San Francisco trans community seeks justice

May 15, 2007

On March 16, someone strangled Ruby Ordeñana, a 27-year old Nicaraguan transgender woman who lived in the Mission District of San Francisco. Ordeñana’s murder is not an isolated event. In the Bay Area in the past year, there have been at least three other violent attacks on transgender women of color. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has identified increasing rates of transgender women of color homicides since the year 2005. Puck Lo reports.



Ruby Ordeñana’s murder is a painful example of the violence transwomen face, particularly if they are poor or of color. Naomi Clark provides free legal services to low-income transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City.

If you ask yourself, ‘Why are the people who are being killed are low income transwomen of color?’ it’s obviously an intersection of a lot of things. Not only the disproportionate violence that poor people and people of color face because of racism and classism in our society, but also, women are already considered disposable people relative to men in so many ways.

Femicide- the systematic killing of women based on their gender- has different characteristics from the murders of men, often involving sexual violence. A United Nations figure asserts that between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims in the United States are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

And women who are transgender fare even worse, according to Clark:

When you add that on top of the fact that trans people are targeted due to being sort of ‘rejects’ from the gender system that is supposed to be totally fixed, immutable, stable – then you have a whole picture of this extreme misogyny.

Following Ordeñana’s murder, a coalition of friends, family, organizations and community members held a memorial last week. Ana Rivera, a friend of Ordeñana, says Ruby’s death –like many others – could have been prevented.

I really think that a lot of my sisters would not have died the way they have died, if they had been able to access services that would’ve allowed them to further their education, get proper housing…So they wouldn’t necessarily have had to be in those situations that they’ve been in and wound up dead.

Police have not apprehended any suspects for Ordeñana’s killing yet, three months later. In response to the rising number of murders of transgender women in the Bay Area, some organizations are lobbying to expand the scope of federal hate crime legislature to include attacks on gender non-conforming people.

One such proponent is Tina D’Elia of Communities United Against Violence, a queer advocacy organization in San Francisco.

Passing hate crime laws that are transgender identity inclusive will help make society aware of these crimes and of the bias that underlies them.

But attorney Alexander Lee from the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco says passing harsher prison sentences won’t protect transwomen like Ruby.

He cites a study of hate crime convictions conducted by Howard University law professor, Lisa Crooms, showing that current legislation against race-based hate is used more frequently to prosecute people of color rather than perpetrators of racist attacks.

Extending hate crime laws won’t necessarily make targeted communities safer, or provide them with more resources – but they definitely increase the number of arrests that are made. And those arrests tend to be made in communities of color, who are more subject to police profiling and arrests.

Lee says that another reason federal hate crime legislation won’t end violence against the transgender community is because police officers themselves perpetuate half of all reported hate crimes committed against trans people in San Francisco. They are rarely prosecuted. That’s according to the findings of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in the year 2000.

Lee says that until the government and medical institutions change their policies that discriminate against transgender people, individual violent attacks against trans people will likely continue.

We need to look at all forms of violence against our community- both individual as well as those committed by institutions such as police, sheriffs, jails… the Departments of Public Health that don’t include treating transgender specific health care as important, as well as county governments that continue to allow intersex infant mutilation. Those things are levels of violence that perpetuate and encourage continuing physical hate against us by individuals, and the state needs to be held accountable for that.

In San Francisco, this is Puck Lo, FSRN.