Odds are that Hilary Swank will pick up a gold-plated Best Actress statuette at this Sunday’s Academy Awards awards, thanks to her poignant turn as Brandon Teena in the sleeper hit “Boys Don’t Cry.” And if previous award shows are any indication, Swank’s acceptance speech will end with a tribute to Teena himself, a 21-year-old woman who lived as a man, and who was murdered on New Year’s Eve 1993. Viewers at home will nod sadly, perhaps even shed a tear as they did at the film, and then head off to the fridge for a helping of Chunky Monkey. And thanks to the media’s collective disinterest in hate crimes against any transgendered person besides Brandon Teena, they will never know that Teena’s death was no isolated tragedy.
Like Matthew Shepard, another white teen from the sticks cruelly slain by the intolerant, Teena has taken on iconic status since his death. His story has been recounted in a film, a documentary, a documentary about the the film, and mainstream press attention ranging from The New Yorker to “20/20.”
In the meantime, however, virtually no attention has been paid to the apparent rise in attacks on transgender people. Virtually no one has heard of Donald Fuller, 18, stabbed multiple times and left dead in a forest outside of Austin, Texas in January 1999; of Vianna Faye Williams, 36, stabbed nine times in Jersey City in December 1998; or Tracey Thompson, 33, beaten to death with a baseball bat on a remote country road in Georgia last March.
Although a study released last year by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that “anti-gay incidents” overall decreased 4 percent between 1997 and 1998, it also reported that the number of transgender victims of hate crimes had increased by 49 percent. The study is considered the most definitive in tracking cases of violence involving transgender victims.
Some of that growth can likely be attributed to increased reporting of such incidents, says Riki Anne Wilchins, executive director of GenderPAC, the leading transgender rights lobbying group. But Wilchins also believes there is a genuine “upward spiral” of violence directed at the transgendered, including as many as one murder per month.
The community’s own findings certainly show a disturbing base-level of violence. According to a 1997 survey by GenderPAC and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, close to 60 per cent of transgender people reported having experienced some sort of harrassment or violence.
Why hasn’t the press paid attention? It’s understandable that each and every transgender murder or assault doesnt get full-bore media attention, but the persistent silence surrounding a trend of violence — a trend illustrated in a hit movie, no less — seems unnatural for the time-hook-happy mainstream media.
Moreover, the recent focus on hate crime issues by the media and legislatures has not extended to include transgender people, despite the active lobbying efforts of groups like Human Rights Campaign and GenderPAC. While 22 states and the District of Columbia cite “sexual orientation” as motives included in their hate crimes statutes, only four — California, Missouri, Vermont, and Minnesota — also protect victims of “gender identity/expression” or “gender orientation” bias.
On the federal level, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act currently pending in Congress may protect transgender people because it cites “real or perceived” gender as a prohibited motive. However, admits Blake Cornish, federal legislative lawyer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force , the chances of that wording being interpreted to protect the transgendered are much better under the Clinton administration. If Bush gets into office, says Cornish, his Justice Department appointees could could interpret that phrase differently — as could individual courts around the country.
Because laws against hate crimes based on gender bias aren’t on the books in most of America, law enforcement official and prosecutor often shy away from that inflammatory phrase. “Even Brandon Teena’s death wasn’t called a hate crime by the sheriff,” scoffs Wilchins.
But that doesn’t mean that at least some of the recent spate of murders aren’t hate crimes. One of the factors courts weigh when deciding if a hate crime has occurred is judging whether excessive violence was applied in the commission of the crime, according to Sean Cahill, research director of the NGLTF’s Policy Institute.
Scanning a random array of transgender murder victims from 1998 through the present is a study in brutality. Take Alina Marie Barragan, a 19-year-old pre-operative transgender woman from San Jose, Calif., who volunteered at a local gay and lesbian community center. Barragan met Kozi Santino Scott in a bar last January, and reportedly went home with him. That same night Barragan was strangled and stuffed into the trunk of a car.
Then there’s the case of Donald Fuller, a crossdressing teen from Austin, found with his throat cut and with 60 stab wounds in an incident the police commander called “sadistic.” The list also includes New Jersey’s Kareem Washington, 21, stabbed multiple times; Clovis, Calif.’s Chanel Chandler, 22, stabbed to death and her apartment subsequently burned down; and Rita Hester, 34, stabbed 20 times in her apartment near Boston. Many of these cases remain unsolved, unprosecuted and obscure.
It’s easy to make a supposition why the media has ignored this disturbing trend. The victims, several of whom are suspected of being prostitutes or “street people,” aren’t quite as accessible to mainstream America as a sweet country boy being played by a former “Beverly Hills 90210” hottie. And of course, there’s the built-in assumption that anything that sniffs of transsexualism is fit only for freak-show exhibitions like Riki Lake, not for the 6 o’clock news.
But even more than bias, the most probable cause of the paucity of transgender coverage and protective hate crime legislation stems from the same root: plain ignorance. Even a cursory glance at reviews of “Boys Don’t Cry” reveals that while most critics admired the film, few absorbed its main point: that Brandon Teena was a biological girl who felt innately that she was a man. Most of the media instead cast Teena as a Yentl for the new millennium, rather than a victim of anti-transgender bigotry. That’s too bad, because Teena’s legacy could be so much greater than a poignant film: His death could have been a wake-up call.
Definitions of Terms
Transgender: describes an individual born as one gender but living as another. May be pre- or post-operative transsexual.
Transsexual: describes an individual who has undergone sex-reassignment surgery (SRS)
Transvestite: describes an individual (frequently straight) who derives sexual or emotional fulfillment from wearing clothes intended for the opposite sex.
Gender identity: regardless of physical appearance or sexual orientation, gender identity is the gender an individual considers his/herself to be
Sexual orientation: describes an individual’s romantic desires for the same or opposite sex.
Source: International Foundation for Gender Education
“Boys Don’t Cry” official site
Remembering Our Dead
Honors those who have been killed because they were “non-gender conforming”
The International Foundation for Gender Education
Resources for and about female-to-male transsexuals
The International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy
Noelle Howey is a New York-based freelance writer and editor of “Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents,” a forthcoming St. Martin’s Press book.