This is Part III 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. Part I: The Intro is located here and Part II: Hate Groups is here. Part III of this series examines how Cleveland’s overlapping problems of socioeconomic discrimination, systemic injustice, and pervasive violence combine to create a death trap for too many trans people in Northeast Ohio.
I moved to Cleveland in 2014 from Lorain County – Cuyahoga’s westward sister. Housing and food insecure at that time, I strove to establish a career in Northeast Ohio that could provide the financial stability I lost after exiting military service several years before. After many tries, I found a job working Downtown as a temp and secured a place to stay.
At that time, I did not know that Cleveland is a trans murder epicenter. I also didn’t yet understand the role that socioeconomic exclusion plays in keeping trans people vulnerable to violent attacks, although I would learn this hard lesson over time.
Instead, I fell in love with my new hometown. A beautiful and burgeoning city, Cleveland offered me the opportunities for achievement and excitement like no other place I had lived before. Through years of hard work, I painstakingly established myself, eventually becoming successful and ascendent in the Downtown professional community. People in power began to recognize me, and doors suddenly swung open. Before I knew it, I was on the way up.
But I had a problem. I was not the slim-suited, smooth-talking man everyone thought I was. Deep inside, I was a transwoman entrapped behind the privileges and protections that my carefully crafted outer facade afforded me. Slender, white, erudite, and fashionable, many of my colleagues and acquaintances saw me on an upward track to the C-suite.
I wanted those opportunities, too. But I also wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to live a double life anymore. The life of work and the life of home. The man and the woman. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see how to have both financial stability and personal integrity.
Looking around the Downtown professional community, I very rarely saw out trans people, whether in the offices, or the boardrooms, or even during large conventions and signature events drawing hundreds or thousands of people. Instead, most people appeared the same: cis, straight, conformist. In so many ways, the entire Downtown professional community seemed like a giant trans no-go zone.
Of the trans people I met in Cleveland, many of them were either forced into low-wage gig work, unemployment, or public assistance. Sometimes, I read about trans Clevelanders being murdered in the news, or I heard about transphobic attacks against the local trans and queer communities. Regarding the out and financially stable trans trailblazers I met in Northeast Ohio, they almost all shared stories of past hardship and discrimination.
While we as Clevelanders often take pride in our much-vaunted Midwest hospitality, such good neighborliness is often reserved for those who conform and assimilate to traditional heteronormative, cis-centric social mores. For those who do not conform, Midwest hospitality often cedes to heartland hostility.
For trans people, hostility is sadly common. Violence against trans people has worsened year over year consistently, even prompting the American Medical Association to declare anti-trans violence an epidemic in 2019. Nationally, more than 1 in 4 trans people have been physically attacked because of their gender identity, and 2 out of 3 deadly attacks against LGBTQ+ people target trans people, the majority of whom are women of color. More than half of trans people will experience intimate partner violence, and almost half will suffer sexual assault. Personally, even before coming out, I had survived numerous physical assaults and also sexual assault.
Those national trends are only exacerbated by Cleveland’s own endemic violence. Already a very dangerous city, Cleveland’s murder rates worsened drastically during the pandemic, with 2021 seeing 165 families (possibly more) torn apart by homicidal violence, down only slightly from the 2020 decade high of 179 people murdered. The violence is so severe that it even robbed the former and long-serving Mayor Frank Jackson of his grandson.
Within this dangerous storm, trans Clevelanders live as a targeted community. As an excellent illustration of this point, local writer BJ Colangelo recently penned a personal essay describing a day in the life of her and her wife (who is a transwoman) as they go to the grocery store. While walking the store aisles and carrying their food home, Colangelo describes random strangers harassing, mocking, and threatening them, even in a neighborhood where rainbow flags wave proudly.
Such descriptions are neither the exception nor an exaggeration. As someone who is very connected and invested in the Northeast Ohio queer community, I know innumerable trans people who have been attacked, robbed, forced into the streets, and brutally humiliated. Doing basic things like venturing out publicly is dangerous, particularly when entering areas and establishments that are unfamiliar. Even among white trans people – who generally have the highest survivability – beatings, threats, harassment, and naked discrimination are unfortunately a normal life experience. After seeing so many of my friends brutally assaulted, I almost never leave home without carrying something to defend myself anymore.
I had to make a choice…
Despite these dangers, I still decided to transition publicly. As an Army veteran, I seethed in anger at the Trump Administration’s reimposition of the trans military ban, so in protest I came out professionally through late 2018 and early 2019. Optimistic and ambitious, I hoped to continue forward in my career as a trans trailblazer in the Downtown professional community. By doing so, I sought to embolden other trans people to come out in their careers, as well.
Although some true allies supported my journey, the stronger reaction among many of my fellow Downtown Cleveland professionals was harsh and heartless. Suffering ruthless retaliation against my identity and nonconformity, I faced a tidal wave of gaslighting, gossip, microaggression, public humiliation, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
In less than a year of such treatment, my service-related PTSD worsened exponentially, and I slid into a vicious spiral of substance dependency, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Years later, I still feel emotionally scarred and socially isolated. I frequently felt like I failed in my trailblazing mission.
Regrettably, my experiences were far too common. A full 78 percent of trans people have reported being harassed, mistreated, or discriminated against at work, and between 13 percent and 47 percent report being unfairly denied a job. Nationally, trans people experience lower wages, higher unemployment, and reduced savings compared to our cisgender neighbors.
This has been the story for too many talented and enterprising trans people in Northeast Ohio. Even in 2022 – even in a supposedly affirming city – coming out and transitioning still often means losing everything. And while microaggressions are often seen as socially tolerable, if not even acceptable, such harassment kills people just like bullets and baseball bats. Microaggression and discrimination kill by robbing people of their resources and opportunities, thus forcing them into dangerous situations and deadly life outcomes.
Personally, I count myself as fortunate. I at least have an affirming family, a safe home, and nutritious food to eat. I also continue to benefit from several protective factors, including racial privilege, that help to keep me breathing. For many of my fellow trans Clevelanders, this is not the case.
Perfect Storm: Inequality, Injustice, and Violence
People trapped within systemic poverty – regardless of gender identity – face a host of daily dangers that financially secure individuals do not. Hunger and homelessness, in particular, often force people into dangerous situations, as they struggle to meet their daily needs.
Sadly, trans people face poverty at much higher rates than our cisgender neighbors. The reasons for these economic disparities are varied and overlapping, including discrimination in housing, healthcare, and job markets, lack of family support, and difficulty in accessing affirming IDs and legal documents. Nationally, trans people are twice as likely to be trapped in poverty than our cisgender neighbors, with trans people suffering a U.S. average poverty rate of 29 percent, compared to only 14 percent of Americans broadly.
These inequalities regrettably hold up across Ohio, with trans Ohioans experiencing higher rates of poverty across the state than cis Ohioans. Among LGBT Ohioans, the highest poverty rates are found in rural areas (31 percent) compared to urban areas (20 percent). These differences in economic opportunities between rural and urban areas may partially explain, along with differences in local legal protections, why many trans people move to cities like Cleveland. Unfortunately, many of Northeast Ohio’s trans transplants do not find the open doors they search for.
In part, this is because of Cleveland’s endemic and dangerous levels of systemic poverty. Though burgeoning, the city’s growth is highly imbalanced with some districts and neighborhoods quickly developing and gentrifying while others suffer from extreme financial oppression and urban hollowing. Overall, Clevelanders suffer the highest poverty rates of any Americans living in large cities, with 30.8 percent (or 114,000) of the city’s residents trapped in poverty. Specifically, the city performs worst in child poverty in the nation, and second worst for seniors in poverty.
Much of Cleveland’s systemic poverty intersects with the city’s legacy of racial injustice. Even after local leadership declared racism in Cleveland a public health crisis in June of 2020 and embarked on a coordinated response to such injustices, Northeast Ohio still grapples with an infrastructure of inequality built up over centuries of redlining, lead poisoning, food apartheid, over policing and imprisoning, and pervasive discrimination in employment, education, healthcare, and beyond.
These localized racial oppressions dovetail with – and exacerbate – racial and economic disparities that already exist in the trans community. Whereas trans people broadly are more than twice as likely to live in extreme poverty than cis people, Latinx trans people are 3.5 times as likely to make less than $10,000 a year than Americans overall, and Black trans people are 3 times as likely to suffer extreme poverty. Whereas 1.4 out of 10 Americans generally live in poverty, roughly 4 in 10 Latinx, Native, Black, and multiracial trans people do.
The outlook for trans Clevelanders of color becomes even bleaker when overlaying the city’s legacy of systemic racism with its oppressive culture toward women. The intersection of misogyny and anti-Black racism (also known as misogynoir) is apparent when considering that Cleveland ranks worst in America’s national livability index for Black women. This overlay of oppressions also goes far to explain why all but one of Cleveland’s recorded trans murders in the last decade have been Black women.
Nowhere to go…
After removing myself from the Downtown Cleveland professional sector for health reasons, I began serving Northeast Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community. In those roles, I saw firsthand how daunting and dangerous life for trans Clevelanders can be. I also saw how overwhelming the scope and scale of the anti-trans violence crisis truly is. Although Greater Cleveland has a robust and diverse ecosystem of LGBTQ+-serving health and human services organizations, including many that serve trans specific populations, the immense needs of the trans and queer communities vastly outstrip the often under-funded and overwhelmed professionals and organizations responsible for serving them. Common needs for trans/queer Greater Clevelanders run a gamut from meeting basic safety and health, to navigating convoluted and hostile bureaucratic systems, to recovering from complex trauma. In many cases, achieving successful outcomes is extremely difficult. And sometimes, you lose people.
But there were good times, as well. I had the opportunity to meet many fellow trans people and to share lived experiences with them. I came to gain a sense of community and belonging, along with feeling pride for leading in the LGBTQ+ liberation movement and supporting my neighbors.
One of those neighbors was Tierramarie Lewis. Originally from Coshocton, Ohio outside of Columbus, the 36-year-old Tierramarie was trying to navigate and survive in a world often hostile to her as a Black transwoman. She had traveled to many cities seeking sanctuary, she told us. Recently moving to Northeast Ohio from Chicago, she expressed optimism at her first impressions of life in Cleveland.
A vibrant spirit, she engaged enthusiastically with those around her in a sensitive and open way. In many ways, she reminded me of those parts of myself that I lost to self-loathing and cynicism after my own transition. I remember watching her dance around the room and seeing the scars on her arms. I watched in awe of her resilience.
Like many other trans Clevelanders, Tierramarie did not have safe housing in Northeast Ohio. While she had ambitions to build a life and a career, she was not able to find stability without a secure and affirming space. Although she attempted staying at different shelters, she suffered constant aggressions from those around her.
Unfortunately, Tierramarie’s struggle to find safe and affirming shelter is a pervasive issue for trans people. Across the U.S., 29 percent – almost 1 in 3 – have been turned away from shelters because of their identities. For transwomen, finding shelter is especially difficult because only 30 percent of women’s shelters allow sanctuary for transwomen. Instead, transwomen are often forced to stay at men’s shelters, where they are at heightened risk for physical and/or sexual assault. But even when trans people can find shelters in accordance with their identities, such environments can be extremely hostile. Through my interactions with other transwomen, for example, I have heard about hostilities at women’s shelters ranging from persistent microaggressions – like flagrant deadnaming and misgendering – to physical attacks and robberies.
Ultimately, Tierramarie was unable to find a safe place to stay and found herself back in the streets that she tried to escape from. Homelessness is a major problem for trans people, with 2 in 10 trans people – and 4 in 10 Black trans people – experiencing homelessness within their lifetimes. Lacking basic protections, homelessness often forces trans people into very dangerous situations, such as survival sex, substance dependency, or reliance on crime and the underground economy.
Not only are such environments perilous in and of themselves, but homelessness also leaves the trans person exposed to predators who would seek to target them. Driven by any number of deranged motivations – from toxic religiosity, to societal transphobia, to sexual or homicidal predation – individuals who seek to harm trans people often find them while struggling to survive on the streets. Even trans people who seek the visible affirmation of Cleveland’s many rainbow lined neighborhoods are not truly safe from such targeting.
On June 12, 2021 – in the middle of Pride Month – Tierramarie died at the hands of such a gunman.
Law enforcement has since opened an investigation into her murder, but many times it is even the criminal justice and emergency response system itself that fails or even targets trans people. In Part IV of this series, we will explore how Cleveland’s first responders, public records system, and incarceration infrastructure too often combine to harm the trans Clevelanders they are responsible for protecting. 🔥