Articles / Violence

Come jump on the “Don’t kill trans people” bandwagon!

The killing of Islan Nettles in July followed an all-too-typical pattern: a man classified her as a woman, found her attractive and flirted with her. He then reclassified her as “a man,” fought her and killed her. In response to this terrifying event, I’ve told you about two alternative visions for this type of scenario. In Janet Mock’s vision, everyone accepts all male to female trans people as women, that status as is never questioned, and the man never feels any desire to attack her. In Desmond Child’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” people may see trans women as men, but we can still be attractive, and there is no shame for any man who is attracted to a trans person.

Those are definitely the best alternatives, and I pefer the second, but there’s a third one. It isn’t as good, but it’s still better than what happened to Nettles. It’s simple: nobody should die just because they’re trans.
Here’s my vision: A man sees a trans woman and is attracted to her. He reclassifies her as “a man,” and loses interest in her. Maybe he even feels angry and calls her names. Maybe he even attacks her physically. But he doesn’t kill her.

This is what happened with Lewis Dix, Jr. and B. Scott. Dix called Scott a “faggot,” and Scott was right to give him hell for it. But Dix stopped there. He didn’t attack.

Nettles’ killer could have stopped at name-calling. Or if he didn’t stop there, he could have stopped after a punch or two. Even if he was too drunk or too much of an asshole to stop, his “crew” could have stopped him. They could have said, “It’s okay, we get it, you’re not gay.” they could have said, “This is a human being who doesn’t deserve to die.”

I know, it doesn’t seem like a lot. I wouldn’t be satisfied with “just” being called names and beat up. But it would be better than what currently happens to black and Latina trans people.

The thing is that there’s a large constituency for not killing trans people. A lot of people don’t think we’re women. A lot of people don’t think we’re sexy. Some people think we’re sinners. Some people think that any man who’s attracted to us is gay, and that being gay is bad. These people may disapprove of us in all kinds of ways, but they don’t think we deserve to die.

This constituency for not killing us is largely untapped. On stage at the vigil for Islan Nettles were her family, three trans people, and some lesbians and gay men. Attending were people from the entire trans spectrum, and straight allies, including several politicians. Besides the politicians, what I didn’t hear about were “thought leaders” in broader African-American culture beyond LGBT subcultures: clergy, musicians, actors, athletes.

Who are the people that Nettles’ killer and his “crew” listen to? What if they said, simply, it’s not okay to kill someone because they’re trans? What if we asked them, nicely, to say it now? Not to say “trans women are women,” not to say “it’s okay to be gay,” and not to say anything negative about us either. Just “Don’t kill trans people.”

How many of them would sign a statement? How many would appear in a public service announcement? How many would perform in a music video or television episode?

Don’t get me wrong. I want more than this. I want people to treat me with respect. I want people to treat those who love me with respect. I want to be treated like a woman when I present as a woman. I know you want those things too.

I’m not giving up on what I want, and I’m not telling you to give up on it either. Laverne Cox argues that it’s the same problem, that we need those things to be safe, to be alive. The actions of Robert Wace and Lewis Dix, Jr. show us that that’s not true. People don’t have to endorse our entire program before they can treat us like human beings. They don’t need to agree with us about anything else to speak out against the violence. Let’s get them to do it.

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  1. What about “The Crying Game”, which is arguably the canonical representation of “trans panic” in mainstream media? M’s initial reaction is violent revulsion, but in the end he remains attracted and devoted to W, even though he doesn’t identify her as a woman. That sort of falls in between the B. Scott and Lola cases in your flowchart.

  2. Good question, John! That scene in “The Crying Game” struck me as bizarre, because I’ve never heard of anyone actually throwing up after discovering that a partner was “really a man.”

    I think the flow chart applies to an immediate reaction. In “The Crying Game,” the immediate reaction is worse than B. Scott’s experience because he actually hits her. But with time to reflect – and other things happening – he comes to love her. I think the final scene is supposed to suggest that he accepts her as a woman, which would put it squarely in Janet Mock territory.

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