On a July night in 2009, Teri Benally was with some acquaintances in an Albuquerque park. She told her friends she was going home and left. That was the last time they saw her. According to news reports, Teri was found badly beaten and unconscious on Maple near Coal the next morning. She died, at the age of 42, in the hospital.
A few weeks before that, Kelly Watson, 32, had also been beaten to death in the same neighborhood. Five years earlier, the body of Vera Shey Hoskie, 23, was found on Dec. 27, 2004, in an alley near the 1600 block of Ridgecrest. Their murderers have not been found.
All three of these victims were Navajo and could be classified by traditional Navajo culture as nadleehi. This is roughly equivalent to the term "two-spirited," used in some Native American traditions to refer to someone whose body is home to both masculine and feminine spirits at once. In contemporary terms, similar people of all cultures are called transgender.
Between Nov. 18 and 21, in observance of International Transgender Day of Remembrance, vigils will be held in cities all over the world. What began as a single day of memorial has grown to encompass multiple dates and a variety of events. At the very least, participants light candles and read the names of those who've been killed because of their gender presentation.
In the last two years, there has been an average of six murders every month related to gender identity worldwide, according to transgenderdor.org. But those are just the cases that are reported. There are probably many more.
Many of the victims are tortured, and their bodies are often mutilated. For instance, on Nov. 6 and 7, the bodies of two people said to be a "eunuch" and a "crossdresser" were found in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. Both had been tortured, mutilated and burned almost beyond recognition, according to the International Herald Tribune.
When transgender people are victims of hate crimes, the media often makes an issue of the victims' identities, even referring to them by the pronouns associated with their birth sex. In rare instances where the murderers are caught, their defense attorneys are able to capitalize on the jurors' prejudice, as happened in the trial of the men who murdered Gwen Araujo in California in 2002.
This media insensitivity is in direct violation of Associated Press guidelines: "Use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly." Yet persuading the press to abide by their own guidelines remains an uphill battle. This happens in spite of repeated admonitions from the trans community. Albuquerque media has repeatedly referred to Hoskie, Benally and Watson as "cross-dressed men" and called them by their former male names. All three were living full-time as women and were known as such to their acquaintances.
"It's the ignorance and prejudice that incubate the violence against trans people," says Adrien Lawyer, executive director of the Transgender Resources Center of New Mexico.
Part of the issue here may be the cruel misconception, false to the point of absurdity, that transpeople choose to be the way they are. In reality, many transpeople struggle for years to try to convince themselves to remain in their birth gender despite how wrong it feels, but finally realize they can only be happy in their true identity. Yet they pay a terrible price in terms of the unparalleled hatred and discrimination they face.
Not every person who’s been killed self-identified as transgender, but each was a victim of violence because of prejudice. Though most of the victims went by feminine names, there are several male names on the list at transgenderdor.org. Some were female impersonators, such as Patrick/Patricia Murphy, murdered in Albuquerque in January of 2008 while dressed as a woman. Others were straight men, like Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was beaten to death in Kentucky because he had a trans girlfriend. Or Willie Houston, shot dead in Tennessee because he was holding his fiancée's purse while she used the ladies room.
Anyone, even a straight man, can become the victim of the hatred toward transpeople.