Updated: January 28, 2023
ATLANTA — In the most recent killing of a transgender woman, her body was found inside an abandoned car, burned beyond recognition. In another case, the woman was pulled from a lake at a Dallas park. And in a third, she was found dead near a golf course, just weeks after she survived a brutal beating that was captured on video.
In the United States this year, at least 18 transgender people — most of them transgender women of color — have been killed in a wave of violence that the American Medical Association has declared an “epidemic.” The killings, which have been reported across the country, have for some prompted a heightened sense of vigilance.
“It’s always in the forefront of our minds, when we’re leaving home, going to work, going to school,” said Kayla Gore, who lives in Memphis. “Guys were flirting with me at the gas station, and the first thought was, ‘This could go horribly wrong.’”
Activists said the cases have also underscored the precarious position of many in a community that faces elevated levels of homelessness and poverty, and the hazards that can bring.
The killings this year follow at least 26 recorded last year by the Human Rights Campaign. But transgender advocates noted that those figures fail to grasp the full extent of the perils the community faces, as data provided by law enforcement officials can be incomplete and many crimes are never reported.
The paucity of reliable data makes it difficult to measure whether violence against transgender people has increased. But many advocates say that hostility has intensified, as a rise in visibility has also stirred animosity and emboldened people to attack.
The climate of fear reflects a widening gulf in the acceptance of transgender groups, which today have far more representation in popular culture. There are transgender or gender-nonconforming characters on television and in movies, and Mattel recently introduced a line of gender-neutral dolls. Yet that cultural progress has not trickled down to everyday life, particularly for those who are the most vulnerable.
“We are the most afraid we’ve ever been,” said Mariah Moore, a program associate for the Transgender Law Center, who lives in New Orleans. “But we’re also stronger than we’ve ever been.”
Many transgender people said they have hunkered down, avoiding meeting people they do not know and sticking to places where they will have greater odds of staying safe.
“A lot of folks are living in silos,” Ms. Gore said.
Between May and July — when pride events were taking place across the country — at least 14 L.G.B.T.Q. people were killed, according to a report from the Anti-Violence Project. Seven of the victims were black transgender women.
“The increased visibility is a signal for them that they need to double down in fighting back,” Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York, said of those looking to harm transgender people. “We’re definitely seeing what we would call a backlash.”
The dangers, of course, extend beyond explicit bias crimes. Discrimination can stand in the way of housing, education and job prospects, pushing many transgender people into homelessness as well as into sex work, elevating risks to their safety. And for black transgender women, racism can compound the discrimination.
“The prejudices don’t add upon one another, they multiply upon one another,” said Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.
Police departments have hired more L.G.B.T.Q. officers and have sought to mend strained relationships, but advocates say many transgender people avoid calling the police if they are threatened or even physically attacked.
Dana Martin, 31, was the first known transgender person killed in 2019, found shot to death in a vehicle in Montgomery, Ala., in January.
Since then, three transgender women have been killed in Dallas, including Muhlaysia Booker, a 23-year-old who was shot to death about a month after being brutally assaulted in an unrelated attack that was captured on video and garnered national attention. Another transgender woman in Dallas was shot several times last week and gravely wounded in an attack that the authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
In Detroit in June, an 18-year-old man was charged with first-degree murder for the targeted killings of a transgender woman, Paris Cameron, and two gay men.
The most recent killing, at least the 18th, took place near Clewiston, Fla. The body of Bee Love Slater, 23, was found in a scorched car on Sept. 4, her body so badly burned that she had to be identified with dental records.
The series of killings has mobilized transgender and L.G.B.T.Q. groups, with calls for lawmakers to strengthen hate crime legislation and bar the use of the so-called gay- or trans-panic defense for people charged with attacks. They have also organized self-defense classes and guides on where to find affirming places to eat and shop.
The violence against transgender women has been cited by several Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary. At a candidates forum on L.G.B.T.Q. issues in Iowa last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren read aloud the names of those who have been killed this year.
“We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially trans African-Americans and the especially high rates of murder right now,” Mr. Booker said on Twitter after the Democratic debate in Miami in June. “It’s not enough just to be on the Equality Act. We need to have a president who will fight to protect L.G.B.T.Q. Americans every day.”
Jennicet Gutiérrez, a national community organizer for Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, said she has had moments when people felt entitled to question her identity or insult her with transphobic comments. Some had threatened her with guns, she said, “or at times, they get very physical.”
“Fortunately,” she continued, “I have experience with those sort of attacks and have been able to survive and been able to organize my community and speak up and really challenge these injustices.”
Ms. Moore said she felt a call to action in 2017, after Chyna Gibson, a 31-year-old black transgender woman, was fatally shot in New Orleans. Ms. Moore, 31, said the killing in her hometown rattled her.
Even so, she was already deeply aware of the risks she and other transgender people face. She recounted the time, in 2014, when she was attacked and had to leap from a third-story window to save herself, shattering her knees.
“I want us to live in a world,” she said, “where we don’t have to worry about walking out of our front doors and being killed because someone doesn’t understand who we are.”
Rick Rojas reported from Atlanta, and Vanessa Swales from New York.
An earlier version of this article misidentified an earlier government position held by Julián Castro, a Democratic presidential candidate. Mr. Castro is a former cabinet member, not a United States representative.
Rick Rojas is a national correspondent for The New York Times covering the American South. He has been a staff reporter for The Times since 2014. @RaR
Vanessa Swales is a reporter covering national news for The New York Times. She previously worked for NBC Investigations, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Diario SUR and SUR in English. @Vanessa_Swales