I read about murders online every day. But I can’t get this particular murder out of my head. As far as we know, Monica Loera was the first transgender person murdered this year. Her death was a tragedy, but the mishandling of her death by the Austin Police Department and the media is inexcusable.
I don’t expect APD to be sensitive to these matters, although they should be. But I did expect more from the media. Whatever happened to due diligence in journalism? Not only did some news outlets publish inaccurate information, the few outlets that amended their articles don’t seem to recognize that using her old name — what people in the transgender community refer to as a “dead name” — is most likely a violation of Loera’s own wishes. If you go online, the incorrect information is still there mocking her in death as it mocked her in life.
Loera lived as a woman — and when she was murdered, it was as a woman. And yet, she was granted none of the respect she deserved in death because we turn to Monica — the victim — and ask why she didn’t legally change her name. As a woman who identifies as transgender and a former resident of Austin, I can vouch for how incredibly difficult this is to do in Texas. Not only does it require a lengthy court process, but it requires money and time the vast majority of disenfranchised people simply do not have. For many transgender people in Texas, the barrier to entry is too high; having an official name change is beyond a luxury, it’s an impossibility.
I keep hearing we live in a golden age of transgender awareness. And I don’t argue that more people are aware of transgender people than ever before. But that doesn’t mean enough has been done to protect the basic human rights of people who identify as transgender. At this time, Texas and 32 other states do not have statutes protecting gender identity under hate crime laws. Texas and 29 other states also do not protect employees against gender identity discrimination; this means that in more than half of the states in the union, you can be legally fired for being transgender. When I rattle these statistics off to people, their first reaction is disbelief. This is 2016; surely this can’t be the case. Sadly, it’s a grim reality and unlikely to change in the near future.
By most counts, there were 22 transgender murder victims last year in the United States, but we know that’s a low estimate because of incidents like this that misgender and misidentify the victims. And while time will tell to what extent her gender identity played a part in her murder, I feel reasonably confident that it was a contributing factor. Each transgender murder is an opportunity for Internet commenters to launch into victim-blaming. We blame these people for deception or for confusion. We allow the names and pictures they didn’t identify with to be published and stand and gawk at the spectacle. We assume that in some way the victim was asking for trouble. But living your life authentically isn’t asking for trouble; it’s just trying to find some semblance of happiness. Don’t we all have the right to purse happiness?
So let’s stop blaming victims. Let’s start questioning how we can do better. We can begin by learning from the mistakes in Austin. The Austin Police Department owes Loera an apology, as do the people and organizations reporting the story. Loera was a human being who laughed and cried and brought others joy. She deserved better.
Westerfield is a native Austinite who now lives in Chicago, where she works as an advertising copywriter.