For a lot of people around the world, life is still getting started at 35. But for transgender women of colour, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for their life to have come to an end.
We’re only just halfway through 2019, and already six black transgender women have been killed in the United States.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Dana Martin, 31, Ashanti Carmon, 27, Claire Legato, 21, Muhlaysia Booker, 23, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, 40, and Chynal Lindsey, 26, were all murdered in the last few months.
Just one lost life would have been too many, but if the past two years are any indication, the number of victims is still likely to rise.
It’s difficult to know an exact count due to a lack of statistics, under-reporting and misgendering of victims, and there is some discrepancy about the figures, but there’s no escaping the fact multiple transgender women of colour were killed in 2017 and 2018.
The HRC specifically listed 11 transgender women of colour who were killed in 2017, while an Anti-Violence Project spokesperson told The Daily Beast that as of August 2017, 13 black transgender women had lost their lives to homicide.
In light of #MuhlaysiaBooker's transphobic attack and murder. I'm raising money for services in Dallas to make a safer city for black transgender women. PLEASE DONATE WHAT YOU CAN. We must pull together as a community in these times. https://t.co/m764Mcd08Y
— ＭＵＮＲＯＥ 🌹🌹 (@MunroeBergdorf) May 25, 2019
2018 was no better, as information gathered by CNN, the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the HRC revealed more than two dozen transgender people were killed last year; all but one of who were trans women, and all but one were people of colour.
While each case has its own circumstances, the threat of violence faced by trans women of colour is evident.
The HRC explains:
The intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia conspire to deprive [transgender women of colour] of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.
I will always talk about being trans, i will talk about it until everyone is accepted and trans women of colour are not being killed all the time. Im sick and tired of always hearing that another sister has been killed. Im angry and upset. Fuck this world.
— Jace Alexander (@KroolBat) May 25, 2019
A report by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine stated the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of colour is 35, primarily as a result of violence.
It’s the kind of life expectancy we might have expected centuries ago, before the development of medicine and technology, but today it’s simply unacceptable.
In comparison, the life expectancy for a cisgender women in the US is 81 years old, according to World Life Expectancy.
To help raise awareness for this abysmal statistic, media personality and civil rights activist Ashlee Marie Preston decided to start a campaign encouraging transgender woman of colour to ‘reimagine themselves somewhere other than an open casket’.
Ashlee launched the campaign one year ago on her 34th birthday, and announced it alongside a picture of her birthday cake which was decorated with the faces of 77 black trans women, all who had been murdered under 35 years old.
She encouraged trans women of colour to use the hashtag #ThriveOver35 when posting about their birthdays in an attempt to ‘remind our sisters brothers and others that we’re not only surviving we’re THRIVING’.
Speaking to UNILAD about the campaign and what it represents, Ashlee explained:
#ThriveOver35 was launched in response to data which suggests the estimated life expectancy of a black trans woman is 35 years old. The campaign is an opportunity for black trans women to reimagine our lives outside of an open casket or a jail cell.
Media has a tendency to fixate on the the trauma porn surrounding our murders; but rarely explore the factors which often place us in front of the barrel of the gun.
Not only does the #ThriveOver35 campaign examine barriers to black trans women’s ability to access employment, healthcare, housing, and social support at every level—it poses a call to action for our allies to help fill in the gap in those areas.
In just 1 week, 3 black trans women have been murdered—Vontashia Bell (18) & Dejanay Stanton (24) on the same night in 2 different states & now Shantee Tucker (30). Our life expectancy is only 35 years old—but we’re so much more than a statistic. We deserve better. #ThriveOver35 pic.twitter.com/4ecdmVDHR6
— Ashlee Marie Preston (@AshleeMPreston) September 6, 2018
The campaign dissects our experiences at the intersections of race, gender, and socio-economic disparity.
#ThriveOver35 is also about celebrating the brilliance and resilience of black trans women; which is still a huge area of opportunity for mainstream media to improve in.
A year on, the activist is confident the campaign has been successful in bringing the struggles of black trans women to the forefront of the national conversation on trans issues, therefore combating what Ashlee believes is one of the main challenges faced by the community; a lack of information.
Plus in the USA the life expectancy of transgender women of colour is 35 years old. https://t.co/OQYEyxkXdu
— Paul McFarlane (@paulmcf10) May 16, 2019
There’s a harmful and deeply toxic narrative being promulgated that black trans women are ‘tricking men’ into being intimate with us—and that’s why we’re being murdered.
This notion somehow serves as ‘justification’ for our murders and takes the urgency to address our erasure off the table. It relieves society of its responsibility to stand up for us when we’re being framed as criminal, deceptive, disingenuous.
The truth is that black trans women are experiencing intimate partner violence at exponential rates with just as many deadly outcomes as black cisgender women.
Muhlaysia Booker is at least the 4th Black transgender person shot and killed in the U.S. so far this year, according to @HRC.
– Dana Martin, 31, was fatally shot in Alabama
– Ashanti Carmon, 27, was fatally shot in Maryland
– Claire Legato, 21, was fatally shot in Cleveland pic.twitter.com/busqqwJsqv
— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 20, 2019
Misinformation is one of the most prominent issues faced by black trans women, but it certainly not the only one.
The media personality pointed out the community does not experience discrimination on a single axis, saying:
We experience racism, sexism, and transphobia simultaneously. Those grappling with disabilities, neurodivergence, or undocumented status have it even worse.
When black trans women can’t access our basic needs or hold space in society without encountered violence; our footprint becomes smaller. The limitation of space and access is almost quite literally the textbook definition of marginalization.
Five Black trans woman that we know of have been killed in 2019 — all of whom were fatally shot. Lawmakers must act to address this horrific epidemic of violence. https://t.co/aS5secEG1G
— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) May 21, 2019
As well as encouraging conversations about the struggles of transgender women of colour, the #ThriveOver35 campaign worked to inspire both ideas and solution-based strategies which Ashlee says are in the process of being converted into legislation. In turn, these strategies may influence federal protections.
The activist is now approaching her 35th birthday, which she will celebrate on June 7.
The event will be a milestone which so many trans women of colour never reached, and although birthdays are usually a happy occasion the date has, understandably, been the cause of some anxiety for Ashlee.
She spoke about how it feels to be a member of a community which is so often a target for violence, and pointed out many of those who have lost their lives have been activists like herself.
I often battle intense panic around nearing 35.
Those who follow me make the assumption that because I’m a public figure I’m untouchable. The truth is that I still struggle economically and am one late payment from being thrusted back into the same dire straits as my sisters.
Not only that; it’s not lost upon me that being a very visible and vocal public figure can also make me a target for violence. I don’t have bodyguards, security detail, and all the added layers of protection that some may imagine—at least not yet.
In fact; many of the black trans women murdered have been community leaders and activists. However, I’m deeply connected with my purpose and commitment to my sisters; and I’m not going out without a fight.
The shockingly low life expectancy of transgender women of colour is an issue which needs immediate attention, and while the #ThriveOver35 campaign has certainly worked to raise awareness, there is still much more which can be done to put a stop to the violent epidemic.
The 34-year-old said the best way to address the crisis black trans women are facing is to prioritise their survival at every intersection of their identity.
Support, hire, promote, pay, purchase from, listen to, BELIEVE womxn; indigenous women, women of colour, transgender women, queer women, gender non-conforming women, women with disabilities, older women, fat women, poor women, ALL WOMXN. #timesup #internationalwomensday
— Rosie & the Riveters (@RosieRiveters) March 8, 2019
She went on to discuss the ultimate goal of the campaign as well as the wider push for awareness, saying:
When the most vulnerable within our society is liberated—everyone other historically disenfranchised demographic will be too. When black trans women thrive; we all will.
The goal is to get us to a place where eyebrows aren’t raised when a black trans woman becomes a doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, faith based community leader, or in my case the first trans editor in chief of a national publication and first openly trans person to run for California state office.
The idea is to normalize our presence in every faction of society; while underscoring our humanity and right to equity.
#ThriveOver35 has done a brilliant job of starting conversations about the devastating average life expectancy for transgender women of colour, but it’s up to us to keep those conversations going and ultimately create real life change.
No one deserves to have a life expectancy of just 35 years old; the violence needs to stop.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.