Transgender women of color: When being yourself is a dangerous decision

Feb 23, 2016

What’s it like to live in fear, every day?  To know you’re a target just by being yourself? To understand that being attractive could kill you?

Ka’Milla McMiller of south St. Louis knows. As a young transgender woman of color, she can’t stop thinking about her safety, especially after what happened last year.

In 2015, violent attacks across the country killed 21 transgender women, almost all of them individuals of color. That’s a record number – and those are just the deaths that were reported.

The specter of this violence haunts and informs McMiller’s everyday life. Just walking down the street or riding the bus seems dangerous.

“Every day or every week we were waking up, and it was like another trans woman is dead, another trans woman is dead — and I was like, When’s it going to stop?” McMiller said. 

‘My safety over my education’

Ka'Milla McMiller said she hopes she can help make things better for other young trans women.
Credit Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

McMiller chewed gum vigorously as we talked inside her office at her part-time job with the Missouri Gay-Straight Alliance Network. In many ways, she sounds like a typical 18 year old, like when she mentions her mom.

“I can talk to her and tell her I love her and everything, but still we kind of bump heads and I try to keep myself out of the house as much as possible,” McMiller said.

But her life outside the house is the real problem. She’s had men stalk her and grab her, and one even pulled a gun — but she got away. It all started after she began transitioning in middle school from a male to a female appearance to match her identity. By her senior year in high school: “I had to choose my safety over my education,” she said.

Every part of school began to feel treacherous, she said. Between classes was especially frightening.

"I’d be walking down the hall and girls [would] say, ‘That’s a man, that’s a man.' People [were] touching my boobs to see if they were real,” McMiller said. “And when I would report that, I was told that I’d have to get used to it, that it was something I was always going to encounter because I was trans.”

So she dropped out. Now she’s planning to take a high-school equivalency test and go to beauty school. But no matter where she goes, she looks over her shoulder, especially after last year’s spike in violence.

Lourdes Ashely Hunter co-founded the Trans Women of Color Collective. She said many years ago, she was sexually assaulted and raped repeatedly in a men's homeless shelter.
Credit Lourdes Ashley Hunter

The attacks are not likely to let up any time soon, according to Lourdes Ashley Hunter who heads a national organization called the Trans Women of Color Collective.  Hunter noted that when you can be perceived as female and transgender and a racial minority, it can add up to a triple risk for poverty and unemployment.

“So if you don’t have a job, you can’t pay your rent, right, and if you don’t have housing, of course you don’t have access to safety, and so you have to do things that put your life at risk,” Hunter said.

Those "things" include having to stay in men’s homeless shelters or becoming a sex worker. She said trans women in every situation are vulnerable to attack from people who claim they’ve been tricked. McMiller said that makes no sense.

“Why would I go through all this hurt and pain to trick you? It’s me honestly just living my life and you just happened to come over here because you saw a woman," she explained. “And now that you understand I’m a different kind of woman, you don’t want me and you want to get pissed off — and that’s where the violence comes.”

‘I don’t need anyone’

So far, McMiller’s been able to run off or fast-talk her way out of danger.

Ka'Milla McMiller's Facebook profile picture
Credit Ka'Milla McMiller

Her protective measures include choosing what to wear. She said she has “passing privilege,” meaning she’s able to blend in as a “cisgender” woman most of the time. “Cisgender” is a word for people whose gender corresponds to their assigned sex — in other words, everyone who’s not trans or intersex.

But she’s never certain how she’ll be perceived. Both dressing up and down can be fraught with peril. McMiller said sometimes she longs to go out in public looking casual.

“Like wear a big shirt or some jeans that are a little bit looser,” she said.

But McMiller worries that those kinds of clothes may give off of a whiff of masculinity.  Going sleeveless is particularly tricky for many trans women with muscular arms.

"I make sure some of my boobs are showing or that some aspect is feminine,” she said.

The Sisterhood

Ka'Milla McMiller leads a meeting of the Sisterhood with Camia Collins and Ryan Beck.
Credit Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Three years ago, McMiller started a group of people with similar concerns called the Sisterhood. The small gatherings draw young trans women of all races, but with a particular focus on those of color.  In a recent meeting, 19-year-old Camia Collins (in photo above, on the left) talked about her hopes for the future.

“My goals this year are moving and saving money because I have a shopping problem,” Collins said.

Everyone laughs. Later, they get serious and talk about things like safety, medical treatment and relationships. Privately, McMiller offered that she’s happily single. But deep down she worries about ever finding a man who loves her completely as a trans woman.

I don't want somebody to push me away ... or tell me that they can't bring me around their family. - Ka'Milla McMiller

“I don’t want somebody to push me away or try to hide me because of that or tell me that they can’t bring me around their family because of that one thing,” McMiller said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t need anybody.’”

Meanwhile, McMiller carries a Taser for protection, for when she’s perceived as trans, or when she has to tell someone she is. Anger and violence are not uncommon either way. She’s never actually used the Taser but …

“I’ve had to pull it out and threaten somebody with it,” she said. “And that was enough to get them away.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL