09 July 2009

Notes from Syracuse

This is difficult for me to write about, and I really hope I strike the right tone. I really, really appreciate the hard work that everyone in the trans, LGBTQ communities and our allies have placed on publicizing the senseless violence that takes places against trans people. I love that much (albeit not all) of the discussion has kept the humanity of the victims front and center. Nobody deserves to be murdered, much less to have their identity stripped away after the fact by the media, and by defense attorneys looking to justify the taking of a life. Lateisha Green’s murder troubles me deeply. I’m a transsexual woman and a mother. Talking about the taking away of somebody’s child because of who they makes me nauseous. I won’t be surprised if I spend much of the next week trying to stay away from news of the trial, because I simply can’t take it. I understand the need to focus on the horrifying consequences—and the need to prevent homophobia and transphobia (yes, the two are intertwined, and yes, that’s a discussion that’s been ongoing elsewhere).

Something about the response to Lateisha Green’s murder troubles me, though. I live in Syracuse. My friends and neighbors live in Syracuse. I feel the need to point out that crimes like Lateisha’s murder don’t happen in a vacuum. Furthermore, while violence against trans and gender non-conforming people is one of “my” issues, something I take very personally, I also care about all of my friends and neighbors, be they cisgender or transgender. When I see people from around the country speaking up about one of my neighbors’ lives being treated as disposable due to her identity, while remaining unaware or ignoring the rest of my city, I feel uneasy. I live here, and this city’s issues are my issues. How can I expect my neighbors to fight for my rights, when people like me seem hesitant to fight for my neighbors’ rights?

Don’t get me wrong—anti-LGBT bigotry is an important fight for all of us. Community leaders in the near-Westside neighborhood where Green lived (including Green’s mother) are working to provide LGBT youth of color with a space safe from all the hostility and violence they often face. Just this week, my neighborhood is participating in a constructive response to anti-queer vandalism (for a look at what some folks are willing to say anonymously to get a rise out of people, check out the comment thread on the newspaper coverage of the incident).

However, it’s also important to address the perceived disposability of other parts of the community. Upstate New York is not disposable. Syracuse is not disposable, nor are other urban areas. The poor are not disposable. People of color are not disposable. People with disabilities are not disposable. Young people are not disposable. This shouldn’t be news to readers, yet on many levels, power structures treat the above groups (and many other) like garbage. This needs to change. A focus on the issues of LGBT people is important, but it’s not enough to fix our communities nor is it all that is required to give many trans people the quality of life that they, like all people, deserve.

Why am I so upset? Well, here’s part of what I see in my city: I see rampant violence within groups of young men. I recall rerouting a recent trip out due to a massive brawl in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day. The issue here isn’t that I was inconvenienced. However, things seem to have gotten far too out of hand when violence is creating a traffic hazard, in addition to less frivolous concerns, such as the loss of a life earlier this week. A neighbor of mine who is about to be redeployed to Iraq complained that our neighborhood was more dangerous than Baghdad, and confessed his hesitancy to leave his loved one behind. I sense a heavy dose of hyperbole. Still, it is troubling when you hear someone emptying a magazine across the street from the playground where you take your child. While I’m not behind the drug war, I’m not at all torn about having to kick drug paraphernalia out of the reach of my daughter when we’re on walks, or about the strung out junkie who broke into a neighbors’ locked apartment and began rifling through her couch while she slept, only to be chased off by her mother. It’s painful to watch a city that at times seems on the verge of an outright race war, with epitats of all types clouding all parts of the city; the sidewalk, the grocery store, the playground, the post office. Regardless of your race, you simply can’t escape the threat of racially motivated harassment if you spend any time here. Of course, you can’t always escape violence, either; earlier this year a 14-year old sniper shot and killed a man as he got in his car to start the second shift.

There’s no single reason why so many of us experience such futility and violence. The economy certainly hasn’t helped. The latest recession has cost greater Syracuse some of its last manufacturing jobs, with Syracuse China and New Process Gear moving jobs out of the country, and Crucible Materials preparing to fold in the face of a disastrous market for American steel. As an Eastern outpost of the rust belt, this is simply an extension of a decades-long decline, marked by previous blows such as Carrier corporation’s foreign outsourcing. Speaking of the lack of media coverage that the media has given Green’s murder, economic considerations led Syracuse’s CBS affiliate (arguably the most community oriented station in town) to close its newsroom and effectively merge with our NBC affiliate, costing us jobs, and limiting the number of corporate perspectives of current events.

In addition to the economy, Syracuse is faced with the same crises as many other cities. We can measure the distain in which the powers that be hold us in slashed school budgets funded by unfair mechanisms, the environmental degradation of poor neighborhoods of color (and yes, segregation is an issue), in underfunded and borderline useless mass transit systems and the general lack of effective health and human service programs for many folks not privileged enough to live outside of the city’s South side (or the North side, or the East side).

What’s being done to allow all of the chance of upward mobility, or at least to be treated with dignity while we live in poverty? Thanks in large part to Gerrymandering, a city Republican and two conservative Democrats from outside Onondaga county are supposed to be representing us in the State Senate. Of course, if you’re playing along at home, you know that the Senate is (or until this evening was) in deadlock, as members of both parties court a tax cheat who openly flaunts campaign finance laws and a man indicted on two felony counts for beating his girlfriend. This whole schism largely seems to have been paid for by the former richest man in New York State, who recently moved his official residence to Florida in order to avoid paying his fair share of taxes. Of course, it’s not entirely clear that his tax dollars would have gone to help the majority of Syracuse residents, considering the incredible corruption in New York State government. While hundreds of millions of dollars of tax breaks went to help a developer build a “green” shopping mall (that may never be completed) finding the means to create *actual* jobs that pay a living wage has been elusive.

You could write a book (and people have) about what’s behind the violence within the poorer pockets of this (or any other) city, particularly among young men. Certainly, there are problematic issues with outdated, violent visions of respect and masculinity, and it takes strong families to keep children on the right path. However, it’s all too easy to blame violence on laziness or otherwise imperfect families, and doing so misses a massive part of the story. We as a society systematically disrespect the poor and people of color. The power structure in this country helps ensnare people in poverty. While violence is never excusable, much of our country seems to leave young men with very few outlets with which to make a living, or which to gain status within a community. This is complicated stuff, and discussions of it are fraught with peril—particularly discussion that involve a diverse audience. However, if we don’t all engage in a critical analysis of our actions and force ourselves to engage in dialogue on the tough issues, we’re merely enabling a culture where lots of human lives, LGBT or otherwise are treated as disposable. To me, the tragedy of Latiesha Green’s murder lies not only in the taking away of a human life for no good reason, but with my fellow white LGBT’s repeated unwillingness to consider the countless other lives snuffed out in Green’s neighborhood, or the rest of my city, or all of urban America, for no good reason. This stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum.


  1. Hi Kate,
    I'm the person who created the "Justice for Teish" Facebook site and just wanted to respond to your thoughtful post. There are many possible responses to crimes such as what happened to Teish. I'm also a transwoman and a single mom. My first response to this crime is towards Roxanne Green, losing her young adult child (and having another child injured in the same crime). My next response is seeing yet another young transwoman of color murdered/attacked and why doesn't the LGBT community (much less the wider society) value these members of their community the way they did the death of Matthew Shephard?

    While I agree there is a repressive, often racist social context to all this violence and that much of the LGBT community (especially its power structure) ignores the issues of its poor and people of color members, much less issues/lives within the larger neighborhoods/communities these crimes occur, I kind of feel that ignores the realities of many of these activist's resources. Yes, I feel it's critical coalitions be built between progressives and the LGBT communities (although many 'progressives' haven't been comfortable with that in past). I believe this is the future of LGBT activism but it will make for some complex and often uncomfortable alliances. But because while it's easy to view LGBT activist organizations as being "the man" the reality is, most of them (with one big exception, the HRC) are shoestring budget operations with only a few actual employees (eg, the TLDEF has 2 actual employees, the rest are interns). So... what do you focus on when you have two employees—specific issues no one else gives a damn about, or larger social issues which far bigger organizations are already dealing with?

    I want to also give you a reality check about the Teish Green case. As recently as a month ago, there was literally zero, and I mean zero detailed coverage of this case, except for a few lgbt blogs regurgitating very basic information about the case and trial. The highly bigoted coverage in the Syracuse media was minimal, very much denying Teish's identity as a transwoman and the details of what happened. The Post-Standard had a number of reporters who had written about the case and had the resources to give it more detailed coverage. They chose not to. In June, when the trial was moved back a month, no explanation was given nor was there any media coverage of the rescheduling. There was complete silence. I started the Facebook group because, as with many murder cases of transwomen of color, there is no mainstream media and the victim is nothing more than blurry photo of someone supposedly living on the fringes of society. After writing 100s of individual e-mails to people and organzations, the Facebook group now has 5,000 members. Most of these people and groups knew nothing about Teish Green, her story, her supportive family or the trial. I'm one person who lives 3,000 miles from Syracuse and has no connection to any organization, I did it on my own. The reality is, few organizations in Syracuse, LGBT or otherwise were telling the world about this case or who Teish was (that she was NOT a sexworker, which is what everyone assumes when you mention transwomen of color), that she had a supportive family who loves and misses her.

    Your essay was altogether right in talking about how complex these issues are, but sometimes we only have enough energy and resources to deal with this on a localized, targeted level. I am also concerned about the economic/global/national/regional/and certainly racial aspects to what's happened in Syracuse and within Teish's neighborhood but, right now, I can't let that overwhelm the tragedy of Teish and other transwomen like her. Each individual story requires it's own personal telling.

  2. Gina,
    Thanks for the note. I agree with that organized trans groups have little to no resources. As individuals and community members, we're often hard pressed to get folks to pay attention to trans-specific issues.

    One of the things that struck me this afternoon during the community celebration of Lateisha Green's life was the repeated calls for the need to build bridges between communities. I'm actually feeling inspired and optimistic this afternoon. We need to keep standing up for ourselves, but we also need to be allies for all people, to help other people out in "their" fights, so that we can all live with dignity.

    Given the situation in Syracuse, where activist communities are small, fragmented, and largely invisible to a newcomer, I've gone through ample periods of frustration. Hopefully I don't come across as unappreciative of your work, because that's not it at all. Rather, I see a lot of work to be done here, and I don't know that any of us knows where to start.