Monica Roberts began tracking violence against the trans community in 2006, well before national organizations, government agencies and, perhaps most importantly, the media took notice. Her award-winning blog, TransGriot, collected local news, police reports and community information. Her no-frills reporting style and reputation as a trusted journalist and blogger in the community made her an important resource. Leveraging a rich network of trans people on social media and tips received via email, Roberts has been a go-to resource for trans activists across the country, especially at a time when the media was not regularly reporting on the killing of trans people or their acts in a way who honored the lives of the lost.
“Monica made sure that not only did she catalog these murders, but if there was an article that was written when the person was wrongly gendered, she could write the article correctly,” said trans activist Dee Dee Waters, who also old was Monika’s friend. “It was really good to have her as we were trying to overcome a lot of that transphobic stuff.”
In West African culture, a griot is a tribal storyteller who acts as an advisor to leaders and serves as a living archive. For more than a decade, Monica provided this crucial service to a community that is often overlooked and mistreated. When I worked at the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), part of my job was tracking violence against LGBTQ people, and Monica’s blog was invaluable. She regularly shared stories that went beyond the violence that transgender communities are disproportionately exposed to. As a growing movement and understanding of trans communities has progressed in recent years, so has her reporting with posts about trans people in politics, music, television and film.
As individual states emerge with increasing hostility towards trans people –The Washington Post reported that as of October 13 this year alone, more than 155 anti-trans laws had been passed – the violence against the trans community is only going to get worse. These laws attack bodily autonomy and self-identification, deny essential medical care, and have initiated a harmful discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity. That means we need people around the world — from the mainstream media to elected officials to allies of trans people and non-binary people — to sit up, pay attention and spread the word of the ongoing violence that is taking place transgender people are exposed to.
In the fall of 2020, Monica died at the age of 56. Her unexpected death from blood clots in her lungs resonated throughout the LGBTQ community. The Association of LGBTQ Journalists (NLGJA) recognized her pioneering journalism and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) posthumously inducted her into their Hall of Fame. Her blog now lives on as an archive, and other digital content is being produced by Transgriot LLC under the direction of Waters, with plans to continue reporting on the issues facing black trans-Americans.
The legacy she left is to watch out for and care for her community, especially in moments when it seemed few outside the community were listening or taking action. In one of Monica’s recent posts about anti-trans violence, she documented the murder of Selena Reyes Hernandez, who was shot and killed by 18-year-old Orlando Perez after she revealed to him that she was transgender. “She is the sixth Latinx trans person to die in 2020 and the 14th trans person this year, but I’m only just learning about this May 31 murder because of the Chicago Medical Examiner, the Chicago Police Department and the media of Chicago wrongly gendered them,” Roberts wrote on her blog. “Even her family went there not to disrespect her in death and decided to bury her under her dead name in her native Mexico.”
Monica Roberts at the GLAAD Gala in San Francisco on September 8, 2016.
Kimberly White – GLAAD/Getty Images
In 2019, the American Medical Association (AMA) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) labeled the killings of trans Americans as an epidemic, following at least 28 homicides in 2018 and 25 homicides in 2019. “According to available tracking, fatal violence against transgender people in the US is increasing and most of the victims have been Black transgender women,” said AMA Board Member S. Bobby Mukkamala, MD, in a 2019 news release Law enforcement agencies are needed to develop policies that prevent transgender violence.”
Since then, homicides of trans people have doubled to historic levels of violence, with limited media attention or public outcry. There have been at least 44 murders of transgender and nonbinary people in 2020, up from 57 in 2021 and 33 so far this year, according to Sue Kerr, a blogger and social worker who is one of the few people to track transgender violence.
“When Kathryn Newhouse was killed in Georgia, nineteen, murdered by her father. And she’s AAPI, she’s autistic, and she has mental health issues. About all these crossbreeds, no one wrote about it,” Kerr said of a murder that happened in March. “The only thing I’ve noticed is a big difference from the time I wrote these 14, 15, 16 is that the local people, usually the friends of the deceased, are all over the media.”
Such was the case with 28-year-old Brazil Johnson, who was shot dead in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in June. Johnson’s family and friends described her as “kind-hearted” to a local outlet. The family and friends of Nedra Sequence Morris, 50, who was killed in May, organized a vigil on her behalf to demand justice. The friends and community of trans people, commonly known as the chosen family, now serve as unofficial spokespersons for the media, becoming advocates for their friends or loved ones after death.
There are a handful of individuals and organizations across the country that are prosecuting trans violence. The Anti-Violence Project (AVP) continues to lead a national coalition of organizations that collect data on LGBTQ violence. TransLashMedia, led by transmedia personality Imara Jones, is marking the death of every trans person on their Instagram channel. HRC also tracks anti-trans violence and publishes an annual report. Each year, the constant has been an emphasis by advocates on saying “at least” next to each number about trans murders — knowing that with the limited tracking available, there are names of trans people whose stories go untold.
It is important to remember that violence against marginalized communities does not begin with murder. It begins with the acceptance, both passive and intentional, of increasingly hateful rhetoric that fuels legislation and encourages acts of violence in the people. Trans people, disproportionately black trans women, are subject to violence on the streets, from intimate partners, family members or colleagues, as well as from laws designed to dehumanize and ultimately eliminate trans people from the public sphere. There is a growing anti-trans animus, which manifests itself as violence in real life, and we have to call it what it is.
Every year on November 20th, the LGBTQ community remembers the lives of the lost for Transgender Remembrance Day. This year — and every year since — Monica will be remembered as a fierce leader who cared enough to tend to the needs of her community. Not only was she taken too soon, and her absence from our movement will be felt immensely, her care and love for her community will always be remembered. The way to honor their legacy is for us all to do some of the work of documenting, amplifying, and raising awareness of the attacks trans people face. We cannot stand idly by. We must demand justice.
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