Over the past two years, as the entire world became paralysed by a deadly new pandemic, an altogether different ‘epidemic’ was silently ripping through one of the West’s most marginalised communities. Last year, we’re told, was the ‘deadliest’ year for transgender people since records began. With the situation so grave, is it any surprise that last November, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a long list of public and private organisations in the UK lined up to pay homage to trans murder victims?
As the mother of a son who identifies as part of the transgender community,1 the prospect of there being an epidemic of trans murders holds an added weight: is my son’s life in danger? Should I be beside myself with worry when he travels to work, let alone when goes out to a gig at a weekend? Suffice it to say that this is not an issue that I can afford to take lightly.
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Facts always matter — but they take on a particular importance when they’re being used to claim that your child could be murdered. So I decided to delve into the research used to inform these claims. For me, it was personal.
The Government doesn’t publish data on the number of transgender people in the UK, though in 2018 it “tentatively” estimated that the figure stood between “approximately 200,000-500,000”. What proportion of that number must have been killed to warrant today’s warnings of trans murder epidemic? 10? 100? 1,000?
To find out, I analysed data collected by the trans-led organisation Transgender Europe, which has received more than a million dollars from the Arcus Foundation, who are based in the US and take a keen interest in transgender issues. As well as donating almost $150,000 to Stonewall, in 2015 the Arcus Foundation handed $312,000 to Transgender Europe specifically to supply reliable global data on transgender murders. The website it created provides an interactive map and links to documents naming the transgender victims.
Looking at Transgender Europe’s list of cases, it became clear — to my relief — that the total murders reported for the United Kingdom since 2008 amounted to 11. This translates as a murder rate of around 0.165%.
Now, that is still significantly higher than the murder rate for the UK as a whole: the ONS reports that the homicide rate in the UK for the year ending March 2020 was 11.7 per million people, rising to 17 per million among men. But look a bit closer at the list of trans murder victims, and that figure of 11 becomes increasingly suspect.
For instance, two of the listed victims, Vikki Thompson and Jacqueline Cowdry, appear to have been erroneously included. Thompson died by suicide while incarcerated in HMP Leeds, while Cowdry’s death was ultimately ruled as non-suspicious. This reduces the total to nine unlawful deaths, all of whom were born male. (By contrast, the number of homicides committed by transgender people between 2008 and 2017 was 12.) For context, the number of women killed by men during the same period was 1800. So much for our alleged “cis-privilege”.
Searching for more information led me to the work of Karen Ingala-Smith, who founded the Counting Dead Women project in 2012 after she realised that there was no central record of the extent of femicide here in the UK; thanks to her, a list of murdered women is read out in the House of Commons each year to imprint the rate of femicide on the minds our political class. Ingala-Smith’s tireless work focusses on female victims of, predominantly, male violence, though she made an exception to highlight the discrepancy between the mass hysteria about transgender victims of homicide compared to the treatment of woman-killing as mere background noise. (There is still no equivalent to the Trans Day of Remembrance for the much greater number of women killed by male violence.)
Crucially, her research sheds a vital spotlight on the nine remaining victims identified by the Trans Murder Monitoring report. Reading it, two things become clear. The first is that it is not entirely certain that all the victims themselves identified with the label “transgender”. The second is that the motives behind these crimes are more complex than straightforward “transphobia”.
Three of the nine victims were murdered by a violent punter while working as prostitutes; another was killed by their husband, who lived on her earnings from prostitution. Another of the victims died at the hands of someone who was also trans-identifying. Another was a gay man who cross-dressed occasionally, and the motive for the murder has been ascribed to both transphobia and homophobia. Two of the murders were linked to drug use.
In other words, despite the way their deaths are often framed in the media and by activists, the large majority of these trans victims were not killed simply for being trans. Almost half appear to involve prostitution — a fact that has been quietly brushed under the carpet.
Nor is this wilful misunderstanding confined to the UK: according to global statistics, 58% of transgender murder victims were born male and work in prostitution. It seems remarkable, then, that “Trans women are women” and “Sex work is work” remain two of the most heavily promoted mantras in trans-activist circles. Indeed, a number of role models in the trans community go as far to claim that it was only because of prostitution that they were able to afford their treatment and surgeries.
Take, for example, trans activist Janet Mock, who has described how the “sex trade becomes a road well-travelled, helping trans women alleviate financial woes while also making many of us feel desired as women”. To be fair to Mock, she has also spoken publicly about the dangers of engaging in prostitution, emphasising the impacts of economic coercion, sexual abuse and trafficking on the trans community. She has also highlighted how prostitution is heavily racialised, with black and Latino communities making up a disproportionate number of transgender “sex workers”.
For reasons of sexual politics, I do not use the phrase “sex work” on the basis that the inside of our bodies, be they male or female, is not a legitimate place of work. That isn’t to say that I believe we should reprimand former prostitutes, or those still engaged in prostitution, for using this phrase. I know of former prostituted women who say this description was a survival strategy and allowed them to distance themselves from their experience.
But that doesn’t make the phrase helpful — especially when used to describe transgender people. In recent years, the fetishisation of the transgender body has come increasingly into focus: PornHub’s annual report for 2021 — yes, they do an annual report! — showed there had been a 126% increase for porn searches using “trans”. There is clearly a “market” for trans-identified sex acts; and paired with the vulnerability of trans people to violence and murder while engaged in prostitution, the association of trans activism with “sex work” becomes even more dangerous.
Presented in this light, it seems obvious to me that we need to rethink the accepted narrative around transgender murder rates, regurgitated with monotonous regularity by both politicians and the media. For example, rather than holding vigils, those concerned with the tragic deaths of transgender people would do better to watch The Sex Map of Britain, a BBC documentary that follows two young men who were both homosexual and rejected by their family. In one of the most heart-breaking scenes, Mia, now a transgender escort, is brought to tears when talking about maternal rejection for the crime of being gay. Later Mia seeks reassurance from a client that they enjoy each other’s company. The punter answers that he does not want to cause offence, but he is only there because of the sex on offer. In another scene, Mia talks about hoping to find love in sex filmed for pornography.
It pains me to say it, but I see my son in Mia, and of one thing I am certain: looking for love, validation and self-worth in porn and prostitution won’t help him. Likewise, pretending that there’s a trans murder epidemic, when incidents are isolated and largely confined to prostitution, is equally unhelpful and even dangerous — not just to people like my son, but to the women whose murders are quietly forgotten in favour of performative headlines about an ‘epidemic’ that doesn’t exist.