Transgender sex workers vulnerable to violence, but when is it a hate crime?

Danielle Castro, 43, is a former sex worker who now is project director at the Center for Excellence for Transgender Health in the Bay Area. “The reasons so many of us are engaging in sex work is because we don’t have other options to survive. … (But) people think we’re disposable because of it.” (Photo by Renata Cló/News21)

SAN FRANCISCO – In March, a Philadelphia jury convicted Charles Sargent of the 2013 murder of Diamond Williams, whose skull was punctured with a screwdriver, her body dismembered with an ax and her severed body parts thrown into a field.

In January, Los Angeles authorities charged Kevyn Ramirez in the stabbing death of “Viccky” Gutierrez. Prosecutors accused Ramirez of burning the victim’s home, charring her remains so badly authorities couldn’t immediately identify her.

Both of these cases involved transgender sex workers. And neither case was initially charged as a hate crime.

LGBTQ advocates say society shuns transgender people from corporate jobs because of their gender identity, forcing them into the sex trade and other sectors of the underground economy. But that places them in a dangerous business.

According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, 62 percent of the 2,609 transgender people killed worldwide from January 2008 through September 2017 were sex workers. Sex work can be defined as prostitution, pornography, services arranged online and other forms.

In the United States, a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality said one in five transgender adults surveyed said they participated in sex work, with higher rates among minority women. Of the 53 transgender people killed from 2013 through 2015, 34 percent were in the sex trade at the time of their deaths, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Of the 14 transgender murders tracked by the Human Rights Campaign this year, at least two victims were sex workers.

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“It’s a nationwide problem that is happening all across the country, and it is a direct result of transphobia and hate crimes, as well as the reasons that lead trans people to be in vulnerable situations,” said Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, who works for the National LGBTQ Task Force and serves as director of the trans and gender non-conforming justice project.

When transgender people feel they have no other avenue for income, they often sell their bodies, Rodríguez-Roldán said. Experts say prejudice in the workplace and the housing market lead transgender people to this point.

Arizona is one of 28 states that lack explicit laws prohibiting employment and housing discrimination regarding sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project. In fact, the analysis gave the state negative marks for its gender identity policies.

In 2015, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found nearly 50 percent of transgender sex-worker respondents experienced homelessness. Nearly 70 percent of respondents reported losing a job or being denied a promotion because of their identity.

“When you combine those factors (lack of housing and employment), you get an amplified violence that these people experience at the intersection of that area of work and the trans identity,” said Kory Mansen, racial and economic-justice policy advocate for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Danielle Castro knows those factors too well; she’s lived that life. The 43-year-old transgender Latina now lives in a house in Oakland, California, with her two dogs. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at John F. Kennedy University, which is in the Bay Area. She’s also project director at the Center for Excellence for Transgender Health.

But she was a sex worker for years before and after her transition into a female. When she hears stories of transgender sex workers being murdered, it resonates because “it could have been me,” she said.

“The reasons so many of us are engaging in sex work is because we don’t have other options to survive,” she said. “When you have a power to survive, that’s what you’re going to do. And when you get positive reinforcement from people that want to have sex with you and pay you, I’m not going to lie, it feels good.

“The sad part about it, though, is that people think we’re disposable because of it.”

Experts and data suggest transgender sex workers generally distrust law enforcement. Eighty-six percent of transgender sex worker respondents reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some way by police, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. In addition, prostitution and other more lucrative sex acts are illegal, which deters transgender sex workers from approaching police to report violence.

“What often happens is sex workers are disproportionately subject to crimes, but they’re less likely to report them because they’re afraid of retaliation on the part of police officers,” said Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. “And we’ve heard anecdotally that, ‘I was robbed and I went to report it to a police officer and the police officer asked me, ‘Oh, were you doing sex work?’ So there was this victimizing the victim dynamic that was happening.”

When reported crimes happen, though, it’s harder to convict perpetrators of a hate crime, experts say. A hate crime charge automatically increases a typical punishment for states with applicable laws.

In the brutal death of Williams, hate-crime charges weren’t brought because police couldn’t definitively prove motivation, according to news reports.

Gutierrez’s death, though still under investigation, was not immediately charged as a hate crime.

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For transgender sex workers, other issues complicate proving a hate crime, and each case is unique. It is hard to prove victims were explicitly targeted for their gender, Mansen said, or if other circumstances, such as domestic violence, led to their deaths or mistreatment.

“It is so difficult to get things tried as a hate crime because there are a lot of factors into proving the intent, so more often than not law enforcement doesn’t feel equipped to make the determination of whether something is or is not a hate crime,” Mansen said.

Of the four transgender sex worker deaths tracked by the Human Rights Campaign in 2015, none was charged as a hate crime.

When authorities don’t classify hate crimes, the transgender community often considers it a failure.

Davis, whose advocacy group works closely with the LGBTQ community and police, sees both sides.

“It’s a really tough and emotional debate,” Davis said. “With most crimes, you have to prove the intent. But with hate crimes, you have to prove the intent, the act and then the motivation to do it.”

Rodríguez-Roldán, of the National LGBTQ Task Force, agreed, saying the intricacies of each situation make it difficult to label a case hate-related.

“I think it’s a mix of many things that makes this so complex, often because they’re trans, often because they’re vulnerable in engaging in criminalized form of making a living,” she said. “But I’m not sure it matters. What matters is transgender people are being murdered.”

In recent years, LGBTQ advocacy groups publicly called for decriminalization of sex work. However, a new federal law cracks down on online services that facilitate prostitution. Advocates say while national policy battles continue, local communities can take action. And two cities are leading the charge.

Sophie Cadle, 23, a youth liaison at the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, said her organization now works more with police agencies to build relationships and help officers understand the societal factors involved with sex work. As a black transgender woman who was a sex worker, she said it’s important to be proactive.

“The violence toward the community is visible,” she said. “It’s there, and it’s a continuous issue that’s affecting us.”

In San Francisco, sex workers who report experiencing or seeing violence won’t face prostitution charges because of a policy adopted in January by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and the San Francisco Police Department. The Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers is the first of its kind in the nation – a collaborative effort to encourage reporting of violent crimes.

Corinne Greene, policy coordinator for the Transgender Law Center, said this should build trust. Proving intent regarding hate crimes will always be tough. But if sex workers can courageously approach police, she said, it will help reduce deaths and abuses.

“A big factor in how law enforcement can improve is learning about trans people, gaining cultural competence on trans people, learning about sex workers, investigating and trying to eliminate inherent bias most people have against trans people and sex workers not engaging in profiling,” she said. “Really focusing on improving community relations would be huge in terms of helping sex workers feel more comfortable accessing police.”

Danielle Castro has advice for those in the sex business.

“I hope people are safe and learn to protect themselves before they come into this trade that can be potentially deadly,” she said. “And if you’re doing it for survival, then God bless you.”

This story was produced by the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Hate in America” national reporting project. Follow the project’s blog here. The full report will be released in August.

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