The greatest threat to individual freedom is the fear of violence. Our country’s founders knew this — the “pursuit of happiness” depends on a freedom from fear. Bigots know it, too, and they use it as a weapon. When people of color and LGBTQ people try to exercise their basic rights to expression and assembly, the first and most brutal response by those filled with hate is to target these groups with violence.
That is why policymakers and the public should treat the recent wave of hate-motivated violence toward trans women of color as the national crisis it is. It is an epidemic that strikes at the heart of the freedoms we share, and it is getting worse. This crisis also illustrates the invisibility of trans women of color today and shows the harsh realities faced by people subjected to bias on the basis of both their race and transgender status. Recently released data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that 2016 saw a 9 percent increase in violent crimes targeting the transgender community. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported an 86 percent increase in individual anti-LGBTQ homicides between 2016 and 2017. Additionally, a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation documented the escalating violence faced by transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.
These trends are shocking, but we cannot lose sight of the individual stories at the heart of these crimes. Consider families like Shanta Myers and Brandi Mells and their two beautiful children, Shanise and Jeremiah, who were murdered in their New York home this past December. Shanta and Brandi were two of at least five black LGBTQ women killed that month alone. Over the last three years, three transgender people have been killed in Philadelphia, including 25-year-old Maya Young in 2016. Nationally, this tragic violence has only increased – more transgender people were killed in 2017 than in any single year on record.
Understandably, many across our country feel fear right now. But fearfulness does not have to mean powerlessness. Fighting back will take courage and cooperation—but it is essential if we want to preserve the values that make our country great.
There are concrete steps to take right now to curb this epidemic. Cities, states and the federal government must pass clear non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people in the workplace, housing and public spaces. State hate crime laws must include anti-LGBTQ bias-motivated crimes. And all states should enact hate crimes laws, including those five which currently have no such protections at all.
We must also implement criminal justice reforms and new practices so that targeted minority groups have renewed faith in the authorities responsible for keeping them safe. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Stop Hate Project and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have taken on this important goal through a strategic partnership that brings together civil rights and law enforcement leaders to develop an action agenda to improve the response to hate incidents. But we cannot stop there, particularly in the Trump era marked by scapegoating, violence and fear.
When politicians paint LGBTQ people, particularly transgender people of color, as a threat to children, they help create an atmosphere that can fuel violent bigotry and racism in the public square. When children are murdered and families fearful to leave their homes, silence by our public officials gives tacit permission to hatred. When basic freedoms are imperiled, those who fail to speak up should be held accountable.
Those of us with power and privilege must use our platform fearlessly. Lives are at stake and the growing list of those killed by hate violence is a sobering reminder of the urgency of this cause.
After the Supreme Court granted full marriage equality in 2015, Georgia congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, said “As a nation, we cannot say we are committed to equality, if we do not mandate equality for every citizen. You cannot have equality for some in America and not equality for all.”
Congressman Lewis understands better than most that fear destroys freedom, and that speaking out is sometimes our only weapon for self-defense. We must honor the courage and defend the freedom of those living openly today — even as so many face an unprecedented onslaught of violence. We must act urgently, because a threat to one of us is a threat to us all.
Chad Griffin is president of the Human Rights Campaign. Kristen Clarke is president & executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.