New Year’s Day 2022, a time when people make new resolutions and are ready for a fresh start has already marked the first report of a Black transgender woman, 21-year-old Amarey Lej (also known as Myara), who was killed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
SisTers PGH, a Black and trans-led shelter transitioning program which focuses on finding permanent housing for trans and nonbinary people suffering from discrimination and homelessness in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said in a statement, Myara was a “bright woman and former student at Woodland Hills High School.”
“The fact that the first murder of a transgender person in the United States took place in our city should not be overlooked,” the statement continues. “Unfortunately, many trans people of color already know that this city, as well as the greater southwestern Pennsylvania area is not safe for us.”
Ciora Thomas, Executive Director of SisTers PGH, told me that continued awareness of Myara’s case and pressure on the Allegheny County Police Department could help make a break in the case.
“We have been doing what we can on our end,” Thomas said. “What we do know is, the person that killed her is still at large.”
2021 was a record year of violence against transgender Americans; the majority of those killed continue to be Black trans women.
While GLAAD’s latest Acclerating Acceptance report shows a growing familiarity with transgender and nonbinary people, including more Americans being aware that there are more than two genders, two recently released reports show why transgender people remain highly vulnerable in our society to violence and to violent conditions. UCLA’s Williams Institute, analyzing newly-collected Census data, found 25% of trans people struggled to get enough to eat: transgender people were three times more likely than cisgender people to face food insufficiency during the pandemic, with even greater rates for Black and Brown trans people. A review of police data in California shows transgender women were searched at 2.5 times the rate of individuals perceived to be cisgender women.
Verniss McFarland, III, Executive Director and Founder of The Mahogany Project, a Black trans-led organization based in Houston, Texas that focuses on reducing social isolation, stigma, and acts of injustice in TQLGB+ Communities of Color, believes this is the year to move allyship beyond social media posts and to act to save trans lives.
“This could be working to elect officials who work to reduce the disparities within the Black trans community, such as working to elect officials who support legislation that prioritizes housing and job security—holding the police and law enforcement accountable for the mistreatment, lack of care, and discrimination within the justice system, that turns a blind eye to the murdered and impartial treatment of incarcerated folxs of transgender experience,” McFarland tells me. “We as a community have the power to end the record-setting trend and reduce the violence against murders and other folxs of transgender experience by actively seeking our organization, individuals, and cause that is rooted in building safe communities for Black transgender women.”
Last year saw an unprecedented number of bills introduced in state legislatures that targeted trans people, and though only a small percentage were signed into law, the messages they spread sparked additional crisis contacts, including in Texas, which led the nation in the most anti-trans legislations. Bills have already been proposed in half a dozen states in just the first days of 2022.
Dominique Morgan, Executive Director of Black and Pink National and The Okra Project, says the first step in setting the community on a path to creating safe, affirming and nurturing spaces for transgender and nonbinary youth, as well as Black trans women, would be to acknowledge our humanity.
“Acknowledge our power and importance past fetishizing, lusting and commodifying our existence. As Black people we are burdened with racism, poverty and oppression from the carceral state – and as Black Trans people it impacts us in unfathomable ways,” she said.
“My prayer is that we live to see a world where the love and care we offer others is accessible to us.”
The increase in anti-trans violence is something Joelle Bayaa-Uzuri Espeut, Director of Ancillary Programs at the Normal Anomaly Initiative, Inc. believes will not end until there is more open dialogue on the root of the cause. The Normal Anomaly, a grantee of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative, works with Houston’s LGBTQ community to administer HIV testing and provide transportation and employment services to address the root causes of poverty as well as lack of healthcare access that put trans people at added risk, including within the community itself.
“These murders are not stranger-based murders like many would assume. Any available research has shown that at least half of these murders were committed by intimate partners of some kind (often fueled by their internalized transphobia),” she says. “We must dissect and break down the continued cisgender, heteronormative narrative that endangers the trans community, especially Black trans women.”
SisTers PGH brings it back to Myara’s as-yet unsolved murder, a first for 2022. It’s “up to everyone to ensure it is the last.”