On the night of April 28, 2012, Tiffany Woods had a hard time sleeping. The program manager of Fremont-based TransVision, which provides health services to transgender clients, spent much of the night tossing and turning, so when one of her former employees, Terry Washington, called her cellphone just before 7 a.m., she didn't pick up. When more calls started coming in, Woods knew something was wrong. Washington's voicemail delivered one of the most shocking pieces of news she had ever received in her long history as a transgender advocate in the East Bay.
"I hate to disturb you, Tiffany," Woods recalled Washington saying in his message. "Brandy's been shot. And she's gone."
Not Brandy, she thought.
Brandy Martell, a 37-year-old transgender woman who had worked for Woods for four years, was shot and killed by a gunman while she and her friends, a group of transgender women, sat in a car near the intersection of 13th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland in the early hours of the morning. By 7:40 a.m., Woods, who is also a transgender woman, was at the crime scene taking photos of Martell's body, covered with a blanket, lying on the street.
"I heard the gunshots, ran over to the car, and see her there taking her last breath," recalled Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who happened to be in the area — a popular hangout for the trans community — at the time. "I'd never experienced somebody dying in front of me." A week later, Moore, who was then involved in sex work, had an emotional breakdown and decided to get off the streets. She now works for TransVision.
It's unclear who killed Martell or why. Oakland police spokesperson Johnna Watson said the department is committed to finding Martell's killer. "We do not want this case to go forgotten," she said.
But some feel it already has. Several friends of Martell believe her murder was a blatant hate crime, because such crimes are all too familiar for transgender people, who often experience violence and discrimination because of the simple fact that their gender identity and expression do not match the ones assigned to them at birth. Even in the liberal East Bay.
"We prepare for death," said Ms. Will, an Oakland transgender woman and longtime Bay Area activist. "We all wonder when it will be our turn."
Transgender rights advocates in Oakland will continue to call for justice for Martell on November 20, which marks the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, the highest-profile event for the trans community in the country — and a depressing reminder of the grim challenge facing this population. Since Martell's death, there have been several attention-grabbing local cases of violence involving transgender victims, notably the controversial death of a trans woman, Kayla Moore (no relation to the aforementioned Kayla Moore), while in Berkeley Police Department custody, and, recently, the case of a gender-nonconforming (or "agender") teenager, Sasha Fleischman, whose skirt was lit on fire while on a bus in Oakland.
Although data on hate crimes against transgender people are hard to come by, studies show that transgender people are disproportionately victims of violence compared to the broader LGBT community. A 2012 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which collects data from LGBT organizations around the country, found that the problem is particularly acute for transgender women of color. Around half of all victims of anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2012 were transgender, and all of them were women of color. (This is the first year that law enforcement agencies will be reporting hate crimes based on gender identity to the FBI, and data won't be published until 2014.) According to Transgender Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring project, there have been 238 killings of trans people in the last 12 months worldwide — sixteen in the United States. The global count has been climbing overall since 2009.
While transgender people face widespread mistreatment — they were 1.67 times as likely to experience threats and intimidation compared to LGBTQ non-transgender survivors and victims of violence in the 2012 anti-violence report — studies and interviews with advocates show that trans women are particularly vulnerable. They face higher rates of discrimination, violence, sexual assault, and poverty. Some are victimized by male partners because they are ashamed of being with them. Others deal with violence associated with sex work. For the women who struggle daily with abuse and harassment — from strangers, boyfriends, and, in some cases, police — it can feel as if society has accepted this reality as the norm, or at least is choosing to ignore it.
"We're expendable," said Breonna McCree, an African-American transgender woman and close friend of Martell. "We expect there will be no justice." McCree, who is a public health specialist, said that when she used to be a sex worker she and other women had the traumatizing task on multiple occasions of helping police identify transgender friends who had been murdered. "[Violence] becomes part of everyday life."
Just one week before her death, Martell was sitting in the living room of McCree's Oakland apartment, talking about the miracle of their survival thus far.
Martell, McCree recalled, told her, "'I'm surprised someone hasn't killed me off yet.'"
On a chilly Friday evening earlier this month, Kayla Moore and two co-workers from TransVision parked their cars at the dimly lit corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 16th Street, just outside of the hustle of downtown Oakland. It was after 10 p.m. and the November First Fridays street festival had ended, but for many bars and clubs, the night was just beginning — as was their night shift. They were there to reach out to sex workers, offering them condoms and handing out fliers.