Erika D. Smith

Like Chyna Gibson, transwomen are victims far too often

Picture from the GoFundMe page for Chyna Gibson’s memorial fund.
Picture from the GoFundMe page for Chyna Gibson’s memorial fund.

Chyna Gibson went home to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and never came back. She never even made it to Fat Tuesday.

Instead, on Saturday night, police found the transgender black woman from Sacramento slumped between two parked cars, bleeding profusely from several gunshot wounds. She had just left a nearby clothing store. Neighbors said they heard as many as 10 shots echo through the parking lot.

Gibson, just 31 years old, died at the scene. Her gender reassignment surgery had been scheduled for next week.

“She was extremely beautiful. She was positive energy. Always smiling,” said Ebony Ava Harper, who knew Gibson from the clubs in Lavender Heights, where she did drag shows as Chyna Doll Dupree in between gigs in other cities.

That’s how I knew Gibson, too. From her guest appearances at Faces Nightclub on K Street.

“She had that kind of snarky humor,” said Harper, who used to perform drag as well. “She teased you, but it’s all in love. If she teased you, you were a friend.”

Why Gibson was murdered remains a mystery. But what we do know is that she was the seventh transgender person to be killed in the U.S. this year, and the fourth in just one week. That’s well above the pace of last year, which already ranks as the deadliest year on record for trans people with 27 murders on the books, according to GLAAD.

Year after year, transwomen of color continue to turn up dead, caught in the dangerous nexus of transphobia, racism and sexism. It’s an ugly reality that often gets glossed over by politicians, even here in California, as they fall all over themselves to stand up for the rights of transgender Americans.

What happened to Gibson is a brutal reminder that civil rights movements can be uneven and ultimately fragile things.

How uneven? How fragile?

Not all that long ago, it seemed as though trans people of all races and ethnicities were well on their way to securing some landmark rights – and in record time, too. It was just in 2015 that Caitlyn Jenner donned a beautiful white gown to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage before an audience of beefy athletes at the ESPYs. She also graced the cover of Vanity Fair.

Around the same time, people in conservative states, who had just come to accept the same-sex couples in their midst, were begrudgingly starting to wrap their minds around the concept of gender identity. That’s not the same thing as sexual orientation, but it too is not a choice.

Then came the wave of so-called bathroom bills designed to block transgender students from using the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, forcing them to use ones that match their gender assigned at birth.

North Carolina, with its Republican-controlled Legislature, led the way on this hateful front, passing just such a bill with record speed. The backlash, from California companies and an Obama administration Justice Department, was just as quick. But so far, the state has refused to back down.

Then late last year another case, this one involving a transgender high school student in Virginia, Gavin Grimm, made it all the way to the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the teen’s school district, arguing that by barring him from the boys’ bathroom, the district is violating the 14th Amendment and Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination by schools.

Things were looking good until last week, when the Trump administration decided to withdraw Obama-era protections for transgender students, damaging the case before it reaches the high court this month.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos protested the decision a bit, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions, no doubt channeling Vice President Mike Pence and his peers in the Religious Right, won out.

Pinned down by reporters, White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to explain Trump’s about-face on the issue, but it came out as a mixture of political conniving and barely concealed transphobia. Trump, he said, is “very sympathetic” to students who “deal with that,” but the president doesn’t want to force his beliefs on other people.

Spicer called it a states rights issue, not a civil rights issue. You know, like school segregation.

The message to trans people is clear. “The Trump administration is saying we’re not going to protect you,” Harper said. And she’s right. This is about more than just bathrooms; it’s about civil rights.

But the other, not-so-subtle message is that the rights of gay and lesbian Americans are worth more than those of transgender Americans. It’s as if the Trump administration, in deciding who is worthy of legal protection, is trying to drive a wedge between the already loose coalition that changed hearts and minds, and made same-sex marriage a reality.

“Transfolks are like the bottom of the barrel,” Harper said, “and we often get treated less than the L and G (in LGBT).”

When such thinking is codified into federal law, states such as Louisiana can continue to feel justified in having hate crime laws on the books that include protections for sexual orientation, but not for gender identity. That means Gibson’s murder will only be prosecuted as a hate crime if the federal government steps in, and under Sessions, that’s unlikely to happen.

Such thinking also leaves trans people vulnerable to abuse and with an understanding that they must fend for themselves, particularly if they’re also poor and a minority. Here in California, people have legal protections, but that’s not true in other states. And if Gibson’s murder proves anything, it’s that California residents are still at risk.

As for Sacramento’s trans community, people are pulling together. There’s a memorial service planned for Gibson at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The Gender Health Center, where Gibson was receiving services, including legal aid to change her name, is hosting it.

“Our trans community is pretty small,” said Harper, who works at the center and is organizing the memorial service.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This is the time for allies to show up and stand up for Gibson and other transwomen of color. No one else should have to suffer her fate.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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