They were on the cusp of something.
Michelle Ramos Vargas, 32, was studying to become a nurse. Chyna Gibson, 31, was weeks away from gender-affirmation surgery. Johanna Metzger, 25, had just traveled to Baltimore to enter a drug rehab. Poe Black, 21, had recently settled in a free-wheeling desert encampment called Slab City. Mel Groves, 25, was planning a community garden for transgender people. Brayla Stone was about to celebrate her 18th birthday.
All of their lives ended violently, often brutally, and too soon. They’re each among the 175 transgender people killed in the United States and Puerto Rico over the past five years.
A wave of hatred crashed down on transgender communities during that period, as Republicans stoked fear and animosity among voters and attacked transgender civil rights. Politicians and pundits have accused transgender girls of “endangering our daughters” and described gender-affirming care as “chemical castration” and “mutilating children.”
Bills barring transgender people from using bathrooms or locker rooms to match their gender identity were introduced in 19 states in 2017. For 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union had tracked 60 anti-transgender bills, including a spate of ones seeking to bar transgender girls from girls sports teams. By 2021, that number spiked to 131, and the bills became more extreme, including one that became law in Arkansas banning gender-affirming care. The onslaught has only grown this year.
As the attacks increased, transgender homicides also spiked, doubling from 2019 to 2021.
Prompted by this unfolding crisis, Insider has compiled the most comprehensive account to date of the rising homicidal violence targeting transgender people, systematically filing hundreds of public-records requests and sending reporters around the US to gather information on five years of homicides targeting transgender and gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and two-spirit people across the United States and Puerto Rico from 2017 through 2021. Insider assembled a team of reporters to review thousands of pages of law-enforcement records and court documents and interview police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court clerks, friends, family members, and advocates. In some cases, we found deaths listed as homicides elsewhere that law enforcement determined to be accidental overdoses or suicides, such as Tatiana Hall in Philadelphia and Nicole Hall in Dallas, and so did not include them. We included people who died while in law-enforcement custody — even if their death wasn’t officially ruled a homicide — in cases in which a lawsuit or public inquiry alleged wrongful death.
The 175 cases in the database are almost certainly an undercount.
The FBI does not enable local law enforcement to report data on transgender or gender nonconforming victims of violent crime, as its National Incident-Based Reporting System limits gender to the categories of male and female. The only substantial public data on transgender crime victims comes from a federal survey. A June 2022 analysis of that data found transgender people were 2 ½ times as likely as cisgender people to report being victims of violent crime.
Local police departments report transgender deaths to the federal government only if they identify that death as a hate crime. Only 10 such cases were reported from 2017 to 2020.
As Detroit’s police commander, Michael McGinnis, told Insider, “There’s probably a lot of cases that aren’t known and maybe not public.” The total, he said, is “probably quite a bit higher.”
We found that these deaths, to a striking degree, have affected communities of color. Nearly two-thirds of those killed were Black women, and 85% were people of color. We found evidence that dozens of the victims engaged in sex work, were currently or formerly homeless, or were struggling with addiction. This precarity — produced in part by legalized discrimination against transgender people — likely increased their exposure to violence.
This racial pattern is echoed among the suspects and known perpetrators as well. This may be because the majority of the suspects were known to their victims, Insider found — some as domestic partners, others as sexual intimates, housemates, or neighbors. In many cases, the suspect and victim went to the same parties or frequented the same sex-work strolls.
Insider looked for the first time at how the circumstances surrounding the homicides of transgender women — the majority of transgender people killed over the past five years — differed from those of transgender men and gender-nonconforming people. We found a higher proportion of transgender men and gender-nonconforming people were killed by law enforcement. Among transgender women, intimate violence by sexual partners or clients made up nearly half of the killings in which Insider could identify the circumstances — closely paralleling federal data for women overall.
We also uncovered a stunning failure of accountability. Only one killing over five years was successfully prosecuted as a hate crime — in part because many states don’t include gender identity in their statutes. Only 28 — or 16% — resulted in murder convictions. Both murder and hate-crime convictions were more common in cases with white victims. More than a third of the killings remain unsolved, a terrifying prospect for transgender communities. The overwhelming majority of these unsolved cases — 92% — involve victims of color.
In 16 cases, suspects were identified but prosecutors dropped charges or declined to bring them. In nearly a third of those cases, law-enforcement officers pulled the trigger. In several instances, Insider obtained evidence that dubious self-defense claims were accepted by police officers, prosecutors, judges, or juries.
Among the cases for which Insider obtained investigative records, we uncovered several bungled investigations and prosecutions: The police never apprehended one suspect despite the victim’s mother frantically calling the police with details of his whereabouts; prosecutors failed to put a victim’s brother on the stand, though he received his sister’s desperate call for help just moments before she was killed. The killer, her boyfriend, was later acquitted by a jury on a claim of self-defense.
Many of the victims had been brutalized in life for being transgender. And in death, many were disrespected again — the majority misnamed or misgendered on incident reports and coroner’s reports, in statements by police officers and prosecutors, and in interviews with witnesses, their identity distorted by the police during the crucial early days of a murder investigation and their complicated lives used on occasion as an excuse not to seek justice. The police reports and statements Insider obtained are littered with indications of ignorance and bias, with references to victims as a “transvestite” or “a man in women’s clothing.”
Many police officers and prosecutors stonewalled Insider’s records requests or sent only a page or two of highly redacted documents in response, limiting our insight into what motivated these killings and the circumstances that surrounded them.
The deaths span 31 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, but they are heavily concentrated in red states in the South — the same places that lack civil-rights protections for gender identity, and where anti-transgender legislation and anti-transgender sentiment have been on the rise. There are large clusters of killings in Chicago, Charlotte, Miami, Dallas, Houston, and Baltimore. One in 20 took place in rural towns or on unincorporated county land in places like Alabama and Florida.
Based on Williams Institute estimates of transgender population by state, Louisiana and Missouri — each of which passed anti-transgender legislation in recent years — saw homicide rates for transgender people that are double the national homicide rate. The national homicide rate for women is far lower, and women comprise 87% of the victims Insider identified. Four more states — Mississippi, South Dakota, Maryland, and South Carolina — saw transgender homicide rates above the national average for women. All but Maryland have recently passed anti-transgender laws.
There’s a term criminologists use for the attacks many of the victims faced in their final moments: “overkill,” defined as a level of violence beyond what is necessary to end someone’s life. Insider found evidence of overkill in more than a quarter of the cases. The killer of a woman in Chicago shot her and then returned to pump more bullets into her lifeless body. A man in Pennsylvania refused to stop beating one woman even after police officers arrived and ordered him to stop.
In keeping with national trends, the vast majority of the killings were the result of gun violence — including two mass shootings.
Most of the known killers and suspects were familiar to their victims. Josie Berrios was killed in Ithaca by her boyfriend, and Selena Reyes-Hernandez in Chicago by a date. Other suspects were spouses or partners, parents or housemates, hookups or clients. Several serial killers appear in our database, including a Border Patrol agent in Texas who allegedly picked up sex workers only to murder them. The agent, whose trial begins November 28, referred to sex workers as “scum of the earth.”
In 15 cases, Insider gathered clear evidence that an intense culture of transphobia drove the killings. Many of these began with a sexual encounter, one that turned violent only after a young man feared exposure or panicked about what intimacy with a transgender person meant about his sexuality. A teenage boy killed De’janay Stanton, 24, after a monthlong sexual relationship left him deeply uncomfortable, even suicidal. It is painful to imagine how many of these deaths might have been avoided if a culture of acceptance prevailed.
There are communities across this country that have been fighting for transgender lives for decades, since the uprising at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 and The Stonewall Inn in 1969 — since the court battles of the 1970s and the first Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999. Many of these cases only came to light thanks to their advocacy.
Chosen families of transgender and gender nonconforming people in large cities and small towns took sometimes extraordinary risks to come forward in the face of police misnaming and misgendering to properly identify the dead. Two months after her friend Ashanti Carmon was killed, Zoe Spears faced down death threats to help the police solve the murder. Spears herself was killed within weeks. Selena Reyes-Hernandez was misidentified by the Chicago police for a week after her murder before four transgender women in her close circle came forward to shed light on the last hours of her life. Elizabeth Stephanie Montez of Robstown, Texas; Jaylow McGlory of Alexandria, Louisiana; Ally Steinfeld of Texas County, Missouri; and Kenneth Bostick of New York City are among the many in our database who were identified as transgender only after advocates corrected the record.
The lives collected here have left a profound imprint on their families of origin, their chosen families, and their communities. Their deaths should serve as an urgent call to action.
Note: Many of the primary documents linked below misname or misgender the people listed here.