When I first heard about what happened to 24-year-old Cathalina Christina James, I was filled with a profound sense of sadness, frustration and anger.
Cathalina was found shot to death in a Jacksonville, FL hotel room in June. It took her family some time to locate her because the local police force misgendered her in the initial reports of her death. Cathalina is not the first Black transgender woman to be murdered this year and she is also not the first to be misgendered.
2018 is on track to be one of the deadliest years for the LGBTQ and same gender loving (SGL) community in our nation. In 2017 there were 52 reported anti-LGBTQ/SGL homicides, the highest death rate of these types of murders on record, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP). Nearly half of these tragic deaths (22) were Black transgender women, a community that continues to experience a disproportionate share of anti-LGBTQ/SGL violence.
This year we have already reached the frightful number of 15 reported transgender homicides and once again the majority of these victims are either Black or people of color and it makes absolutely no sense to me why people refuse to honor gender pronouns. I am not convinced this is the last time I will hear about Black people being the victims of crimes committed against them simply because of who they are and how they present themselves in this world.
This epidemic of violence has been trending upward in recent years but has been exacerbated by the hateful rhetoric coming from the White House occupant and a Justice Department with a miserable record when it comes to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws for non-white people.
Beyond Washington, state and local law enforcement are not helping in the effort to halt the continued plague of violence facing the most marginalized and disenfranchised individuals and communities in our society. Transgender people are disrespected by police, local officials, and the media through a misguided practice of misgendering transgender victims—an exercise that invites condescension, strips value and emboldens dishonor.
The lack of regard for all lives is compounded for those who are both Black and transgender as systemic racism and anti-Blackness work together to deny Black transgender people support from members of the broader Black community. If #BlackLivesMatter why are we silent when those who are murdered are Black and transgender?
Horror in Jacksonville
The urgent concern to ensure that the basic humanity of every member of our community is protected under the law is underscored by the influx of recent violence and murders of Black transgender women in Jacksonville, FL. Since the beginning of this year, Celine Walker, 36, was found shot to death inside a hotel room on February 4; Antash’a English, 38, was found wounded between two abandoned houses on June 1 and later died at a hospital; and Cathalina Christina James, 24, was found shot to death at a hotel on June 24. Another victim (who has not been publicly identified) was shot five times during a domestic dispute on June 8, 2018 and miraculously survived her attack.
The city of Jacksonville has responded with a gross negligence and a pervasive lack of will to ensure justice for these victims. No suspects and no motives have been identified. The transgender community impacted by this immediate threat is rightfully fearful that these crimes are connected and will continue. The fact that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office repeatedly misgenders these victims in public statement deepens the concerns of the Black transgender community.
Misgendering individuals or refusing to recognize them as they show up in the world, signals a complete disregard for that individual’s humanity—an additional act of violence too often inflicted upon victims after death. When the first victim, Celine Walker, was publicly identified, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office misgendered her and the local media followed suit—perpetuating an additional act of verbal violence towards an entire community of individuals deserving respect and protection. They deserve the same respect and protection afforded to non- transgender members of our community.
Local transgender advocates are saying that they do not feel protected, which feels like a gross understatement when we consider the fact that it’s possible a serial killer remains free while the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office does little to enforce the laws codified to protect all members of the Jacksonville community. There is clearly a problem in Jacksonville, and no one in power is in a rush to solve it.
Time to Take Action
We need action today on behalf of these victims and for so many other Black transgender women who die or are threatened as a result of the disease we call transphobia. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement officials should take the following steps:
- Conduct complete and thorough investigations into each of the murders mentioned above and commit to referring to the slain victims as the women they are;
- Implement, with the support professionals, cultural competency professional development for officers to improve understandings of and build relationships with transgender individuals and other minority communities; and
- Establish asset-based standards and protocols for eliminating violence against transgender people.
Beyond that, our Justice Department should also ensure that the Civil Rights Division and Community Relations Service has the capacity to provide technical support to state and local officials in the aforementioned goals.
Finally, we as a community of individuals who have endured by relying upon collective resistance cannot turn a blind eye to this epidemic of violence. What is happening in Jacksonville is not an isolated incident. In far too many communities throughout our country, members of the diverse Black community are threatened by policies and practices designed to deny us of our humanity and to profit from our pain.
We must stand together to mitigate the impact of these deleterious policies and practices. While we work collectively to hold our elected leaders accountable, let us also not forget to support those living on the margins, like our transgender brothers and sisters.Their average lifespan is only 35 years.
As Fannie Lou Hammer put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free!” Those words ring just as true today. We as Black people can no longer afford to let socially constructed categories, designed to weaken our community bonds, dictate who is worthy of equal protection or justice under the law. Until we center this work in our fight for a more equitable and inclusive society, we will never be free.
David J. Johns serves as the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. He is known for his passion, public policy acumen and fierce advocacy for youth.