real consequences

A trans woman on living through a trans friend’s death and four years of a Donald Trump presidency

Noony Norwood/Facebook, FUSION

The last time Zakia McKensey saw her friend Noony Norwood, she was signing up to volunteer at the polls on Election Day. A few weeks later, the Saturday before the election, her friend was dead.

Norwood, 30, was shot multiple times in Richmond, VA, on Nov. 5., police say. She died the next morning at a nearby hospital. She was a black trans woman—the 23rd trans person we know of to be killed in America this year.

“She had the biggest heart in the world,” McKensey told me. “Just her spirit and energy left a lasting impression with people.”

McKensey remembers Norwood’s love for experimental cooking and dancing.

“She loved to eat and then was so teeny. I’d be like, girl, where is the food going?” she said. “One of the best at Vogueing. She was just a sweetheart, you know what I’m saying?”

Norwood lived with her mother at the time of her death. She was shot about a mile away from her home.

She was a black trans woman—the 23rd trans person to be killed in America this year.

As of November, 2016 has been the deadliest year on record for trans homicide. And that number, like the numbers in every year before, is likely an underestimation, according to advocates, because of under-reporting to police and misgendering by both law enforcement and local media. In a statement released on the day of her death, police described her as “a man dressed as a woman.”

When Fusion contacted the Richmond, VA, police department asking about the investigation into Norwood’s case, a police spokesperson dead named and misgendered her, referring to her by her male birth name and not the name she identified with. The spokesperson said that no arrests have been made and a motive has not been identified. Norwood’s killing is not currently being investigated as a hate crime.

LGBTQ advocates are concerned that the incoming Donald Trump White House could mean an escalation of the violence that’s already so pervasive for trans people, especially trans women of color, across the country.

Those fears are rooted in both the tangible losses of hard-fought housing and employment protections for LGBTQ people gained under the Obama administration and the transphobic and homophobic rhetoric of members of the incoming administration, who stand to create an environment in which LGBTQ people are de-humanized and made more vulnerable.

I spoke to McKensey last week, ahead of the annual Trans Day of Remembrance, about her friend, her fears, and how a Trump presidency could mean the difference between life and death for some in the trans community. McKensey works for the Virginia Anti-Violence Project and established her own non-profit, the Nationz Foundation, which focuses on HIV prevention and general health and wellness for the LGBTQ community.

“I get kind of teared up when I think about—I’ve been a woman of trans experience for over 20 years and I look at all of my sisters who are getting killed and even the numbers are growing more and more and more,” McKensey told me.

She told me that after the election results came in, she immediately felt anxious about what the president-elect’s hateful rhetoric about minorities could incite.

“I got extremely angry. I was concerned about safety for us as LGBTQ people…It’s just pretty scary because with [Trump] saying all of the things that he says it’s given other Americans the freedom to just show their true racism,” she told me.

Overall, the NCAVP counted 24 hate violence-related homicides of LGBTQ people in 2015 (a 20% increase from the year before). More than half of those were transgender women of color, like Norwood. While those numbers could reflect a higher rate of reporting rather than a higher rate of homicide, the numbers still show that transgender Americans are subject to disproportionate rates of violence.

“While these homicides might seem like these extreme points of violence, they’re very much connected to the transphobic language that’s being used in employment and housing,” Emily Waters, Senior Manager of National Research and Policy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project and author of the NCAVP’s annual LGBTQ hate violence report, told me last week.

Waters said that having access to employment and housing means that transgender people don’t have to resort to “survival economies,” which put them at higher risk of violence. “Survival economies” can include sex work and drug dealing. Additionally, Waters said, having those safety nets means that people are less likely to stay in abusive relationships purely for survival.

“Having access to these resources is essentially access to safety, in a lot of ways,” Waters said.

And the language and imagery that’s being used to push transphobic bills influences how trans people are treated in their day to day lives, she said. For example, a campaign in Houston used images that compared trans women in bathrooms to sexual predators to dissuade people from voting for a bill that would have guaranteed non-discrimination protections for trans people. Similar campaigns have been used in North Carolina and Texas.

Waters said thinking about local and state-level pushes against these bills could be the most effective way forward to protect trans rights, because the Justice Department under Trump is unlikely to issue supportive guidances or weigh in on lawsuits in favor of trans rights.

“I think policy-wise that’s something that folks can do, is starting to shift their focus onto more of a state and local level to prevent these bills from going through,” she said.

“…I’ve been a woman of trans experience for over 20 years and I look at all of my sisters who are getting killed and even the numbers are growing more and more and more.”

- Zakia McKensey

McKensey says she tears up when she thinks about her friend Noony, who she’d known for more than a decade, and how she wanted to be an advocate for her community.

“She saw the work that I was doing in the community and she was like, I appreciate everything that you do mom-pie. That’s what she would call me, mom-pie,” McKensey told me.

Norwood, she said, was struggling to find safe ways to make money, but that she promised McKensey she would come to a support group for trans women soon. “When all of that happened and I got that news, I thought about all of that, and I felt like a failure, and I felt like, is what I’m doing in vain? Is it really making a difference?”

But she says she’ll be focusing her energy on encouraging LGBTQ people and people of color to vote in local and statewide elections in the coming years, and on trying to protect funding streams to HIV and AIDS prevention programs. She’s also raising money to rent out a house in Richmond to serve as emergency housing and advocacy center.

“The only thing that I hold strong to is that as trans people, we are really strong, and the LGBTQ community as a whole is extremely strong. We’ve been through rough times before and I’m sure that we will probably see some rough times again,” she said.

Update, 11/28/2016: This post has been updated to properly reflect Waters’ comments.