India Clarke, a twenty-five year old cosmetology student, was found beaten to death at University Area Community Center in Tampa on Tuesday—becoming at least the tenth trans woman we know of to be murdered so far in 2015.
While we still don’t know who killed India or why, we know that she faced incredible hurdles since transitioning four years ago. According to friends and family, it seems no one in Tampa wanted to hire a transgender woman like India; she relied on the love and support of her parents and at times resorted to sex work to get by.
She attended community college, but faced barriers there as well—the school would only use her male legal name. She had been out of school for four months, but planning to return. Now she will never get the chance.
India’s murder and the murder of so many others is a stinging reminder that for many LGBT people, social stigma and discrimination create not only economic barriers but also vulnerability to deadly violence. This violence has many causes and disproportionately affects transgender people, especially poor people of color.
Like other movements, basic anti-discrimination laws are a key part of ensuring equality and opportunity for LGBT people. Today, members of Congress introduced the much-anticipated Equality Act, which would update historic civil rights laws to protect LGBT people from bias in the workplace, housing, education, and in everyday situations like riding a bus or shopping in a store.
Discrimination in any of these areas can sidetrack any trans person from the life they should lead, causing joblessness, homelessness, and helplessness. More than three-fourths of respondents in the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported experiencing workplace discrimination. And 90% of all the respondents said they had experienced disrespect, discrimination or violence in some critical aspect of life including employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Today, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have clear LGBT nondiscrimination protections in employment and housing on the books. This patchwork of protections means LGBT Americans constantly live in fear of discrimination – a significant contributing factor in the violence so many trans people face every day. That’s why the National Center for Transgender Equality has helped develop and is very excited to support the new Equality Act.
With a deeply divided Congress, passage of the Equality Act may be a few years away. Its introduction will help advance the social and political conversation about transgender lives in state legislatures, the courts, media, and in American living rooms. When passed, it will be a substantial, but not final step forward. The bill will also strengthen civil rights protections for women and racial and religious minorities in everyday areas like transportation services and retail stores.Even as we make progress with the Equality Act, we will still have so much more to do: educating the public, supporting trans people in their everyday lives, and addressing other issues like economic inequality and police accountability that disproportionately affect trans people. No single policy change, public education moment, or empowerment campaign will provide the answer. Like related movements for racial and economic justice, the LGBT movement must work on many fronts.
But the Equality Act is an enormously important new tool for advancing equality. We cannot know if a non-discrimination bill could have done anything to make India Clarke less vulnerable to being killed at 25, but it would likely have helped her get a job and further her education. Transgender people are strong and resilient as individuals and as a community. But we need respect and opportunity like anyone else. And as so often in the American story, much more needs to be done to ensure we all get it. Something as simple but fundamental as non-discrimination protection is a key part of that story.
Mara Keisling is the executive director of the Center for Transgender Equality.
Correction: The article originally stated that India Clarke was found beaten to death on the campus of Hillsborough Community College. The correct location is the University Area Community Center.