Better data can help us better understand and end anti-trans violence

2021 has been marked as the deadliest year on record for transgender and nonbinary people — with at least 50 transgender or nonbinary people murdered in the United States alone, predominantly women of color. This follows at least 44 documented cases last year.

Every time this number increases, it is a striking reminder that trans and nonbinary people live in a society where transphobia, hate and intolerance fuel a crisis level of violence against our community.

It’s critical to note that these are only the names that we do know — and that we only know these names due to the efforts of their friends and loved ones and trans-led organizations working to ensure that the identities of trans people are preserved even in death. That’s why we say “at least.”

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Currently, there is no widespread practice of collecting sexual orientation or gender identity data as a part of violent death investigations, which applies to cases of homicide, suicide and the use of deadly force by police. And it’s crucial to underscore trends among these issues, as they are connected — disproportionate experiences of violence and discrimination put young trans people at increased risk for suicide.  

For The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, this is one of the biggest challenges of our work, as we currently have no reliable or central data source indicating how many LGBTQ youths actually die by suicide each year. However, we do know from our research that more than half (52 percent) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and 1 in 5 reported attempting suicide.

Crowdsourcing accurate data on trans and nonbinary deaths is a virtually impossible task, especially when we know that so many cases go unreported, or are misreported, as victims are all too often misgendered. I saw this firsthand in the late 90s when I was working with GenderPAC, a gender-based advocacy organization, and individually reviewed media reports regarding the deaths of queer or trans people. To verify the report was an accurate representation of the LGBTQ victim’s identity, I would reach out to local advocates and search the newborn internet for references that might corroborate the name and gender identity of the victim, scouring a variety of subtle clues including language others used, mentions of clothing, pronouns and deadnaming, which is using a trans person's birth name despite the fact that they no longer identify by it. Social media makes this work more doable for national LGBTQ organizations, but the burden should not be on community members to track this crisis.

The lack of reliable and systematic data on LGBTQ identity in cases of violent death is a major oversight that must be remedied if we are to truly grasp the scope of this growing violence. This year, we are starting to see progress. In September, the California state legislature passed legislation — the first of its kind in the nation — that will equip county coroners and medical examiners with the training necessary to identify and collect data on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity in cases of violent death. We are hopeful this pilot program will serve as a model for states across the country. Further, the LGBTQ Essential Data Act, which has been reintroduced in Congress and supported by the Biden administration, would improve the collection of sexual orientation and gender identity information in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System.

Though these types of policies rarely make headlines, they represent a critical step forward in the movement to protect and save LGBTQ lives. Tracking how many lives are lost to homicide and suicide each year will allow us to better understand existing disparities, respond more effectively with solutions and help prevent future tragedies. At a minimum, these policies would equip us with the information necessary to honor victims’ legacies and make certain they are no longer misrepresented or erased. 

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As we honor the countless lives lost to anti-trans violence, remember that behind every statistic and name spoken at a vigil is the memory and legacy of a human being — a loving partner, parent, family member, friend, community member — whose life was violently cut short merely because of who they were. 

Improving data collection is just one small piece of the puzzle in our collective fight for trans liberation, but it is a vital piece to ensure our community is no longer erased — both in life and in death.

Carrie Davis is the chief community officer of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ young people.