Research Findings

How does race, gender, and sexuality shape the murder of transgender people in the United States?

May 18, 2023

Many people believe that transphobia is the only cause of violence experienced by transgender people. If that was true, all transgender people would be at equal risk of experiencing violence at all times. However, there are actually distinct patterns in this violence related to gender, race, and sexuality. These social systems interact in ways that increase the risk of violence for certain transgender people, while decreasing it for others. Identifying these patterns is vital to developing effective policies and practices to prevent it.

Until recently, violence against transgender people was extremely understudied, reducing our ability to effectively recognize factors shaping this violence. To address part of this knowledge gap, I used an innovative method to create an original dataset of all the known murders of transgender people in the United States during the 30-year period between 1990 and 2019. The first of its kind, this dataset is comprised of information gathered from activist, mainstream news, and government sources.

As I detail in my recent article in Gender & Society, transphobia, both from individuals and built into social institutions, increases violence against transgender people. However, transphobia is not the only form of gender inequality shaping this violence. The gender system also generates a substantial homicide gap between transgender women and men, as transgender women are much more likely to be murdered than transgender men. At least 508 transgender people were murdered between 1990 and 2019 in the United States. Of those, 494 (97%) were transgender women and 14 (3%) were trans men.

Moreover, my dataset reveals that not all transgender women are equally at risk. Transgender women of color are killed considerably more often than white transgender women. Although white people comprised 69 percent of the U.S. population between 1990 and 2019, just 13 percent of murdered trans women were white. By contrast, 66 percent of transfeminine homicide victims were Black, despite Black people being just 13 percent of the general population.

Looking at relationships between perpetrators and victims points to factors that may influence high levels of gender and racial inequality in risk for lethal violence among transgender people. Relationships between perpetrators and victims in transgender homicides are diverse, ranging from strangers and friends to family members and sexual partners. However, sexual interactions are the most common situation in which these homicides occur. It is important to note that Black and white trans women are killed in remarkably different types of sexual interactions. Whereas Black trans women are more likely to be killed while exchanging sex for money, white trans women are more likely to be killed in non-monetary sexual relationships.

This knowledge is vital because if we want to prevent violence, we must first understand patterns of that violence. I strongly believe that studies of violence against transgender people should aim to improve anti-violence policies. As my analysis demonstrates, participation in sex work is linked to murders of transgender women. Thus, decreasing violence against sex workers should be a priority. Studies show that legalization of prostitution greatly reduces violence against women who sell sex.

Homicide scholarship finds that living in poverty greatly increases one’s risk of being murdered. Therefore, those working to reduce violence against transgender people must address the factors that trap transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, in poverty. Family rejection and discrimination in education and employment due to transphobia greatly increases the chances that transgender people will be poor. This is exacerbated for trans people of color, who also face individual and institutional racism. Finally, trans women experience both sexism and transmisogyny—a bias rooted in both hatred of feminine people and trans people. All of these must be addressed to reduce violence against trans people.

Fortunately, recent research points to avenues for reducing transphobic beliefs, including webinars and other educational programs involving guided activities asking cisgender people to take a transgender person’s perspective and interpersonal contact with a transgender person or a cisgender LGB person. These relatively short strategies (ranging from only 10 minutes to an hour) can easily be implemented in business places, schools, government agencies, churches, and parenting classes. Such programs are a vital part of reducing violence against transgender people, as are ongoing efforts to reduce racial and gender inequality. Rather than ignore how intersecting social structures shape violence against transgender people, we must utilize our growing knowledge about this violence and ways to reduce it to implement effective anti-violence programs.

Read more

Laurel Westbrook. “The Matrix of Violence: Intersectionality and Necropolitics in the Murder of Transgender People in the United States, 1990–2019” in Gender & Society 2023.

Image: Laurel Westbrook

This post was originally posted on the Gender & Society blog.

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