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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Getting away with murder

The Bay Area Reporter

Ten years ago, a man by the name of William Palmer walked into the Playland Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts. When he left the bar that night, he was with a 23-year-old transsexual by the name of Chanelle Pickett. The following day, Pickett's body was found by police in Palmer's bedroom. She had been beaten, and then strangled to death.

In a jury trial two years later, Palmer was acquitted of murder charges, and only sentenced to two and a half years in jail on assault and battery charges.

The Chanelle Pickett murder is one of the cases that led to the Remembering Our Dead project, which tracks antitransgender violent murders. The Remembering Our Dead project also coordinates the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held annually on November 20 – the anniversary of the day that Pickett's body was discovered.

I wish I could say that things are getting better, and that antitransgender violence is well on its way to being a thing of the past. Maybe it is, but if so, it's got a long way to go. The numbers simply don't bear that out.

Since the last Transgender Day of Remembrance, there have been 24 murders. There are even a couple others for which the evidence is yet too scarce to be sure, and of course, there are plenty of examples of individuals who were assaulted and survived their attacks.

That's an average of two murders every month, with half of those cases being within the United States. It's four more murders than last year. It's also in line with the last decade, plus or minus five cases over the last 10 years, save for an abnormally high number of cases in 2003.

Indeed, since Pickett's death on November 20, 1995, there have been exactly 200 reported antitransgender violent murders. Roughly 20 a year, and just about one every two weeks. Half of those – approximately 100 people – were residing in the United States at the time of their death.

Think about that for a moment. Picture if you can 200 people. It's no small number, particularly when one is talking about people.

Can you, right now, think of 200 people with whom you regularly associate? If so, imagine a world where each of them left your life, one every two weeks, for a decade. Imagine what it would be like to see your friends, your family, your co-workers, and even your most causal acquaintances slowly stripped away.

Each of these 200 people who have been murdered have been lost to their family and friends. For each of these people, there are hundreds more who mourn the loss.

I've had the honor of meeting many friends and family members of some of those lost in the last decade or so. I've also lost friends of mine to this sort of violence. I can tell you with every shred of my being that I would not wish such a loss on my bitterest enemy.

Let me further put all this in perspective: 60 people have died, worldwide, from the bird flu, and we hear about it on the news nearly every night. Yet stories of antitransgender violence remain largely hidden and untold.

I'm not trying to diminish the importance of preparedness when it comes to a possible pandemic, but I do want to keep things in perspective. The government is pushing hard for a response to a disease that has killed 60 people, and is not currently being passed human to human – yet more than triple the number of deaths barely gets covered within the media, let alone in the world of politics.

This is one of the things that baffles me. I know how often someone is killed due to antitransgender violence, and I know what it feels like to lose someone to this. Yet so little seems to be done about these murders.

In Congress, a transgender-inclusive hate crimes bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives, yet the Senate remains, at best, reluctant to do the same. In fact, the leaders behind this bill – most notably Senator Edward Kennedy, who represents Massachusetts, where Chanelle Pickett lived – want the transgender-inclusive language struck from both the Senate and House versions of this bill.

Likewise, the Human Rights Campaign is standing with the senators on this, even refusing to sign onto a letter supported by representatives of over 40 top national organizations. It would seem that getting a win is more important to HRC than doing the right thing.

When people like William Palmer kill people like Chanelle Pickett, one often notices a pattern of what's termed "overkill." The assumed reason for this is that the killers want to do more than kill: they wish to erase the very existence of their victim.

It would seem to me that the lack of attention that is often paid to these murders, coupled with more than light resistance by the people we entrust to ensure our rights to want to include transgender people under the most basic of legal protections, simply further the goals of these killers. It allows for more erasure than they may have been capable when they committed murder.

In a civilized society, this is unacceptable. We should not be aiding killers, we should be helping victims. When one considers how many victims there have been, I cannot help but wonder why more isn't being done: if not for them, then for the two hundred that we might be able to expect over the next decade.

After all, the next victim could be someone you know.

Gwen Smith, who started the Remembering Our Dead project and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, hopes all her readers participate in events on November 20. You can find her online at



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