This is Part I of a five-part Op-Ed series exploring the intersecting forces driving Cleveland’s worsening anti-trans violence epidemic. The author encourages readers interested in saving trans lives to read this series in its entirety and to share it out to their personal and professional networks.
2018 was a bloody year for Cleveland’s trans community. In June of that year – as the city celebrated Pride Month – police found the body of Keisha Wells, a 58-year-old Black trans woman, amid a pile of spent bullet casings and a fatal shot to her abdomen. Earlier in February, 45-year-old Phylicia Mitchell, another Black trans woman, also died at the hands of a gunman.
Following up on the violence, local journalist BJ Colangelo wrote a report for Scene Magazine, which pointed out a troubling trend in the violence: Cleveland (a relatively small city of less than 400,000 people) had just suffered 15.38 percent of the total recorded trans murders in America for early 2018. This report represented an early piece of evidence identifying Cleveland as a hotspot for transphobic violence.
That year, I came out professionally as a transwoman. As a nonprofit professional, activist, and writer, I wanted to focus my efforts where they could most help the Northeast Ohio trans community, and my heart told me to expose and oppose the deadly violence destroying my community. Motivated by the 2016 murder of 32-year-old Clevelander and Black transwoman Brandi Bledsoe, I followed up on Colangelo’s work by initiating a nation-wide analysis of anti-trans murders in hopes of identifying patterns in the violence that might inform an eventual policy response.
Quickly realizing that no official, government-maintained dataset exists, I instead gathered data from the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents LGBTQ+ blog, which has published information tracking anti-trans murders and provided affirming respects for the slain, most of whom are misgendered and deadnamed by their local media providers. While recording every trans murder listed since the site’s inception, I also noted the demographic data for each victim.
By 2020, I was working directly with survivors of transphobic violence as a nonprofit professional. In that capacity, I witnessed firsthand the severity of anti-trans violence in Greater Cleveland.
That summer, I completed my data assessment from the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents site and discovered a shocking revelation: When comparing the murder statistics by municipality at the time of my evaluation, the site listed more instances of deadly transphobic violence in Cleveland than from any other city nationwide – even when counting America’s much larger metropolises.
With this discovery, I wrote an Op-Ed of my own through Scene Magazine, which detailed my troubling discovery. Published in August of 2020, at the height of the BLM uprising, my Op-Ed dovetailed into a broader public interest in the lives and (too often) brutal deaths of Black trans people. As such, Cleveland’s civic community embarked on perhaps the broadest conversation ever regarding Northeast Ohio’s trans murder epidemic, with many realizing the existence and extent of the crisis for the first time. A few examples include the following segment by Spectrum News 1 reporter Karlynn Wells, this episode of Channel 19 News’ series Next 400 by Neeha Curtis, and these investigations by WKYC reporter Rachel Polansky into anti-trans violence in Cleveland.
Since that time, much of the public energy and awareness around uplifting and protecting Black trans and queer people has dissipated, but a handful of conscientious journalists have continued their efforts to uncover the crisis. Recently, 19 News Cleveland reporter Kelly Kennedy investigated the epidemic to discover that Cleveland suffered 19 reported hate crimes against trans and gender nonconforming people in 2020 – up from only three such crimes in 2019. While staggering, this rise somewhat reflects national trends against other besieged communities. For example, records show that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent from 2020 to 2021, with a 567 percent increase in San Francisco.
But what makes the anti-trans hate crimes data in Cleveland especially troubling is that it is seemingly outpacing national reporting increases. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that hate crimes motivated by the victim’s gender identity increased from 198 attacks nationwide in 2019 to 266 in 2020, which accounts for a 34 percent increase. In contrast, according to Kennedy’s findings, anti-trans hate crimes in Cleveland increased during the same period by an exponential rise of 533 percent – more than a 15-fold increase over the national trend.
These collective findings – from Colangelo, to myself, to Kennedy – form a burgeoning body of work, both consistent and concerning, that firmly place Cleveland as an American epicenter of anti-trans violence. And while such data should silence any remaining disbelief and indifference both in Cleveland or beyond, these proofs also open up a bigger question: How did Cleveland – a relatively small Midwestern city that prides itself on diversity and hospitality – become the epicenter of such evil?
With this, I would reiterate the call for an official, publicly sanctioned investigation, which could bring the resources needed to expose the true extent and horrors of such violence. Until then, there are many intersecting forces that, when seen in their entirely, paint a picture of striking complexity and profound tragedy.
Throughout the course of these next four Op-Eds, I hope to expose and analyze such forces. In Part II, I will focus on the role of local, state, and federal legislation in driving the violence, along with the groups pushing such laws. In Part III, I shine light on the intersecting socioeconomic issues that render trans Clevelanders especially vulnerable to attacks, including the overlapping roles of racial, gender, and economic injustice. In Part IV, I look specifically at the influence of law enforcement and incarceration on the lives of trans Clevelanders. Finally, in Part V, I offer my own beliefs around how Clevelanders may oppose such violence. Through it all, have sought to synthesize the best data and reporting into the lived experiences and personal narratives of trans Clevelanders, myself included.
Ultimately, I hope that this series will help others understand that Cleveland sadly is an epicenter of anti-trans violence, why this came to be, and what we can collectively do to save trans lives in Northeast Ohio and beyond. 🔥