Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Trans Lives Matter, But A Below-Average Homicide Rate Isn't A "Crisis"

Kiesha Jenkins / Source: Facebook

Kiesha Jenkins was robbed, beaten, and shot to death by a group of four men a week ago in Philadelphia.  Her death brought the year-to-date count of transgender folks murdered in the US up to 20 or 21.

But as tragic and horrible as Kiesha's death was, it wasn't indicative of a national crisis or "historic rates" of transgender murder.

As discussed here a few months ago, if transgender persons were being killed at the average U.S. homicide rate, we'd likely have seen many more than 20 transgender homicide victims nationwide so far this year.  Given the best available estimates of the trans population, and 2013 CDC homicide data, an average homicide rate would have resulted in 48 transgender victims that year.  This year, it's likely that the "expected" transgender homicide rate will be even higher, as a number of major US cities have seen a dramatic increase in homicides in 2015.

Average frequency of violent crime victimization in the U.S. in 2013.  Source: FBI

A wider array of media sources are paying closer attention to homicides involving trans people this year than has been the case in years past.  Many readers, commentators, and Twitterers seem to be assuming that every murder of a trans person was a hate crime.  This assumption is not helpful, and ignores the reality that transgender people are at least as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of American life that resulted in more than 16,000 people losing their lives to homicide in 2013.

Some of the killings may well have been hate crimes, but none of them have been ruled as such as of this writing.  
As it turns out, Kiesha Jenkins's death appears to have been a robbery that turned into murder after Kiesha fought back against her assailants.  Police believe the suspect arrested yesterday and three of his associates were behind a number of other strong-arm robberies in the area, which seemed to be based solely on opportunity and impacted a diverse array of victims.

At least three other homicides look likely to have been crimes of passion involving a boyfriend or friend.  And at least one was the victim of homicide, but not, strictly speaking, murdered - the trans woman shot and killed by National Security Agency police while speeding in a stolen SUV toward the NSA headquarters building, despite calls to halt. 

If the trans community's homicide rate was simply equal to the U.S. average, we'd expect to see 30 to 40 transgender homicide victims for the year to date.  
But just 20 have been counted so far, including Kiesha Jenkins.

There does appear to be some disproportionality within the population of trans homicide victims.  An overwhelming number of the victims were black, a few were Latino, and just three were white.  The reason for this discrepancy begs for further inquiry.

And let's be clear - the lack of evidence of a trans homicide boom in no way diminishes the reality of hate-based violence directed at LGBT people.  According to the FBI, there were about 1,378 violent, anti-LGBT hate crime incidents nationwide in 2013 (2014 hate crime data will be released this fall.)  With about 2.1% of our population LGBT, that amounts to about 21 violent anti-LGBT hate crimes for every 100,000 LGBT folks that year.  This rate is much higher than for any other demographic studied.

But here, too, perspective is important.

This FBI graph shows decline in violent crimes in past five years, but many large cities have reported spikes in victimization in 2015. Graphic source: FBI

We had 1.16 million violent criminal incidents in the U.S. in 2013 - 367.9 for every 100,000 people.  So with violent anti-LGBT hate crimes at 21 per 100,000 LGBT persons, the added threat of hate-based violence would result in something like a marginal, 5% increase in risk of violent victimization for LGBT folks.  

That's not insignificant, and should not be dismissed - hate-based violence is still very much a distinct problem deserving of its own attention.  At the same time, LGBTQA folks shouldn't live in a constant state of fear that they are at an exponentially higher risk of random, violent attack than straight folks, when that simply isn't the case.

This also holds true for transgender people specifically.  It's reasonable to surmise that most, if not all, openly transgender people have experienced significant and frequent prejudice and discrimination in their lives, including, for some, hate-based physical violence.  The rate of violent victimization in general may well be higher for the transgender community than for other demographics under the LGBTQA umbrella.

But fears that the trans community is "under siege" are, at this time, unwarranted.  With so many real challenges in life to worry about, a manufactured trans homicide crisis shouldn't be added into the mix of things weighing on transgender folks' minds.

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