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Not So Liberal? Violence Against Transgender Women in the Bay Area

California’s Bay Area enjoys a reputation as one of the most liberal regions in the country, a locale infamous for ‘San Francisco values,’ the alleged libertine attitudes of the Castro, the quirky ‘How Berkeley Can You Be?’ parade, and many more things large and small that project an attitude of liberality, heightened consciousness about social issues, and community to the rest of the nation. When the conservative right wants to set its targets on what it sees as the latest sin of the left, its eyes often look to the Bay Area, and the state as a whole has been at the core of a number of controversies ranging from tighter environmental protections to the legalisation of marijuana to marriage equality.

But the Bay Area has a secret, and it’s this: the area is not as liberal as it appears, for all that it may show up blue for the Democrats on electoral maps, and for all that it seems to pass a surprising amount of progressive legislation. Many conservative enclaves are deeply entrenched in the Bay Area and for every ‘Stop Eating Meat’ modified stop sign you’ll see in Berkeley, you can spot a ‘Politically incorrect and proud of it’ or ‘These colours don’t run’ bumper sticker too.

That darkness lying beneath the surface of the Bay bubbled to the top during the BART strikes of early 2013, when many outraged tech workers and others fussed about not having access to train service—or joined in complaining even if they didn’t use public transit, simply for the sake of the thing and for the opportunity to bash unions. 2013 has also seen a marked and extremely troubling uptick in transphobic violence, although much of it has flown below the radar due to vagaries of law enforcement, fear in the trans community when it comes to reporting, and, of course, reluctance on the part of the media to fully engage with transphobic violence and the role gender identity plays in some crimes.

In San Francisco earlier this year, El/La, a trans rights organisation working primarily with Latinas, noted a series of ominous incidents of violence against trans women including physical assaults, rapes, catcalling in bars, and more. The Bay Area Reporter notes that: ‘People who work with the women have said victims are often reluctant to report incidents for many reasons—they think police won’t do anything or will even harass them, many of the women are undocumented, and there can be language barriers.’ The first issue is a common problem in the trans community, particularly for trans women, who are used to being ignored, mocked, or worse for reporting violence. Among immigrant trans communities, the second two issues can compound the first.

Inadequate reporting makes it very hard to get accurate numbers when it comes to tracking transmisogynistic violence in the Bay Area—especially since the area is so focused on projecting a liberal, welcoming atmosphere that it may not be willing to delve too deep when it comes to statistics on violence against women of any kind, let alone trans women. As in other regions of the country, trans women in the Bay Area also experience a higher rate of homelessness, drug abuse, and other problems, as well as exacerbated mental health conditions as a result of being ostracised, kept in a state of fear, forced out of homes and jobs, and harassed by police and other officials.

San Francisco isn’t the only city with a transphobic violence problem. Women are dying in the East Bay, including in both Oakland and Berkeley, alleged bastion of peace, love, and brown rice. In Berkeley earlier this year, 41-year-old Kayla Moore ‘died during a struggle’ with the police in her apartment after her roommate called them. Moore was Black, mentally ill, and trans, putting herself square in the targets of law enforcement—US police are infamously unfriendly to all three of these groups, and someone who inhabits all three identities is almost doomed from the start of any law enforcement interaction.

Why is the Bay Area experiencing such a wave of transphobic violence at the same time more and more Bay Area companies are including trans partner benefits in their coverage, assisting employees with transition services, and more? How, as the queer and trans movement is surging in the Bay Area and challenging notions about gender identity and presentation, is it simultaneously becoming so much more dangerous to be trans? These acts of violence have brought home the fact that there is no safe place; not out at bars, not in your own home, not on the streets.

Trans women in the Bay Area also have to fear threats from within their lives, such as abusive partners and family members. Such news would undoubtedly make conservatives giddy if they only knew about it—but thanks to the paucity of media coverage, violence against the Bay’s trans community remains primarily a matter for small independent papers and an enraged trans community that’s fighting for its life even as it also tries to raise awareness about these issues and reach out for help.

As these cases illustrate, simply passing progressive legislation isn’t enough, because hatred cannot be whisked away with a stroke of a municipal ordinance, or a new policy at work. Harsher hate crimes penalties may not necessarily be the answer either, given the broken nature of the US justice system and the deep inherent problems in how California’s courts, jails, and prisons are run; assuming perpetrators are actually caught, which is not necessarily guaranteed, sending them to prison may not be the best course of action.

Ultimately, combating transphobia may require outreach, education, and exposure to teach the cis community that the trans community is not a threat—but that is too high a burden to put on the trans community when doing so can have life-threatening consequences. While a mission for trans visibility must be a key component of any successful reform of social attitudes and beliefs, it needs to come with protections for the trans community as well, including the work of those ready to stand in solidarity beside the community’s most vulnerable members.