Last week, James Dixon pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Islan Nettles, a young transgender woman beaten to death in Harlem in 2013. Islan Nettles was 21 years old when she was killed by Dixon, who confessed to knocking her to the ground and punching her as she lay unconscious on the pavement. She entered a coma and died a week later.
Unfortunately, Nettles’ story is not new or unusual. Transgender people face elevated rates of violence, and transgender women of color are especially vulnerable. In 2015, at least 21 trans women were murdered; 19 of them were women of color. According to friends, Nettles had lived in poverty for years, though she had recently started working at the clothing store H&M and had moved into her own apartment. Being black, trans, and poor meant that Nettles faced structural barriers, exploitation, and exclusion.
LGBTQ youths experience higher rates of violence in their intimate relationships than do their heterosexual peers. Because of their identities, LGBTQ youths also risk potential rejection and violence at home, making them more vulnerable to homelessness. Some engage in survival sex to meet their basic needs.
According to self-reported data, transgender people are four times as likely to be poor compared with the general population . Twenty-two percent of trans women report experiencing domestic violence at home. These women also often face poor treatment and even sexual violence when they access supportive services like shelters. This is on top of the everyday exclusion transgender people experience, including the controversial “bathroom bills” that require people to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth, not the gender with which they identify.
Women like Nettles risk being killed for simply being themselves. According to the New York Times, Dixon said in his confession that he had been flirting with Nettles when his friends mocked him for hitting on a transgender woman. He said, “I remember asking her what is her name, where are you from. That’s how I roll up.” His friends started taunting him, saying, “That’s a guy,” at which point he recalled entering a “blind fury.” Dixon explained that he “didn’t want to be fooled” and that Nettles had threatened his pride and manhood, an excuse used in many cases before.
Physical violence and harassment of transgender people can be further compounded by police indifference. Nettles’s mother and trans activists believe that the two-year delay in bringing charges and the manslaughter charge (rather than murder) demonstrate how little police prioritize the murders of transgender people. Transgender survivors of violence are seven times more likely than cisgender survivors to report experiencing violence at the hands of police. In other cases, police and media have misgendered victims, referring to them using a pronoun that does not align with their gender identity. Transgender-serving organizations note that misgendering victims can lead to unreliable data, making it difficult to track cases of violence against transgender people.
Data on transgender people, and trans women of color in particular, is greatly lacking. There is no national data on transgender people, and the limited information we do have comes from self-reporting to transgender-serving organizations. There has been research on normalized and routine sexual harassment and violence that overburdens poor women of color, but we don’t yet know as much about violence against trans women of color. The killing of Islan Nettles underscores this need for increased investment in research on the experiences of trans women of color.