The newly formed Transgender Equality Task Force kicked off on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with a forum dedicated to transgender issues amid a record number of trans murders throughout the country.
The two-and-a-half-hour long, two-panel event touched on a range of trans issues, but the murders of at least 21 trans people in 2015 alone was the primary focus of discussion for lawmakers and trans advocates who testified.
Representing the New York-based Anti-Violence Project was trans advocate and community organizer Lala Zannell, who said “hate crime prosecution will only go so far” and Congress must prohibit anti-trans discrimination.
“Putting someone in jail in Los Angeles for a hate crime is not going to stop a transgender woman from being killed in Philadelphia,” Zannell said. “Housing and a job might.”
Catherine Hyde, regional director of Mid-Atlantic PFLAG, was emotional as she delivered testimony about the challenges she faced raising a trans daughter, including at one point fearing her child was dead when she went missing.
“We need comprehensive legislation to protect our children, in school, at work and in public places,” Hyde said. “Legislation engenders education and replaces ignorance with understanding. And it is understanding that will help keep our kids safe, and allow them to grow into the productive members of society that we all want them to be.”
Kylar Broadus, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition, said the lack of trust within the trans community for law enforcement officials remains a significant problem.
“Trans people are arrested just for carrying condoms and automatically profiled as sex workers,” Broadus said. “I have represented many trans people in various situations in our criminal justice system and the system is never favorable in any way to trans people either by denying access to hormone or other trans-related care, including appropriate attire, besides the abuse that occurs behind the locked doors.”
A common theme among the witnesses was frustration over the lack of federal data on the U.S. trans population, which trans advocates say would enhance visibility.
Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the federal government “has been almost entirely negligent” in determining the number of trans people in in the U.S. or the murder rate within the population.
“Because of this lack of federal research, not only do we not know the extent of the violence problem against us, we don’t even know the nature of the problem,” Tobin said. “The murder victims who have been discussed today, and many others who have survived violent attacks have been victims of bias crimes, domestic and intimate partner violence. Some have been targeted as sex workers, and others in other situations. But we do not know the extent of each because the federal government has not studied it.”
Other LGBT advocates who don’t identify as trans also testified and presented concrete policy steps Congress could take to aid the trans community.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin testified on the second panel saying anti-trans violence is “an epidemic that’s raging across the country and ravaging our communities.”
“We must end this violence and work together to provide meaningful answers that ensure a better today and a brighter tomorrow — a day when transgender kids grow up living full lives, free to be who they are without fear of discrimination or violence,” Griffin said. “A day when they don’t simply have an opportunity to survive, but the opportunity to thrive.”
Griffin called on Congress to pass the Equality Act to make clear anti-trans discrimination is prohibited in addition to updating anti-bullying laws to include trans students, ensuring homeless trans youth access to safety by passing the Runaway & Homeless Youth & Trafficking Prevention Act and requiring mandatory reporting of bias-motivated crime data.
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, said although recent statistics demonstrate an overall drop in violence against the LGBT community, anti-trans violence in on the rise.
“The 22 lives lost to anti-transgender violence so far this year, as well as the countless others who experience non-fatal violence, should serve as a sobering reminder that much work remains ahead of us,” Stachelberg said.
Among the actions Stachelberg said she’s seeking from Congress is lifting the congressionally imposed bed mandate requiring immigration officials to detain 34,000 people a day, a policy she said has “trapped many transgender people in unsafe situations.”
“We urge Congress to use its legislative authority to remove that quota and lower the risk that a transgender person seeking refuge in our country is traumatized while in our care,” Stachelberg said.
Other advocates who testified were trans writer and advocate Joanna Cifredo; Maj. Irene Burks, assistant inspector general of the Prince George’s County Police Department; Isa Noyola, program director for the Transgender Law Center; and Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
Lawmakers who are among the nine members of the Transgender Equality Task Force — and some who aren’t — offered views on advancing trans rights and questioned witnesses.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) made an unscheduled appearance at the forum and offered thoughts on the significance of the occasion, invoking the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Content of character: That is the only test in America,” Hoyer said. “We must ensure its the only test in America.”
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) chairs the Transgender Equality Task Force and chaired the first of the two panels for the forum. Honda, who has a trans granddaughter, said a key for advancing trans rights would be “wordsmithing” on the issue.
Honda said the forum itself wouldn’t be the last word of the task force, noting, “We’re going to have more of these. We’re going to have hearings and more hearings so that this can get out more into the community.”
The California lawmaker cited upcoming actions, including a resolution designating November as Transgender Acceptance Month, a letter to the administration seeking action on anti-trans violence, a letter to the Federal Trade Commission seeking a ban on widely discredited conversion therapy and a letter to the Census Bureau for enhanced data collection.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who’s gay and a co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, chaired the second panel, emphasizing the importance of trans inclusion within the LGBT community.
“Transgender Americans face discrimination and violence at levels that many other communities in our nation cannot imagine,” Takano said. “We call it our combined community, the LGBT community, but it is clear that even as we make progress in advancing equality for ‘L,’ for ‘G’ and ‘B,’ too often the rights of ‘T’ have been left behind.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who advocates on behalf of immigrants, said he attended the forum out of a sense of solidarity with the LGBT community.
“When the community I represent — including the LGBTQ community — is under attack and threatened with violence, I expect people to stand up,” Gutierrez said. “Just as I expect people to stand up and stand with us when the Puerto Rican community is under attack, when Latinos and immigrant communities are under attack, and when the words of public figures and so-called leaders incite or provoke people to violence.”
Other lawmakers present at the hearing were Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-N.Y.).
The event was a congressional forum, which isn’t technically the same thing as a congressional hearing. A formal congressional hearing on trans issues would be unlikely in the Republican-controlled Congress.
According to the LGBT Equality Caucus, a forum looks like a hearing because testimony is collected and members ask questions, but the discussion isn’t entered automatically into any congressional record.
The questioning also wasn’t as rigorous, as House members generally adhered to a rule of holding to one question each. But Gutierrez evoked interesting responses among the witnesses when he noted Congress is unlikely to act on transgender rights given its current makeup and asked which cities in the United States were taking the lead in advancing trans rights.
Griffin responded by saying Gutierrez is correct the current environment in Congress is challenging and cited San Francisco, New York and Chicago as examples of model cities.
Still, Griffin said federal protections should be the goal because “these issues affect folks regardless of party affiliation or region of the country from which one comes.”
“At the end of the day, these vital protections, these common sense human and civil rights protections should come from our federal government because when they don’t we’re left to the whims of political campaigns like we just saw in Houston, Texas,” Griffin said.
Lettman-Hicks said she would echo Griffin, but added other cities exhibiting best practices are D.C. and Berkeley, Calif. — in addition to the Justice Department. But on the specific issue of law enforcement, Lettman-Hicks said she “wouldn’t say anybody” is where they need to be and Congress echoing the Justice Department “would go a long way.”
Broadus said he shares those views, adding Los Angeles would be an example of a model city, but added Congress can do more to ensure uniformity of training everywhere.
“I know it may not be now, but we have to try,” Broadus said. “I think that’s what we have to work for, it’s explicit federal protections or we’re not going to have people protected.”