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Transgender Day of Remembrance: Breaking the Cycle of Discrimination and Violence

On Thursday, over 50 Department of Justice and federal government employees gathered at the department to observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to celebrate the courage and honor the memory of victims of anti-transgender discrimination and violence.  The keynote speaker was Diana Flynn, Chief of the Appellate Section of the Civil Rights Division, who offered a presentation about the ways in which the Civil Rights Division and other federal agencies have been working to end all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, including gender identity and expression. Other speakers included Robert Moossy of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section, who spoke of the division’s efforts to investigate and prosecute gender-identity motivated violence under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; Becky Monroe, Acting Director of the Community Relations Service (CRS), who spoke about CRS’ work with communities affected by anti-transgender hate crimes; and Matt Nosanchuk, Senior Counselor the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Tom Perez. Transgender individuals – meaning people whose gender identity or internal sense of being male or female is different from the gender marker assigned to them at birth – face enormous odds.  According to a recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, discrimination against transgender individuals is pervasive: 63% of respondents said they had experienced a serious act of discrimination that had a major impact on their quality of life and ability to sustain themselves financially or emotionally.  As a result, transgender individuals are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population, and 41% reported attempting suicide.  They are also too often the target of violent crime, including murder. Other than the Shepard-Byrd hate crimes statute, no federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  Most federal laws, however, do prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, and the Civil Rights Division has been actively exploring ways in which the Department can use these laws to address discrimination against transgender individuals.  For example, the Civil Rights Division’s Education Section has participated in a number of cases involving the harassment of students because of their real or perceived failure to conform to sex stereotypes. (The division's employees recently filmed a video for the It Gets Better project.) Although the “sex stereotyping” theory is the most well-established avenue for securing protection for transgender people against discrimination, the Civil Rights Division is committed to exploring all viable arguments that can be made to ensure equality under the law for all people, irrespective of gender identity and expression.  Moreover, under the authority of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Civil Rights Division has engaged in outreach to the transgender community to encourage it to seek help from law enforcement when hate crimes occur, and has helped train thousands of law enforcement officers on the new law and on the importance of responding to victims of anti-transgender violence.  The Division also documented violations of the civil rights of transgender individuals in its comprehensive findings letter from its investigation of the New Orleans Police Department.  When violence does occur, the Community Relations Service has worked with communities affected by that violence to build bridges – by facilitating communication and building trust – between those communities, with the goal of preventing future violence. As our speakers reminded us, what is often lost in debates about transgender individuals and issues, is that transgender lives are human lives.  The Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day to recommit ourselves to breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence that affects far too many transgender Americans.
Updated April 7, 2017