National News from ABC

Black trans women live in fear after pattern of deaths in Chicago

Danielle A. Scruggs for ABC News

(CHICAGO) -- The story of De'Janay Stanton's death is one that many transgender women in Chicago fear. The 24-year-old Black transgender woman was shot and killed by a romantic interest in 2018, and since then more and more stories like hers have come to light -- in her city and across the U.S.

"They want to date our girls in darkness -- they don't want to be in public," said her sister, Chimera Griffin. "She never expressed danger to me, but me, being a mom, I always knew something was gonna be bad because of society. In society, they're so cruel."

So far this year, the Human Rights Campaign has recorded four Black trans women being murdered in Chicago among at least 47 transgender or gender non-conforming people killed nationwide. But local activists say many more cases likely go unreported.

"We don't have good statistics on the violence that Black trans women experience," said Kim Fountain, chief administrative officer of the Center on Halsted, the Midwest's largest LGBTQ social services agency. "If you don't have those numbers, then it's really hard to get a system to move on anything."

Chicago has seen the most trans deaths so far in 2021, up from two in 2020.

On Trans Day of Remembrance, Nov. 20, families, activists and the trans community in Chicago are planning to reflect on the culture of fear, victimization and violence against trans people in their city -- and the lack of accountability for the killers of these women.

"They were never afforded the dignity that human beings should be afforded," said Jae Rice of local LGBTQ activist group Brave Space Alliance. "As long as we're not afforded that dignity while we're living, our deaths will never be something to be dignified at all."

Honoring trans women

Stanton's family found out about her death over Instagram live. A video captured Stanton, dead with a gunshot wound to her head, lying next to her car on Aug. 13. Someone who found Stanton's body posted the video, telling the community to "check on their people," according to Stanton's sister, Chiquita Griffin.

Her death was ruled a homicide, and Tremon T. Hill has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the killing. It's unclear whether Hill has legal representation.

Stanton is remembered by her family through her jokes, her fashion and her widespread social circle.

"You would never catch her in a bad spirit or bad mood because she always wanted to be, like, the face of happiness," Griffin recalled. "A lot of trans women were sad, or they had to be tough, or they had to be on their toes all the time. She was on her toes all the time, but she was happy."

Her happiness and her vibrancy created a safe haven for people around her, her sisters added, and their house became a place for women like Stanton to feel at home.

"So many girls, their families just throw them away, and just didn't want to bother with them because they were transitioning into who they wanted to be," Griffin said. "So she brought them all to my house."

The trans community in Chicago is small, Griffin continued, but the women killed this year -- 28-year-old Tyianna Alexander, 24-year-old Tiara Banks, 32-year-old Disaya Monaee, and 25-year-old Briana Hamilton -- were loved and known by many, including Stanton's family.

"These girls need more help," Griffin said. "Not to mention the girls, the young ones, the next generation. They're afraid to come out and be accepted in society, you know?"

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, transgender and gender non-conforming adults in the state are more likely to report psychological distress than cisgender peers.

Trans individuals also are more likely to experience discrimination, harassment, economic hardship and violence, the CDPH reports.

Intersection of gun violence and transphobia

Of the 10 women killed and reported to the HRC in Chicago since 2015, eight were killed with a gun.

Gun violence in Chicago isn't new: This year alone, the city has racked up more than 3,000 shootings, according to Chicago Police Department data.

Rice, of Brave Space Alliance, blames hypermasculinity as a root cause for much of the gun violence, transphobia and anti-trans crimes in Chicago. Toxic masculinity, the idea that violence, aggression and having power over another is an inherent part of manhood, often leads to men committing the vast majority of gun violence.

Rice says there is a prevalence of hypermasculinity, toxic masculinity and anti-LGBTQ sentiment in communities of color, like Chicago. Stigmas against queerness and femininity among men has led to the targeting of women like Stanton.

"Their manhood is now taken into question -- if you're sleeping with or are romantically engaged with a trans woman ... there are so many messages out there that are telling you trans women aren't women, when we know that's not the case," Rice said.

Stanton's is one of very few trans killings in Chicago where a suspect has been charged. No one's been charged in connection with the other three this year.

Brave Space Alliance, Griffin and others closely affected by this violence are working to get justice for other murdered trans people, pushing for resources to be allocated to the thorough investigation of these deaths.

Fixing a broken system

Local authorities, including the mayor's office and the CPD, have implemented strategies to address violence and discrimination against the community.

Following years of complaints about Chicago police mishandling incidents involving transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming people, CPD took steps to implement its "Interaction with Transgender, Intersex and Gender Nonconforming Individuals" policy in 2016, revising it this year after gathering public input via an online forum created in June.

CPD did not respond to ABC News' request for comment on the status of the policy.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office also has created a "Citywide Strategic Plan" to address gender-based violence and human trafficking, which she said she plans on implementing over the next two years.

The plan includes increasing capacity within city departments to address these issue, coordinating prevention and intervention efforts, and exploring alternate responses to these cases outside of the criminal justice system.

The mayor's office did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

In the meantime, local organizers, like Center on Halstead and Brave Space Alliance, are taking matters into their own hands.

According to Fountain, the Center on Halstead hosts local LGBTQ family groups to discuss city concerns, offers resources and financial aid to those in need, and holds community-based anti-violence projects and trainings.

Brave Space Alliance is the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ center on the city's South Side, and it relies on community funding and donations to hold programs for trans Chicagoans who need help.

"If we fix our systems to support Black trans women, then a significant part of our culture, of our society, will be lifted up as well," Fountain said. "That just speaks to how much oppression and how much bias, stigma, danger and harm they have experienced."

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