Transgender rights activists claim safe spaces

Protestors block the intersection of Halsted and Belmont demanding justice for black trans lives on October 5
Protestors block the intersection of Halsted and Belmont demanding justice for black trans lives on October 5. (Jordan Gaines/ MEDILL)

By Jordan Gaines

Like many transgender women across the nation, T.T. Saffore found no safety in law enforcement, and threats of violence were a normal part of life. When the 27-year-old hairstylist was found murdered Sept. 11 in Garfield Park, she had not shared a recent threat to her life by another transgender woman three days before, friends say.

It was no surprise, then, that a recent vigil of 200 people who came to honor Saffore quickly turned into a protest, blocking traffic, drawing police: “Turn up for T.T.! Turn up for T.T.! Turn up for T.T.!,” protesters shouted the night of Oct. 5 in the Boystown area of the Lakeview neighborhood, demanding justice for Saffore and other slain black transgender women across the nation.

A UCLA survey reports that transgender people make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.  Despite that, according to the Human Rights Campaign and the Advocate, over 40 transgender individuals have been murdered in the past two years and the number is increasing as more homicides have been reported since those numbers were released. Most of the victims were transgender women of color. Many of their murders remain unsolved.

Saffore joins a too-long list of black transgender women who have been murdered in 2016. According to the Advocate, they include Jazz Alford of North Carolina; Crystal Edmonds of Baltimore; Rae’Lynn Thomas of Columbus, Ohio; Skye Mockabee of Cleveland; Dee Whigham of Biloxi, Mississippi; and Deeniqua Dodds of Washington, D.C., to name a few.

“We already deal with a lot of issues with our family and our community, the black community, that we are already silenced,” said LaSaia Wade, a member of Chicago Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Collective. “Having a space like this to affirm yourself and also be able to have some hard conversations will allow you to really build a lot of strength as well as get the answers to your questions.”

The event aimed to create a safe space for black transgender and gender non-conforming folks in the city while sharing demands for better treatment. These demands include employment opportunities for transgender people, decriminalizing sex work and the abolition of solitary confinement in prisons

Transgender people in the U.S. are four times as likely non-transgender people to experience poverty, according to the Human Rights Campaign. A 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey also showed the unemployment rate for transgender people is double the national unemployment rate and four times the rate for black transgender people. This leads  many transpeople to turn to sex work for survival.

“We reject criminalizing of black trans and gender nonconforming people for choosing their own means of survival,” according to K. Tajhi Claybren, reading a statement written by the collective.

Afrika Queen Lockett, an elder of the black trans community spoke about being held in solitary confinement during the vigil.

“The police don’t love us, they want to see us dead, they want to see us locked up,” according to Lockett, affectionately known as Ms. Afrika. “I was in solitary confinement for three years. I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, and now I’m bringing it to the community.”

“We are not here to showcase our pain, though we will express it, but instead to make our demands audible to all our black, trans and queer family members.” said Wade.

Protestors block the intersection of Halsted and Belmont demanding justice for black trans lives on Oct. 5. (Jordan Gaines/MEDILL)