The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seven transgender women have been killed this year. Democrats want Jeff Sessions to investigate.

A woman holds a sign supporting transgender students during a rally in Chicago against the Trump administration’s reversal of federal protections regarding bathroom access. (Derek R. Henkle/AFP/Getty Images)
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The first victim was found shot to death on a back road outside Canton, Miss., just four days into January. The coroner identified the victim as Omario Caldwell, but her friends told the news media she went by Mesha — a makeup artist from town.

Two days later, police in Sioux Falls, S.D., reported the second known homicide of a transgender woman in 2017. She had been stabbed.

“This is a hate crime and it needs to stop,” the mother of the year’s third victim told a reporter in Toledo. Police didn’t necessarily agree, but by the end of February, four more transgender women would be reported killed in U.S. cities.

“It’s only two months into the year and there have been seven murders, so we’re certainly on pace to blow right by the record set last year,” Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post this week, after he and several other members of Congress asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch a federal hate crime investigation.

Kennedy said they haven’t received a reply from the Department of Justice, whose new chief opposes the expansion of transgender rights.

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Police have not suggested that any of this year’s deaths are hate crimes. In some, they have ruled it out — like the case of Ciara McElveen, who was seen arguing in a car before the driver stabbed her and fled Feb. 27, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

But that’s not much comfort to Kennedy. A prosecutor before he was a politician, he joined five other Democrats last month to sign an open letter to Sessions.

“Transgender women are often targeted by law enforcement for a variety of reasons, and as a result are deterred from seeking help when they are targets of violence or harassment,” they wrote. “Transgender Americans deserve to have these attacks investigated as hate crimes.”

While not unprecedented, the frequency of the killings has rattled a community whose members are prone to suffering violent attacks, whether hate-based or otherwise. Transgender people have been on edge since President Trump’s administration halted a White House policy of pushing for their rights to the same public bathrooms as other men or women.

So the victims’ names were read aloud this month at a rally below Trump Tower in Chicago, where one of the victims died, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The same day, Kennedy named the seven victims on the Capitol Plaza, as he announced his chairmanship of a transgender equality task force for Congress’s Equality Caucus.

“We will fight back against a scourge of hate-based, hate-inspired violence that plagues the transgender community every single day, particularly women of color,” he said. Six of the seven victims were black.

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“There might very well be certain circumstances where there’s evidence that merits a hate crime prosecution, but that isn’t charged,” he said in an interview, when asked why the feds should look into the deaths.

Kennedy couldn’t cite an example of such, whether from this year or in the past. But transgender advocates have long complained that police bias and misgendering may cause hate crimes to go uncounted or under-investigated.

In 2015, BuzzFeed reported on a killing in Kentucky in which police “insisted the victim was a man” — despite being dressed as a woman and reportedly telling the accused killer “I’m a tranny” moments before the attack.

If 20-year-old Sherman Edwards was, as a witness to the crime told BuzzFeed, a transgender woman known as Papi, she would have been the seventh such victim in the first two months of 2015 — exactly the same pace as this year.

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A report by the Human Rights Campaign found that the pace slowed later that year, and 21 transgender women had been reported killed by the end of October 2015 — which the group’s president dubbed “an epidemic of violence that occurs at the intersections of racism, sexism and transphobia.”

A quarter of those victims were suspected of being killed by sexual partners, the reported noted.

In the few years that the FBI has tracked anti-transgender hate crimes, it has recorded a relatively minuscule number — and no killings.

But according to the Human Rights Campaign, at least three slayings in 2013 went unreported to the FBI despite transphobic slurs and other “evidence that the perpetrators were clearly motivated by the victim’s gender identity.”

“We have a problem with local crime jurisdictions not taking them seriously,” said David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs. “There’s still a significant problem with undercounting.

“I would hope that the Justice Department would take seriously a letter from multiple members of Congress on issues of this gravity,” Stacy added. “I can’t speak to whether Jeff Session will take it seriously. I hope he will.”

But he noted that as a U.S. senator, Sessions opposed the law that now allows his Justice Department to monitor transgender hate crimes — let alone investigate them, as six Democrats have now asked him to do.

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