Have Ethnic-Minority Transwomen been forgotten?

Author: Isabelle Ehiorobo

Author’s Bio: Isabelle Ehiorobo is a 3rd year Law undergraduate studying at the University of Sussex. Isabelle has interests in tackling social justice issues through writing, campaigning and public speaking . She aspires to practice as a Human Rights Lawyer worldwide and also aims to pursue her passion for writing, ultimately becoming an author.

Have Ethnic-Minority Transwomen been forgotten?:
 An intersectional approach to transphobia and transphobic hate crime

On the 26th of March 2018, Naomi Hersi, an openly Trans black woman, was found dead at a hotel in Hounslow, after suffering multiple knife injuries. Her murderer, Jesse McDonald, initially contacted her through a dating website and after a three-day sexual encounter, attacked and stabbed her up to 40 times in a frenzy. Hersi was found half-naked, partly covered by a rug on the hotel bathroom floor. McDonald has been imprisoned to 20 years for the murder of Naomi Hersi, in which he was charged with drugging and stabbing her to death. Nevertheless, when observing the facts of the case, the question arises as to whether this was solely a murder or instead a murder motivated by hate? When analysing the case, we are confronted with both transphobic and racist tropes in the language and actions of Jesse McDonald. In light of this, we are able to scrutinise hate crime law and its failure to recognise and provide adequate justice for victims with intersecting identities.

Intersectionality, as a practice, provides the framework for examining the way in which social identity is simultaeously construed among various social dimensions at one time and the implication this has on developing areas of law, politics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Intersectional approaches recognise the ability for social identities to overlap with one another (e.g. one’s identity could intersect along race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, to name a few). These social categories and identities often either privilege or further marginalise individuals within a society, depending on each identity’s relationship to power.

So what might categorize the murder of Naomi Hersi as an instance of an intersectional hate crime? During his trial, McDonald claimed he was with Naomi against his will, chained up, drugged and repeatedly raped by her. Later photo evidence would void much of this claim, as it revealed them both shopping together days before the murder in a local supermarket. His claim of rape was also denied, as there was no substantial evidence to substantiate this claim. Further evidence also revealed McDonald refer to Hersi as “a big drug dealer” and a “massive black guy” in messages with his girlfriend. These facts expose both transphobia and racism in McDonald’s language and actions. In light of the Stephan and Stephan’s Integrated threat theory’, McDonald is seen to deploy Realistic threats through his rape claims, as well as use Negative stereotypes that are both racialised and transphobic in nature. He deliberately mis-genders Hersi and accuses her of rape by playing on fears of trans people as posing a threat to society. He also plays on stereotypes surrounding black people in relation to drugs and also employs race to characterize Hersi as a threat to his life. This is all calculatedly done by McDonald, to help paint Naomi Hersi what Moran terms a ‘bad victim’.  ‘Bad victim’ tactics can at times be utilized in an attempt to gain support from the court.  The goal, as pointed as pointed out by Detective inspector Tom Dahri, is to attempt to alter the perception of Hersi from a victim to a perpetrator in order to advance McDonald’s claim. Through approaching the facts from an Intersectional standpoint, we are able to identify the way in which the interplay of identities present in the victim motivated the murderer. The horrific death of Naomi Hersi is one of many brutal incidents committed against Transwomen of colour around the world.

Statistics show that ethnic minority Transgender people remain one of the most susceptible groups to Hate Crime across the country. According to the Stonewall report, up to 21% of LGBT people have experienced hate crime in their life time. This figure increases to 41 per cent when directed solely at the Trans community. When observing race, up to 34 per cent of minority ethnic LGBT people have experienced a hate crime or incident, compared to 20 per cent of white LGBT people. The Community Alliance to Combat Hate (CATCH), a leading specialist anti-hate crime organisation, also reported up to 33 per cent of CATCH service users to have experienced intersectional hate crimes. Evidence therefore indicates that these overlapping identities are a major influence in the victim experience of hate crime and hate incidents.

Quite often, the stories and experiences of already marginalised ethnic minority Trans people are hidden, and the trauma of both transphobia and racism dismissed. Crenshaw’s intersectional approach seeks to lay the framework needed to understand the interplay of identities in an individual, which may intensify their experience with hate crime. Gender identity is one feature among many others that shape how Trans people experience hate crime. Race, disability and religion are also integral parts of individual identity that inevitably influence how they are perceived by wider society. The expansion of groups protected under Hate crime legislation has continued through the ‘Silo’ approach, with Transphobic hate crimes recently added under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012. In June 2013, the Law Commission stated it would look into the further extension of hate crime groups using this same approach, however, as Mason-Bish identifies, this approach assumes all victims fit neatly into one box , thus failing to acknowledge individuals who have multiple intersecting identities at once. There is, however, debate concerning whether the Intersectional approach would make recording statistical evidence of hate crime extremely difficult; but should the complexity of the approach mean that victim experiences are invalidated for the sake of simplicity?

Failure to recognise intersectionality in Hate crime has meant ethnic minorities within each protected group remain at risk of being disregarded and forgotten, with ethnic-minority trans people facing the impact of this the most. In the case of Naomi Hersi, this meant that violence inflicted against her as a black trans-woman was heightened, as shown through the brutality of her murder. An intersectional approach to hate crime involves an awareness of multiple identities and how these may influence the experience of victimisation in the commission of the offence. The Hate crime legislation in the United Kingdom continues to overlook intersectionality, viewing victims as a monolith, rather than recognising them for their diversified experiences. Oversimplification of victim experiences leaves them without complete access to justice. Without intersectionality, there is no appreciation for the complex and fluid nature of the human experience.

In the words of Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Every breath a black trans person takes is an act of revolution.” This statement serves as an appeal for immediate reform of hate crime legislation to include the intersectional scope. Without protection, Transwomen of colour remain the most susceptible to violence across the globe. In recognising the importance of intersectionality, the experience of individuals in marginalised groups such as Naomi Hersi, are authenticated and no longer forgotten.

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