‘Economic security is a public health issue for trans people’

Vigil pays tribute to trans deaths of 2020; attendees point to larger struggles of the community

Chrystal McKinley speaks during a vigil to recognize the trans people who've been killed in 2020. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Chrystal McKinley just wanted a way to honor the trans people of color who have been killed so far this year. 

As the sun began to set on a hot August night, she along with about 60 people from the community gathered outside the LGBTQ+ Center of Southern Nevada not only to light a candle and pay respects to those murdered but to bring to light the overarching struggles of the trans community. 

“My people are in danger,” she said. “My trans community is in danger.”

The Human Rights Campaign estimated at least 27 trans and gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States in 2019. But with the number of known deaths already at 26 this year, many fear last year’s count will easily be surpassed. 

According to the FBI’s 2019 Hate Crime Statistics report, about 19 percent of hate crimes reported that year were motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias and the number of reports of anti-trans violence jumped 34 percent between 2017 and 2018.

A few days before the vigil, a crowd of onlookers in Los Angeles watched and filmed as Eden Estrada along with two other trans women were verbally harassed and attacked. In a video capturing the event, people can be heard laughing at and mocking one of the women after she was hit and left on the ground crying in pain. 

Estrada said the only reason the incident went viral is because of her prominence on YouTube and following on social media. Most violence against trans people goes unnoticed and unsolved. 

Those learning of the incident, including the police chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, castigated the bystanders for their actions. 

“You guys think Black Lives Matter but you make fun of another Black life sitting on the floor,” Estrada can be heard telling the bystanders in the video.

Many attending Thursday night’s vigil know the hate the trans community experiences goes deeper than the violence and murder.

Trans people and advocacy groups have repeatedly pointed to larger systems that fail to keep the trans community safe, including a lack of policies to protect them from discrimination and help them access jobs and housing.

“Economic security is a public health issue for trans people,” said Ray Macfarlane, Trans and Gender Diversity Programs Manager at the Center. “If you can’t have income, you can’t have housing. If you can’t have housing, you can’t have safety.”

‘It’s hard to find a place that accepts you as a human being’

McKinley, 19, left home after graduating from high school in 2019 and moved to Las Vegas. Like many other trans youth, the decision was based on a bad home life. 

“I was experiencing a very hostile environment from my parents,” she said. 

She discovered a supportive community locally, but also began to learn more about the hardship trans people face. 

“We have to acknowledge the violence and hate going on in this country,” she told the crowd. 

Though the official Trans Day of Remembrance is in November, McKinley said it’s never too early to start saying the names of those already killed. 

  • Yampi Mendez Arocho, a 19-year-old trans man killed in Puerto Rico.
  • Queasha Hardy, a 22-year-old Black trans woman killed in Baton Rouge. 
  • Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, a 34-year-old Black trans woman and former UNLV student who was killed July 28 in Portland. 

McKinley said her last straw before wanting to take action was 17-year-old Brayla Stone, who was murdered June 25 in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

But as McKinley began to speak out against the violence and threats trans people, in particular Black trans women, experience, she realized another uneasy fact. 

While she is scared about the dangers that await when she leaves her house, she is also worried about the prospects of becoming economically secure and independent.

“I’ve been applying for many jobs and everything seems fine until they see me in person,” she said. “Their tone and the way they see me is different. It’s hard to find a place that accepts you as a human being.”

According to a 2019 report from Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit that advocates for workplace equality for LGBT people, nearly 30 percent of transgender people who applied for a job or held a job reported being fired, not being hired or denied a promotion because of their gender identity. 

Macfarlane said that some local estimates suggest the unemployment rate among Black and Latinx trans people in Southern Nevada is two or three times that of the general population. 

“If I haven’t been employed for a period of time because I’ve faced job discrimination and now I have a sparse resume, even the most progressive employer might say, ‘Oh well it’s not because you’re trans, it’s because your resume is light,’” they said. “But that perpetuates the past experiences of discrimination. We need proactive employers and programs supported by government officials to bridge the gap to help overcome the history of past discrimination that keep people from being able to achieve employment and able to have economic security, which means safety.”

Many companies have boasted about policies and practices to promote inclusivity. For trans people still facing high unemployment rates, it’s not always enough. 

“If inclusive companies are only hiring their attractive gay cousins, can you really be an inclusive employer?” Macfarlane asked. “You’re not LGBTQIA inclusive unless you’re being (trans) and (queer) inclusive.” 

The health pandemic caused by covid-19 has resulted in historic unemployment numbers in Nevada. 

“So what does that mean for the trans community?” they asked. “It means that now, already facing twice the rate of the general population, they are now facing competition against the other waves of unemployed people. If there was already discrimination before, having a larger pool of people to discriminate out of is not going to help.” 

Without stable employment, they continued, it’s hard to secure or stay in housing. 

“In Las Vegas, one of the biggest gaps or bottlenecks is affordable housing,” Macfarlane added. “How do you get from a shelter to an apartment when you can’t show pay stubs for three times the income? We need more affordable housing options and wraparound job support.”

Following the death of George Floyd and national ongoing protests for racial justice and reforming the police system in America, many activists are also highlighting how law enforcement profiles trans women and treats sex workers.

Because of the lack of economic opportunities and employers still rife with discrimination toward trans people, some turn to sex work to survive. 

“Trans men don’t get arrested for sex work because we don’t have that stereotype from the media,” Macfarlane said. “You profile a trans woman and you give her a record for solicitation, how is that going to affect your job prospect?” 

Addressing the crowd, Macfarlane said the night was as much about honoring the deaths as it was calling out all the aspects of the injustices and starting to figure out how to “make the world safer for Black trans people and the trans community in general.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to shake the country to address deep-rooted racist structures, the Black trans community is still fighting to etch out its space for justice within the movement.

Nicole Williams with Vegas Urban Pride, which organized Thursday’s event, also helped lead a solidarity march that combined the local Black activists and LGBTQ community members. It was hosted on June 27, honoring the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 — the movement that began the modern queer rights movement.

But one vigil, McKinley said, is just a start.

“A trans woman started the Stonewall riots with Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual movement,” she said. “Yet, over 50 years later we still struggle for our rights to live and our need for employment, housing and respect. The trans community deserves the same equality the rest of our community has gotten already.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.