Transgender Women of Color Express Fears After Fatal Harlem Beating
HARLEM — Standing outside the Lenox Avenue church where the funeral of her friend Islan Nettles was taking place, Violet Bonner, 22, said she could just feel the eyes of men on her as they walked up and down the bustling strip.
Bonner, like Nettles, is a transgender woman of color. Outside the church she was surrounded by other transgender women, all black and Latino, who were mourning Nettles, who was 21 when she died Aug. 22 from injuries sustained during a beating that occurred after a group of men discovered she was not born a woman.
"Look at these men walking past us," she said. "They look in our face like they want to spit on us or beat us."
As Bonner spoke, a man sat on top of a mailbox on the corner, staring at her. A few minutes later, another man brushed roughly through the crowd of transgender women, hands in his pocket, mumbling angrily under his breath.
"We are like the black sheep. We are looked down upon," said Bonner, who lives in Harlem.
Since Nettles' death, transgender women of color from around the city say they are more afraid than ever. Statistics bear out their fears.
According to the New York City Anti-Violence Project there were 25 documented anti-LGBT slayings in the United States in 2012. About 73 percent of all anti-LGBT homicide victims in 2012 were people of color and almost 54 percent were transgender women.
In New York City, the group received 470 reports of cases of LGBT hate violence in 2012, a 4 percent increase from 2011. About 53 percent of the victims were people of color and just over 14 percent identified as transgender.
The NYPD says its investigations of anti-gay hate crimes are on the rise with at least 68 reported incidents in 2013. Last year police investigated 54 incidents.
While attacks against gay men and women such as the anti-gay shooting death of Mark Carson in Greenwich Village and the beating of a gay couple near Madison Square Garden in May have filled the news, transgender women of color say there is little awareness of their plight.
"If Islan was white and this happened downtown, the response would be different," said Alani Houston, 21, a transgender woman and college student who began living full-time as a woman six months ago.
Even in the gay and lesbian community, many transgender people feel they are often at the bottom of the pecking order. Members of the transgender community were upset by the vigil for Nettles last week at Jackie Robinson Park because they were not allowed to speak and because incorrect gender pronouns were used.
Transgender advocates also say it's troubling that the state where the gay rights movement launched does not have a law forbidding discrimination based on gender identity, despite enacting a gay rights law 10 years ago. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Assembly but failed to make it to the Senate floor for a vote during the last session.
Violence directed at transgender women of color has become so common the LGBT community is almost "desensitized to the issue," said Shelby Chestnut, a director of community organizing and public advocacy for the New York City Anti-Violence Project.
"People are starting to expect it to happen," said Chestnut. "Many transgender women leave the house expecting to get yelled at."
Ivana Black is one of those women.
As a black transgender woman who works as an entertainer and lives in Harlem she's used to getting the cat calls, whistles and 'Hey mama's' from men as she walks through the streets.
Usually, she just ignores them.
But since Nettles' death, any attention from men now feels more intimidating, she said.
Black is fiercely proud of being a transgender woman but she has begun to tone down her hair, clothes and makeup and is considering wearing outfits that hide her "attention-drawing curves."
"I don't want people to approach me, particularly men," Black said. "He sees me as a woman but how is he going to act if he sees that I'm not?"
Nettles, who was pursuing a career in the fashion industry, was with a group of two other transgender women friends in the early morning hours of Aug. 17 when they ran across Paris Wilson, 20, and a group of men at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 148th Street, according to police.
Once the men discovered that Nettles was a transgender woman, a fight broke out.
Wilson allegedly knocked Nettles to the ground and then began pummeling her as she lay unconscious, according to prosecutors. Police found a battered Nettles laying on the ground with one eye swollen shut and blood on her face.
She was beaten so badly that a white mesh covered the casket at her funeral to obscure her injuries.
Wilson, who has denied that he was the attacker, was enrolled at the University of Buffalo last spring and remains free on $2,000 bail for misdemeanor assault and harassment charges as the Manhattan District Attorney's office investigates more serious charges.
Carl Siciliano, executive director of The Ali Forney Center that serves LGBT homeless youth, said Nettles had come to the center on two occasions for help finding permanent affordable housing while she pursued her career goals.
When Siciliano heard about Nettles' death, he thought, "not again."
The center, which has a drop-in center in Harlem, is named for Forney, a transgender youth who was found shot dead on Dec. 5, 1997, in front of a public housing project on East 131st Street in Harlem.
"You want to think our culture has moved beyond that. People pick on the person perceived as the weakest and the most marginalized. To be a transgender woman of color means you are the most marginalized," Siciliano said.
He said transgender women are the most vulnerable group of LGBT teens, as some of their peers can find sanctuary with other family, friends or programs after coming out.
But transgender people "hit the streets harder and faster than others teens," Siciliano said. "And when they are on the street they have a harder time finding programs where transgender youth will be accepted."
Siciliano recalled the recent plight of one transgender woman who was in a GED program but left after the teacher refused to refer to her as a woman.
When Wilson was released on $2,000 cash bail, the transgender community also took that as another sign that their lives don't matter.
Wilson's attorney, the judges in the case and prosecutors all believed he wasn't a flight risk and that the bail fulfilled its principal purpose of assuring his return to court.
But for transgender women of color such as Bonner, it sent a different message.
"Nobody cares," she said with a shrug of the shoulders. "If something is going to happen to me, it's just going to happen."
Patrick Wall contributed reporting.