Saturday, December 3

How Cleveland Became an Epicenter of Anti-Trans Violence: Part V, Conclusion & Call to Action

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This is Part V 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, Part II: Hate Groups is here, Part III: Exclusion, Inequality & Violence is here, and Part IV: Mass Incarcerations is here. Part V concludes with recommendations to stop the epidemic.

I first began studying anti-trans violence in Cleveland because I wanted to better understand it. As a transwoman, I often read news reports that described not just murder but also malice – a kind of hate that eluded comprehension: Brandi Bledsoe’s killer(s) put plastic bags over her hands and head, leaving her blind and helpless in her last moments of life. Betty Skinner, who was disabled, died from blunt force trauma to the head. Her grotesque murder was part of a spate of transphobic violence in Cleveland that year, which also robbed us of Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis. Not long before those heartbreaking losses, Cemia “Ce Ce” Dove’s murderer stabbed her 40 times. He then tied her remains to a concrete block and submerged them in a pond.

Such evils defy comprehension.

But the stories of my slain trans siblings and fellow Clevelanders is not simply one of tragedy and defeat. At their core, the lives lost to transphobic violence – both in Cleveland and beyond – are also a narrative of community resilience and spiritual endurance. Our lost trans neighbors were not “the other” as some might think. Rather, they were with us and of us, one and the same.

Each trans life lost represents innumerable broken hearts and tragic memories. Brandi Bledsoe was an artist whose works live on, and Phylicia Mitchell was her husband’s “soulmate.” Following the guilty verdict of Cemia “Ce Ce” Dove’s killer, her mother said that Ce Ce remained with her “in spirit.” Skye Mockabee’s final message to her mother was a text saying that she loved her and that they would always be together. Many others have shared similar sentiments through bittersweet memories of their lost trans loved ones, as they have reflected on their kindness, their fashion, and their flare for life.

A common question I get regarding my work is, “Why is Cleveland an epicenter of transphobic violence?” Throughout this series, I have tried to answer that question to the best of my ability, insights, and experiences.

A less common but very real question I also get (often from within the LGBTQ+ community) is, “Why do you care?” Though insensitive, the question is also salient in a sense. After all, this is not the kind of work that I would have chosen to do. Reading and writing about murdered trans people makes me feel mentally, emotionally, and spiritually sick. As someone with PTSD, I have to constantly balance my work against my health.

But, in a very real sense, I feel called to the work. Reading about the lives and deaths of my trans neighbors helps me to make sense of my own life story, especially in light of the unique and intersectional privileges and oppressions that combine to shape trans lives. Despite our very different life outcomes, I see no moral or professional differences between myself and Lea Rayshon Daye, Tierramarie Lewis, or anyone else. I could have been them, and they could have been me, save for the privileges and protective factors that I enjoyed due to the race and economic class I was born into.

As a transwoman and military veteran who survived into her 40s to build a family, career, and legacy, I often wrestle with survivor’s guilt. So many of my family, friends, former colleagues, and neighbors have been murdered, maimed, and sickened. Burn pits and baseball bats. Gun shots and opioids. Why did God gird my struggles but not theirs?

Maybe fighting against anti-trans violence helps me make sense of it all. If I have been so blessed to survive as a community elder, then maybe I can make meaning through my long life by exposing this evil epidemic.

Fundamentally, I do the work because I believe that my trans neighbors – both living and passed – are worth it. They are worth struggling through op-eds and protests. They are worth the many conflicts, exhaustions, and disillusionments that activism necessitates. Like their surviving loved ones, I too feel the spirits of our lost trans neighbors. I feel that they are still with us, and that they want us to honor their lives by pushing for a better city, country, and world.

Some have warned against such work. They have cautioned that exposing anti-trans violence in Cleveland is bad PR for the city, and such bad press will dissuade affluent queers from moving here, thus thwarting the development of upper-class LGBTQ+ neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio. According to this worldview, queers count more if they are rich, white, and cis. Those who hold this paradigm prefer to blame our slain trans neighbors for their own violent ends, and they would choose to sweep this crisis under the rug, instead.

But I reject this notion, just as I push back against the belief that my work is a bash on Cleveland itself. Quite the opposite, I love my hometown with all my heart. I defended her in uniform, and I returned here to live out my life. As a proud Northeast Ohioan, I believe that Greater Clevelanders can do anything if we truly and collectively decide to – including ending this evil epidemic.

But ending anti-trans violence in Cleveland and beyond will require hard decisions and difficult days. Saving our trans neighbors means stepping outside of our collective comfort zones and holding our many convenient social assumptions under scrutiny. It also means stepping out of line from accepted narratives and pushing back against influential people and power systems – individuals and institutions that dole out favors for those who serve them, and punishments for those who don’t. This is where being an ally means actual sacrifice, rather than simply performance.

Taking on the Hate Groups

Stopping anti-trans violence in Cleveland and beyond means taking on the multimillion-dollar hate groups and lobbies that have assailed themselves against queer people locally, nationally, and even globally. Many of these euphemistically and deceptively named organizations — Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Center for Christian Virtue (CCV), and the American College of Pediatricians (ACP) – hide behind a veneer of pseudoscientific authority, religious faith, and quasi-governmental legitimacy. In truth, such groups exist largely to target and marginalize LGBTQ+ people via their vast financial resources, impressive ground operations, zealous forces, and well-crafted messaging.

These organizations, more than any other influence, are primarily responsible for the tidal wave of transphobic and homophobic bills flooding our statehouses, along with the blatantly hateful and hurtful messaging inundating both traditional and social media outlets. Not only do such efforts actively marginalize and endanger trans and queer people by robbing us of socioeconomic opportunities, but messaging that paints trans people as inherently dangerous and undesirable emboldens predators to attack and kill us while hiding behind a self-serving veil of religiosity and moral supremacy. Without doubt, these anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups, lobbies, and beholden lawmakers have blood on their hands – both in Cleveland and beyond.

And yet, the influence and aims of such groups is rarely mentioned in public discourse regarding anti-trans/queer legislative attacks by proponents of LGBTQ+ equality, whether in the media or politics.  In part, this reluctance to take on the hate groups directly reflects a fear among left-leaning officials and candidates to take a strong stand, possibly from concern of alienating their straight constituents. This silence also signals a likely fear of the hate groups and lobbies themselves, which wield vast financial, legal, and political resources. Rather, “pro-LGBTQ+” advocates have chosen to ignore the hate groups and lobbies almost all together, cynically disregarding their efforts as “cultural wedge issues” and “distractions” from legitimate voter concerns.

Unfortunately, this misperception couldn’t be farther from the truth. Rather, anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and lobbies are very clear, through overt messaging via their websites and publications, that they see broad legal and social equality for LGBTQ+ people as mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed to their core beliefs and aspirations. Their ideal world looks more like the 1950s and 60s, when queer people hid fearfully in the closet, suffered near total erasure, and lived under constant danger of capricious arrest, assault, and murder. As such, they see the LGBTQ+ liberation movement as a direct and existential threat to their own existence, and they are prepared to wage a full-on civilizational struggle in what they see as a consequential fight for the future of America.

This is why they work to erase LGBTQ+ identity from classrooms, prevent affirming care at doctor’s offices, brainwash the broader population to see us as a threat, and bar trans people from bathrooms, sports teams, and most of public life. As such, the LGBTQ+ community is not only losing ground in recent public opinion polls to the hate groups, but our political climate and judiciary dynamics seem both daunting and dystopian, possibly foretelling a new age of lasting and painful anti-LGBTQ+ repression.

Lulled into a collective complacency and false sense of safety, the broader LGBTQ+ movement has not responded with its full force against these bigoted attacks, nor have our straight allies who largely interpret the fight for queer liberation as won and done. Our public leaders can only jolt the Rainbow from its collective stupor by directly calling out the hate groups, their ultimate aims, and the very real danger they pose to trans lives, queer opportunities, and even democracy itself.

Stronger Allies Needed

But allyship doesn’t end with politicians and institutional leaders. Rather, it is a calling to everyone. According to recent polling, roughly half of straight American adults identify as LGBTQ+ “allies.” According to these numbers, queer people should have allies everywhere. And yet, when I came out in the Downtown Cleveland professional community, I felt both abandoned by my many self-professed “allies” while also besieged by bigots. Emboldened by the lies of the hate groups, several of my professional relations – many of whom I’d known for years and considered friends – suddenly stopped talking to me, often even refused to look at me. While such examples of overt ignorance are infuriating and disappointing, even more harmful were the innumerable “allies” who shamelessly and silently looked the other way as I suffered through a full on degradation ceremony, followed by a visible deterioration in my physical and emotional health. In some cases, my “allies” even benefited from my abuse.

True “allyship” – whether in the office, the happy hour, or the dinner table – is more than wearing a rainbow pin and using proper pronouns. Allyship is a practice and a sacrifice. It means pushing back on harmful gaslighting and gossip, recognizing and acknowledging microaggression in all its forms, and taking a stand on things, large and small, popular or not.

Allyship extends into all facets of life. It means hiring, renting, and lending to trans and queer people. It means acknowledging your own biases and recognizing that we often are the best candidates and clients, that we do have much to offer, and that we make our communities better. Such attitudes of inclusion are especially needed in Cleveland and similar cities, where trans and gender non-conforming queer people have been historically and systemically excluded from often life-changing and life-saving opportunities.

A Better Vision for Greater Cleveland

Saving trans lives in Cleveland and elsewhere also means looking beyond individual actions toward larger systems and strategies. The last two decades have seen massive economic growth and commercial development in Northeast Ohio. Once hollowed-out relics of the city’s industrial and department store past, numerous Cleveland neighborhoods – most prominently Downtown, Tremont, Ohio City, and several other inner districts and suburbs – have flourished. Bars, breweries, and restaurants have emerged, along with a vibrant night life. Companies and organizations have also grown, along with job openings for many Northeast Ohioans after decades of brutal layoffs and industrial outsourcing. Previously the butt of many jokes and belittling monikers, Greater Cleveland is no longer the oft-derisive “mistake by the lake.” Rather, she is a destination and a point of pride for many – the CLE or “the Land” – as the locals say. The home of marquee institutions like world-class hospitals, universities, museums, and the largest performing arts center in the US outside of New York City, our hometown has assembled internationally recognized artists, won national sports championships, and hosted a political convention, all-star games, and a presidential debate.

Cleveland, like many other cities of similar dynamics, rose from her post-industrial ashes largely through a Reaganomic, “trickle-down” development strategy, devised and implemented over decades, spanning numerous public leadership tenures. That strategy largely relies on insourcing affluence from the outer suburbs, which exited the city during the white-flight outward migrations of the mid-to-late 20th century. Much of that generational wealth is now returning via a younger workforce of upwardly mobile urbanites from predominantly white and middle-to-upper class suburban family structures. The city has also poached many high-earning transplants by pairing competitive professional opportunities with relatively low cost of living compared to America’s metropolises. Local leaders have also courted several significant commercial interests via business-friendly incentives, including significant corporate welfare schemes.

Borne from generational demographic shifts and neoclassical economic doctrine, local planners largely calculated that attracting outside affluence and business activity would cause the newly insourced wealth to “trickle down” to many Clevelanders struggling in a brutal economic environment. Unfortunately, this strategy has failed. By many broad measures, Greater Cleveland is less equal or safe, despite recent economic development. Though many households across the region have benefited from an expansive economy, others fight to navigate through extremely challenging economic, public health, and safety perils. Those perils are pointedly acute for Northeast Ohio’s trans community, especially those afflicted by financial oppression and racial injustice.

And while seeing rapid construction of avant garde condos, luxury high-rises, and swanky mixed-use spaces may fill the air with aspiration and optimism, Clevelanders should also feel concerned at the rapid construction of cages and concreate in our midst. Long an unstated if widely understood companion to trickled-down economic planning, aggressive paramilitary policing and mass incarceration often accompany gentrification as part of the overall “clean up” process. Antiquated and oppressive laws targeting those relying on survival sex, living with HIV, and struggling with substance dependency, trauma-induced mental illness, hunger, and homelessness often fall hardest on trans Clevelanders, especially those of intersectional identity.

While working with the Northeast Ohio LGBTQ+ community, I have read too many letters from queers in captivity, all of whom testify to horrible and unsustainable living conditions, unfair treatment, misery, and danger. My heart hurts for my neighbors held in bondage, just as my soul aches deeply when reading of Lea Rayshon Daye’s letters from the Cuyahoga County Jail. When I think about how her life ended – as a Black woman swiftly accused of violence, whisked way, tortured, and snuffed out within an institution built on white supremacy – it is difficult to view her death, whether through the malice or negligence of her captors, as anything other than an institutional lynching.

As a transwoman and a survivor of mass incarceration and police abuse, I believe that prison abolition is queer liberation. Codified in the 13th Amendment as a Constitutional form of enslavement, mass incarceration destroys lives, rips families apart, and systemically oppresses marginalized communities – most especially Black neighborhoods, along with many other socio-economically exploited groups, stigmatized identities, and targeted individuals. As a trans person, I must always remember the role of institutional criminalization in erasing LGBTQ+ identities and shattering queer lives, both before Stonewall and into today.

As an Army veteran who served to the best of my ability despite the corruptive influence of the Military Industrial Complex, I am empathetic to the many conscientious and well-meaning police officers, prosecutors, corrections officers, and other criminal justice professionals who day-in-day-out work to do good, despite practicing within a broken system. Yet systemically, I view the Prison Industrial Complex as a great evil of our times – one which future generations will look back on aghast at the collective complacency and moral complicity of our current cohorts.

With the recent turnover of many long-reigning and well-entrenched Northeast Ohio leaders – including the impending exit of the Cuyahoga County Executive’s Budish administration – Greater Clevelanders now have a critical yet ephemeral opportunity to make our hometown better. Many among the outgoing leadership are now promoting their legacies as supportive to LGBTQ+ equality, particularly concerning the ratification of local nondiscrimination ordinances. To be sure, nondiscrimination laws are critically needed, especially given the dearth of such protections at the state and federal levels. That said, any such progress wrought toward queer equality by Greater Cleveland’s outgoing leaders must be interpreted alongside the asterisk of mass incarceration.

Rather than wasting an estimated half a billion dollars on a bigger county Jail, along with shouldering the perpetual costs of maintaining a vast dungeon network, a better approach would be to invest those funds into Clevelanders themselves. Such capital could help us reverse centuries of systemic oppression and economic inequality via a legitimate push for racial reparations, along with legal, infrastructural, and financial reforms geared toward uplifting Northeast Ohioans broadly. Such efforts, more than any other, would likely save trans lives in Greater Cleveland.

And as for the Cuyahoga County Jail itself – that facility of incomprehensible suffering, neatly nestled between Downtown’s high-end hotels and symbols of exorbitant wealth – I believe that the building is an abomination that should be abandoned, its rotting and decaying husk left as a permanent reminder to Greater Cleveland’s moral crime of mass incarceration.

Many view equality as a zero-sum game. They adhere to a belief that uplifting some necessitates reducing others, and that such efforts must occur consecutively, rather than simultaneously. Those who see the world this way resist efforts to save trans lives as secondary to other social needs, particularly given the small size of our community. But this view is all wrong.

By focusing our collective efforts where the oppressions are most acute – by unraveling the knot of inequality where it tangles transphobia and homophobia with racism, misogyny, violent conformity, and economic injustice – we can build a better city and world for everyone. Greater Cleveland can become a beacon and bastion for all, not by ignoring our anti-trans violence crisis, but by overcoming it. Such an achievement could become a proof of work for other cities and anti-trans epicenters, thus positioning Northeast Ohio as a thought leader and trailblazer toward true equality.

When I sit in silence with the spirits of my slain trans compatriots, I can see the city we can be together – a burgeoning metropolis of opportunity and equality for all people, trans Clevelanders included – and I can think of no better way to honor and remember their lives and legacies in this world. 🔥

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About Author

Eliana Turan is a trans Clevelander, writer, activist, scholar, and nonprofit professional who has studied and exposed violence in Northeast Ohio and beyond, along with helping survivors of such attacks. She has supported numerous LGBTQ+-serving organizations in various leadership roles, and she is a Ph.D. candidate from Walden University. She served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2006 and survived three deployments.

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