Earlier this week there was an update in the death of Sanesha Stewart: apparently the man who is suspected of killing her — let’s be clear, he was dragged from her apartment early in the morning, covered in her blood — had known her for quite some time. That doesn’t seem to fit with his claim (and the media’s original lurid story) that he was shocked to find out that Stewart was trans and flew into a homicidal rage as a result. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised to hear this at all.
Most Feministe readers will agree that the “trans panic” defense is bogus, and that one’s own fear or disgust of queer or trans people is hardly an excuse for violence or murder. But a lot of these “panics” are suspicious on more levels than one. In similar killings in the past, there’s been evidence that suggests the murderer knew very well that the victim was trans, and may have killed her in order to erase the association between them. The revelation in Stewart’s case brought to mind the aptly titled 2003 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Disposable People.” Washington DC activist Earline Budd, who’s dealt with her own share of transphobic violence on top of fielding more than a dozen calls a month about other trans people being assaulted, sums it up well:
Budd, like many transgender activists, believes the “discovery crime” motivation is often bogus. Most transgendered people are up front with potential sex partners about their identities and anatomies, she says — and even in cases where they’re not, “how can you say that’s an excuse for killing somebody or beating them up?”
Bella Evangelista’s murderer, Antoine Jacobs, is reportedly considering a “panic defense” when he goes to court.
According to Sgt. Brett Parson, head of Washington’s GLLU police unit, Jacobs told police he and Evangelista “were engaging in sex for hire, he liked it, the act was completed, they parted ways, and some of his friends said, ‘Hey, man, that’s a dude,’ and he returned and shot her.”
Budd suspects that Jacobs simply got embarrassed when his friends found out he’d been with Evangelista, who was well known as a transgendered woman in the neighborhood where Jacobs lived.
“This was all to show off for the guys,” she says. “He came back and confronted her, and when she turned around to walk away, he pulled out a gun and shot her and just continued to shoot her. In the back. And that’s a panic defense? Come on now.”
Jacobs is just a particularly forthright example of how many of these “panic defenses” aren’t really about panicking when you find out your date is trans. They’re about the fear that someone else is going to find out you were with a tranny. I think sometimes we’re quick to assume that homophobia and transphobia always work in this straightforward “hate the queers, bash the fags” kind of way — the sort of hate crime that Budd describes a few paragraphs later:
“5th and K is just rampant for assaults. I think guys feel like, ‘Man, I’m going to go out and beat me up a faggot tonight, one of them ones dressed in women’s clothes.'” As in most major urban areas, such hate criminals know exactly where to find their victims.
That kind of shit clearly goes down. But not usually with a loaded gun or stab wounds to the chest. Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: trans people, especially women who already live on the economic margins of a racist, classist, transphobic society, are not idiots. With few exceptions, trans people know very well that we’re potentially in danger from bigots who can’t handle trans people. Nobody wants to get into an intimate, vulnerable situation with someone who might completely flip out on you. Every sex worker who’s less than completely green is aware of that kind of danger.
Unfortunately, as far too many victims of violent crimes, sexual assaults, abuse, and rape know, it’s often the people you trust — who you think you’re safe with — who end up being the greatest danger to you. Not the bogeyman rapist lurking in an alleyway, not the drunken frat boys looking for a good time who don’t realize they’re on the wrong stroll. And it’s way more disturbing: our communities, our relationships devouring themselves — whether they’re casual hookups or something more serious. Women ending up dead in the middle of the street, in their homes, on the side of the highway.
All of this was also on my mind as I read about the gender non-conforming middle-school student who was shot in the head and killed earlier this week. There are few details about that case yet, but the news coverage has implied, and most reactions have also assumed, that this was a straightforward case of homophobia. Some kids at school were reportedly “freaked out” by the victim, and one of them killed him. But as Tricia B. points out in our comments, it would be sadly unsurprising to find out that the shooter was gay as well… or had been involved somehow with the victim, was my thought.
Seriously, when you think about this kind of situation in all its disturbing dimensions and possibilities, which is more likely? That one of the school bullies decides to take it a step beyond name-calling and shoving, pulls out a gun, and shoots this kid? Or that the killer felt personally threatened for some reason, to the point of bringing a gun into a middle school classroom and shooting someone in the head, first thing in the morning? With the few details that have emerged, it’s impossible to say.
But I fear the worst — and the worst would not just be that some homophobic asshole killed a child. There’s an even worse worst: that a child is dead, and the other child who pulled the trigger did so because he couldn’t deal with his own feelings. And now that second child will be tried as an adult, and another life destroyed.
Another update about Sanesha Stewart: You may have noticed that the New York Daily News is still referring to her as “she was biologically a he” and calling her by her old name, appending “who went by the name Sanesha” as if it’s a nickname. I feel compelled to point out that this is not only disrespectful, it’s a factual inaccuracy. Sanesha Stewart changed her name legally, which I know because the staff at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project helped her do it. But instead of fact-checking — or simply respecting the fact that people choose their own names, whether a judge approves it or not — the press has chosen to treat Sanesha’s name like it’s a “fake” nickname, and trumpeted her old name as some sort evidence of her “real” gender.
Let me be clear: it’s a Very Good Thing that trans people can get legal name changes — it can help with all sorts of institutional bureaucracy, being able to get a job and use your name, etc. But nobody should have to get their name legally changed to receive the basic respect of being called what they want to be called. Sensationalism-seeking journalists don’t even care if you’ve changed your name legally — they just assume that trans people, especially the poor people of color, are using “nicknames.”
Would a newspaper ever do this to anyone else? Publish a married woman’s maiden name, or assume anyone else who changed their name was just “going by” a different name, or deem that person’s old name newsworthy? Of course not. It’s just part of the bogus angle of “we’re going to reveal this trans person’s ‘true’ identity,” and part of the process of delegitimizing trans people’s gender, regardless of whether a court of law has signed and sealed their new name. Every trans person should be aware of this: laws do not necessarily protect you or support your case, not in a society that wants to erase trans people in whatever way possible.
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