We are in an overcrowded lecture hall in the University of Toledo’s Student Union. The organizers of the International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference clearly did not anticipate this level of interest, so the overall feeling of the past couple of days has been like a subway train car during rush hour. This session is about the enhanced risk LGBTQ+ youth face of being trafficked. The presenter, a lawyer who works with sexually exploited youth in Washington State, has just finished his presentation and is now taking questions. He calls on a member of the audience, a statuesque African American attendee with long hair wearing a cap-sleeved shirt.
After disclosing their status as transgender, the audience member makes an impassioned speech. “We are dying,” they exclaim. They tells their story, relating their history as a sex worker who fell victim to sex traffickers. The overall theme of their life seems to be one of endurance: enduring homelessness, assaults, beatings, and the deaths of friends. Understandably, the entire session sounds to them like an exercise in abstractness, removed from their reality as someone forced to live on the margins.
The presenter thanks the audience member for their feedback, and they receive a round of applause from everyone in the room. Tellingly, no one has an easy answer for them, because there isn't one. We all understand that while anybody can be trafficked, certain groups are at higher risk than others due to economic insecurity, lack of social support, and discrimination. Transgender individuals – people whose sense of personal identity and gender do not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth -- are at particularly high risk. According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 30% of transgender adults in the U.S. have experienced homelessness at least once in their lives. This leads many of these people to turn to the underground economy in order to survive. The Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization, reports that 20% of transgender individuals work this economy, including sex work for survival. Coercion and abuse can follow. 41% of these workers have experienced physical assault, with transgender sex workers three times more likely to suffer violence – a key component of trafficking - than their cisgender counterparts. As for transgender folk under the age of 18, Polaris reports that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+, and 3 to 7 times more likely to engage in survival sex than their peers.
The statistics for transgender women of color are particularly dire. In 2019, an American Medical Association (AMA) official called anti-transgender violence in the U.S. an “epidemic.” At the time of this writing at least 20 transgender individuals of color have been murdered. One of the victims, 21-year-old Claire Legato of Cleveland, lived in End Slavery Now's home state of Ohio. It is worth mentioning that some of these murders are being investigated as possible incidences of violence against sex workers.
Fortunately, there is some good news in the midst of this tragedy. In the words of transgender activist Kay Martinez, it is not enough to only “see Black and Brown Trans people when [they] are dead.” While mourning and remembering those murdered because of their identity on Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is vital that we acknowledge the active contributions of transgender community leaders, especially those of color. Increased visibility has made this possible. Popular culture, such as the Netflix series “Pose,” has spotlighted the vibrant Black and Latinx transgender community of the 1980s while also drawing attention to transgender actors such as MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson. Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited with throwing the first brick during the Stonewall riots, has gotten increased prominence in interpretations of LGBTQ+ history. Transgender individuals of color have also entered politics. Andrea Jenkins serves on the Minneapolis City Council as the country's first African American openly transgender lawmaker. Cincinnati’s own Pam Rocker is at present a longshot presidential candidate. It is also worth mentioning that 2019 also saw the first reelection of an openly transgender state legislator, Danica Roem of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Transgender Day of Remembrance is an opportunity for those of us in the anti-trafficking community to acknowledge the epidemic of violence facing one of society’s most vulnerable populations. It is a time to put inclusive freedom into practice by listening to the voices of those still with us, and turning an eye to our own communities. We can also encourage organizations serving the trafficking survivor community to open their doors and hearts to LGBTQ+ survivors, as well as learn from those who already do. Covenant House is one such organization. We must, in the words of labor activist Mother Jones, “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
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