Killings of transgender Americans reach all-time high, rights group says

A 33-year-old Georgia woman has become at least the 31st transgender or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence in the U.S. this year, according to LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

Felycya Harris was shot and killed Saturday in Meadowbrook Park in Augusta, Georgia. On Monday, the Richmond County coroner classified her death as a homicide.

Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking transgender deaths since2013, said it has never seen such a high number of deaths at this point in the year, with more additional deaths likely unreported or misreported.

“More accurate reporting may be a factor in the high number of deaths that we have tracked,” Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for HRC’s Transgender Justice Initiative, told NBC News. “But we are also at an extremely vitriolic period, where hate is fueled even from our nation’s highest office.”

The figure is all the more disturbing given the global lockdowns during the pandemic. Trans and gender-nonconforming people experience higher levels of violence from people they know, Cooper added, and may not be able to find refuge.

“These are especially dangerous times and resources for help are limited at best,” she said. “We need to ensure that transgender and gender non-conforming people have equal and safe access to any resources they may need to thrive — at all times, but especially during this pandemic.”

‘Everybody’s going to remember Felycya’
Harris, an interior decorator, worked in a furniture store and taught dance.

“To know Felycya is to love her smile, her giving spirit,” said friend Sandra Taylor, who launched an online fundraiser to help cover funeral expenses.

“Everybody’s going to remember Felycya,” another friend, Ricola Collier, told local NBC affiliate WRDW-TV. “That laugh. The smile — the smiles. The talks. The arguments. The attitudes. Everybody is going to remember who Felycya Harris is. Nobody would ever forget who that is.”

On Tuesday, HRC President Alphonso David said Harris’ passing marked a “grim milestone” in a year already full of tragedy. It put 2020 on par with 2017’s count for the highest number of transgender killings, with nearly three months still left to go.

Six transgender women were killed in July alone, as was nonbinary activist Summer Taylor, making it the deadliest month to date.

“This epidemic of violence, which is particularly impacting transgender women of color, must and can be stopped,” David said in a statement. “We must work to address the factors that underpin this culture of violence and openly discuss how the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia work to deprive transgender and gender-nonconforming people of equal access to opportunity and necessities like employment, housing and health care.”

Collier said she just wants justice for Harris’ death. Georgia passed a hate-crime law in June, but it does not expressly include gender identity.

“The only thing we got left now is just the memories and the pictures, and the videos,” she told WRDW-TV, which reported that police are still searching for a suspect. “Since the day I found out what happened, I go back and watch the videos every day,”

Harris is the fourth trans person to die by violence in the U.S. in just the past three weeks, according to HRC. Her murder comes just four days after the shooting death of Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas, a transgender woman in Puerto Rico.

Ramos, a nursing school student, was found the morning of Sept. 30 along an isolated road near a farm in San German, a town of about 35,000 on the southwestern part of the island.

She had been shot several times in the head, The Associated Press reported. Police are not ruling out that the killing was a hate crime.

‘Transgender women in Puerto Rico are very scared’
Ramos’ death was the latest in a string of brutal killings of transgender people in Puerto Rico. So far, six have been reported this year, though there may be more.

“Transgender women in Puerto Rico are very scared,” said Arianna Lint, CEO of Arianna’s Center, which works to uplift trans women of color on the island. “We’ve never seen so many deaths happen so fast.”

On April 11, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, a 31-year-old transgender woman, was beaten and hanged at a men’s prison in Bayamon.

A little more than a week later, on April 22, the charred bodies of two other trans women — Layla Peláez, 21, and Serena Angelique Velázquez, 32 — were found in Humacao inside the remains of a car that had been set on fire.

After seeing images of them with the victims on social media, the U.S. Justice Department arrested two men, Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19. Bonilla confessed to the killings, El Nuevo Dia reported, and the two men have become the first people in Puerto Rico to face federal hate crime charges.

In February, Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, also known as Alexa, was fatally shot after using the women’s restroom in a McDonald’s in Toa Alta. Her assailants reportedly posted video of the shooting on social media.

In March, Yampi Méndez Arocho, a 19-year-old transgender man, was shot and killed in Moca, just hours after being assaulted by an unknown woman. Arocho’s mother reportedly called the police about the assault, but it’s not clear if there was an investigation.

Transgender people in Puerto Rico have become more visible in the past year or two, making them more of a target, according to Lint. Trans women tend to avoid the police, she added, going to each other for help instead. She said the government isn’t particularly supportive and neither are gay groups.

“They created an LGBT committee to advise the government, but there’s no one transgender on it. The life of a lesbian in Puerto Rico is very different of a transgender woman of color,” Lint explained.

Pedro Julio Serrano, an LGBTQ activist in Puerto Rico, said not enough is being done to stop anti-transgender violence on the island.

“A state of emergency for gender violence has not been decreed — there is nothing,” he said in a statement on his website.

Puerto Ricans are voting for a new governor on Nov. 3, but Serrano said most of the candidates just use LGBTQ people “as a political ball to get votes from people who hate us.” Only one candidate, Alexandra Lúgaro, has said she would support LGBTQ individuals if elected, according to Serrano.

“She’s also been the only one to speak about sex workers, which is very important,” Lint says. “Because, in Puerto Rico, one of the primary financial outlets for transgender women is sex work.”