As other members of the local LGBT community listened Friday afternoon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, members of the local transgender community explained the challenges they face to New Orleans City Council members and a Police Department representative.
The "Town Hall on Transgender Violence," hosted by the Trans United Fund and Transitions Louisiana, was called after two transgender women — Ciara McElveen and Chyna Gibson — were killed recently in New Orleans.
The two women were the sixth and seventh transgender killed in the U.S. this year, on top of 26 last year, said City Councilman Jason Williams, who participated in the forum with Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and Frank Robertson, the New Orleans Police Department's liaison to the LGBT community.
Dorian Alexander asked what the city is doing to ensure that the crimes are thoroughly investigated. He noted early statements from the police that the two latest deaths did not appear to be hate crimes, saying, “When these women are murdered, it seems very apparent it is because of who they are and how they look.”
Robertson said there are certain legal parameters that must be met to make a crime an official hate crime and that police don’t believe the two killings were connected. That said, he told the packed house that he understands that killings of transgender people have “a hateful spirit” in common.
“We’re not letting this go,” he said. “We’re going to get these cases solved.”
Williams agreed there was a connection between how the two women died and the fact that society forces transgender people to the margins and into dangerous situations.
“When society wants you to live in the shadow and wants you to be marginalized … there’s a connection,” he said. “And that connection is on us as a council.”
Jada Mercedes Cardona, who hosted the forum for Transitions Louisiana, said she never had any problem finding work as a legal secretary when she lived as a gay man, but once she decided to "live my truth" and became harder for people to categorize, prejudice against her intensified. She couldn't even get a job in a fast-food restaurant and had to live on the street, she said.
"If that’s all you've got to survive, because Burger King wouldn’t hire you, because Taco Bell said you couldn’t work with them unless you took off all that trash ... this leads to life on the margins," Cardona said. "And it’s not an existence that anybody would want for their children.”
Jai Shavers, organizer of the LGBTQ advocacy group Breakout, said that while he appreciates that Robertson wants the community to feel that the NOPD is “family,” it will require more than just talk. He said he and others have had many experiences with police where they “definitely didn’t feel like family.”
Shavers said attention on the issue only seems to be there “when my sisters are dying in the street.” He told Robertson to take the time to seek out those who may not want to step forward, “because they don’t have that relationship and they don’t feel safe.”
Robertson said he has made his phone number available to everyone and has pledged to meet with anyone, even after hours.
A woman who gave her name as Arielle read a statement from Qween B. Amore, who is trans-queer and was arrested during Carnival for disturbing the peace by dancing and playing music in the neutral ground on Elysian Fields Avenue.
Amore said she doesn't take issue with the arrest but with her treatment. She said she was shackled 3 feet away from a water fountain and begged for water for hours, only to have a cup of water and a bologna sandwich finally placed before her ... 2 feet out of reach.
"Law enforcement repeatedly misgendered me and jokingly mocked my gender, my sexuality and how I was dressed," she said in the statement read at the forum. "The only comfort I found was after I was placed into main housing and befriended a trans woman named Chyna and was warmly welcomed by numerous people within the pod. How is it that I found more respect and compassion from 'criminals' than from the law enforcement agents that put me there in the first place?"
Amore's statement added: "I believe that proper training needs to be given on areas such as trans identity. It's also the responsibility of the NOPD to ensure that cops with their own prejudices are held accountable for actions that place anyone in an unsafe atmosphere. When someone is placed under arrest, that life becomes the responsibility of the NOPD, and that life matters."
This story was corrected on March 11, 2017 to properly reflect the number of local and national transgender killings.