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What if we’ve been wrong to focus so much on the murders of trans people?

In a nutshell, that’s the question Laurel Westbrook asks – and answers – in their new book Unlivable Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism (University of California Press, 2021).

Westbrook discusses dozens of reasons why focusing a political and social movement on the murders of trans people is problematic, combining to create a literally unlivable life because “the stress from constantly fearing violence increases one’s risk of death.”

Westbrook sources that fear in many places.  One of the trans community’s most revered events – the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) – is focused specifically on naming murdered trans people and, Westbrook argues, even “encourage[s] participants to identify with the dead.” Before the more recent additions of events such as the Transgender Day of Visibility and Transgender Awareness Week, TDoR was the only time the trans community gathered, creating an unnaturally strong association of being transgender with being murdered. The structure of many TDoRs doesn’t help: “In their attempt to get others to value the dead, activists unintentionally erased these individuals’ lives and reduced them to murder victims. In doing so, they taught trans and cis people alike that experiencing fatal violence is central to being transgender.” Westbrook goes on to note, “Rather than seeing the shared identity as a source of strength or community, it becomes a source of terror.”

That focus has affected not just us, but also the larger community. “Moreover, for many cis Americans, the trans people they had heard of were victims of fatal violence. This is likely to cause cis people to treat trans people with some level of pity and may have a particularly detrimental effect on parents of trans children,” who may oppose their loved one’s identity simply to try to keep them alive.

The way we have focused on the murders is also problematic. We’ve tended to cast the murders as cisgender people murdering transgender people. Us vs. them. Hater vs. victim. Not only do these artificial binaries divide us from and make us fear potential allies, but they also obscure what is really going on. “…[B]y only highlighting a single identity for perpetrators and a single ‘opposite’ identity for victims, identity-based anti-violence activists obscure violence within their own communities as well as important patterns of hate-based violence.”

Only a small percentage of the murders of trans people happen because they are trans. Contrary to our imaginations, most of the causes are similar to the murders of cisgender people: intimate partner violence, sex work transactions gone bad, a gun brought into a disagreement, a botched theft on the street. Westbrook argues that instead of teaching trans people to fear everyone who is cis, we might be more effective at prevention if we study how and why people are actually murdered, and look at how such situations could be prevented or peacefully resolved instead.

The way the trans community focuses on fatal violence may warp both personal and collective self-image. Is some of the pressure some people feel to pass as cisgender generated by the myth that if you are not identifiable as transgender, you will be safe? Legal scholars James Jacobs and Kimberly Potter argue that focusing on “hate crimes” “encourage[s] citizens to think of themselves as members of identity groups and encourage[s] identity groups to think of themselves as victimized and besieged, thereby hardening each group’s sense of resentment. That in turn contributes to the balkanization of American society, not to its unification.’”

Ironically, “[b]y describing the violence as very common, activists may have unintentionally portrayed violence against transgender people as more, rather than less, socially acceptable. Scholars studying rape-prevention efforts have argued that depicting women as at high risk for sexual assault has unintentionally portrayed them as ‘vulnerable and suitable target[s],’ increasing sexual violence against them.”

Westbrook’s research of trans murders and trans organizing mostly covered the period 1990 to 2009. Therefore, their arguments do not incorporate some of the more recent developments within the trans community. Even so, despite such advances as trans celebrities and trans elected officials, a lot of the trans community’s focus remains on the murders, with little attention left over for the far more prevalent problems of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and suicide. Given Westbrook’s arguments, we might want to rethink.


Excerpt from Detransition, Baby, a novel by Torrey Peters (One World, 2021).

“If you are a trans girl who knows many other trans girls, you go to church a lot, because church is where they hold the funerals. What no one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.

“Who knows what people will say at a trans funeral? Will some queer make a political speech instead of a eulogy, so that for weeks afterward other queers will post outraged screeds about it on social media? How many times will a family member deadname or misgender the deceased from the pulpit, unabashed about it in his grief, peering out at this sea of weirdos who showed up unexpectedly to what he considered a family event? Did their son – er, daughter – really have all these friends? Which nice white cis person will remind the assembled mourners – a high percentage of whom are trans women themselves – that everyone must do more to save trans women of color, who are being murdered {murdered!), although this particular highly attended funeral is, of course, a suicide, because that’s how the white girls die prematurely.”