other neighborhoods — generally poorer and more racially diverse — that are hostile to trans women, according to activists. The community where the latest attack happened, where Monroe also lives, is “where we see a lot of violence. It’s only in certain populations, locations, in Dallas where the crime is high and where we may not have that awareness and education of the trans community,” Monroe says.
Leslie McMurray, education and advocacy coordinator at the Dallas LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS service organization Resource Center, says that she has had a relatively privileged experience being trans in Dallas — she’s white and middle class. “If I were African American and lived in south Dallas, I would be very careful walking the streets,” she says. She adds that part of that risk is a result of “the layered oppression” that can happen when someone is a person of color, a woman, transgender, economically disadvantaged and lacks legal protections.
Discrimination and systemic issues lead some transgender women to engage in sex work, which can also increase the risk of violence, activists say.
Many praised the Dallas Police Department’s handling of the latest shooting. In a statement to CBS News, the department said Monday it is “committed to the public safety of all residents and understands the LGBTQ community’s concerns, ‘including the safety concerns of our transgender community both locally and nationally.’”
But the heart of the issue is something more fundamental, and more insidious, according to activists: The trans community is still largely stigmatized in society. Grayson Hunt, who is associate director of LGBTQ studies at UT Austin, says this goes back to media representation.
Hunt cites Christine Jorgensen, considered the first transgender celebrity, and Brandon Teena, whose brutal murder was depicted in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” as being the first trans people to capture America’s “attention and imagination.” Those narratives — of a “white, blonde bombshell” and a white trans man — have caused people to “turn away from the fact that first, trans people have always existed, and it’s trans people of color who are most at risk,” Hunt explains.
Transgender issues have featured prominently in the news in recent years, as the Trump administration has instituted restrictions on trans Americans, including banning them from serving in the military and aiming to limit their health-care options. On Oct. 8, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could decide whether federal anti-discrimination laws protect workers based on their gender identity.
Stylz says that all these factors — Hollywood depictions, moves by the Trump administration, even simpler forms of discrimination, such as name-calling at schools — ratchet up the risk of violence for trans people. Now 38, Stylz has been an activist since she was a teen, when she sued her high school after they wouldn’t allow her to wear a dress to the prom. Being an activist for so long has caused her to become “almost desensitized” to the reports of violence against trans women, she says.
“When that is the culture that we live in, from the top to bottom, dehumanizing us at every turn, it is not a surprise that black trans women, particularly dark-skinned black women, are being murdered at alarming rates,” Stylz says.
The issue has made its way into the 2020 Democratic primary race, with candidates such as Sens. Kamala D. Harris and Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro speaking about the violence facing transgender women. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) has been one of the most outspoken candidates on the issue; at a recent forum, she read out the names of the 18 transgender people killed this year.
After the latest Dallas shooting, Monroe jumped into action. She’s been working with the Dallas Police Department’s LGBTQ liaison, other activists and the victim herself to figure out next steps, to try to prevent more violence. For her, the solution lies in “coming together” and educating more Americans about transgender people. “All we’re asking as a community is to be given the opportunity to exist and thrive in our community without being killed or hurt or discriminated against just for being who we are,” she says.
Dee Dee Watters, a Houston-based transgender activist, chooses to frame the issue in personal terms.
“Have I been jumped on by 20, 30 people? No,” Watters says. “But have I been riding public transportation and someone tries to call me out? Has someone thrown things at me for being trans? Has someone been verbally violent with me? Those are all things that have happened.”
Curbing the violence on a national level feels insurmountable at this point, she says. Instead, Watters thinks the most crucial thing is to “encourage and empower” trans women of color at the individual level — to treat them “like human beings.”
“At the end of the day,” she says, “what about me? What about me as a person?”