Killing, harassment spotlight transphobia's impact on all people: advocates

LGBTQ advocates say transphobia and misogyny go hand-in-hand.

August 24, 2023, 7:01 AM

Michelle D. Peacock was relaxing under a gazebo at her apartment complex in Richmond, Indiana, when police say she was attacked and killed by her neighbor, Tommy Earl.

Following his arrest, a court affidavit of Earl's discussion with police states that Earl allegedly referred to Peacock, a 59-year-old Black, cisgender woman, as "a male acting like a woman."

He allegedly told police, "I finally went off, man" and that he's "not ashamed of it." In a GoFundMe for the victim's family, Peacock's daughter called Earl a bully who her mother complained about several times.

Earl's motive is unclear, according to the affidavit, which describes Earl saying he had a "psychotic break." ABC News has reached out to Earl's attorney for comment. He has not entered a plea, according to the Wayne County Circuit Court's clerk office.

Some LGBTQ activists say that incidents like Peacock's death -- where her gender identity allegedly came into question -- demonstrate the underlying ways in which transphobia can affect people of any gender -- including cisgender women.

"Both transgender and cisgender women have been experiencing ridicule, rejection, assault, and even being killed for not meeting this made-up ideal" of what defines a woman, said Leroy B. Thomas, the communications director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, in an interview with ABC News.

PHOTO: A person holds up a sign reading, "Trans People Belong in Alabama," during a rally outside the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on International Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, 2023.
A person holds up a sign reading, "Trans People Belong in Alabama," during a rally outside the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on International Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, 2023.
Kim Chandler/AP, FILE

The nation has seen a rise in anti-transgender legislation, as well as an increase in political rhetoric against the community. Officials have sounded the alarm on anti-LGBTQ violence as reports of such incidents continue to pop up around the country.

Transgender people are more than four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. But this violence can also extend to non-transgender people who don't meet stereotypes of what a woman is, LGBTQ advocates say.

Cisgender women and girls have reported being harassed for appearing to be transgender while playing sports or using bathrooms since the start of anti-transgender legislation in recent years.

"This is why it's so incredibly important to have solidarity between cisgender and transgender people," said Thomas. "While our experiences are different in many ways, transphobia and misogyny hurt all of us."

Recently, in Canada, a 9-year-old cisgender girl was allegedly harassed at a track meet by an adult couple who claimed the athlete was trans and shouldn't be playing on the girls' team. The alleged incident occurred at a track meet for elementary students in Kelowna, British Columbia, Superintendent of Central Okanagan Public Schools Kevin Kaardal told ABC News.

A man at the event allegedly demanded that the girl show certification of her sex – claiming she's not a girl, was trans, and should not be competing, according to local reports of the incident. The man denied the claims, telling CTV News Vancouver he never berated the girl and instead privately asked an event official whether it was a co-ed event since he believed she was a boy.

In 2022, a 25-year-old who goes by Jay Rose went viral on TikTok after she said she was harassed in a Las Vegas casino bathroom. She told ABC News in an interview that a stranger in the bathroom began ranting about transgender people while Rose was in her stall. The woman can be heard saying, "it's a boy. it's a child," which Rose believes was directed at her.

"I had just recently shaved my head and I was worried about someone reacting negatively," Rose said. "She just came in and started talking about how it's being taught in schools and it's not right and how she wants to go to the bathroom with her [fellow] women in private."

Rose was going to wait for the woman to leave, but began to panic from inside the stall. She began recording the floor, to document what happened when she left the stall in case the woman did something to her.

Video appears to show the woman approaching Rose as she washes her hands in the sink.

"Are you a man or a woman?" the woman can be heard asking, to which Rose, who is nonbinary and goes by she/they pronouns, responds: "Why does that matter?" Later the woman asks, "What are you identifying as today?" Rose refused, responding, "I don't think that's any of your business." The woman was later kicked out of the casino, Rose said.

She said it was important to her that she refused to answer: "If I would have said 'oh, don't worry, I'm a woman,' she would have thought she can just do that to the next person. And just continue the harassment of everyone else."

Rose said she was shaken up by the incident. As a nanny, she said it hurts to imagine if a child had been in her place.

"All I could think about was what if I actually was a transgender child or just a child experimenting and trying to figure out my life and then you just have some random grown woman harassing you and asking you what you identify as and to figure it out in the bathroom," she said.

Rose said she hopes people learn that others should be able to live their lives without worrying about being harassed in the bathroom.

"Transphobia obviously is rooted in this idea that in order for someone to be a man or a woman, they have to look a certain way, they have to act a certain way, and they have to have a certain type of body," said Thomas.

"They're too tall. They're too strong. They're too fast. All things that you know are coded as being masculine, but in fact are true of lots of female athletes, right?" added Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director Cathryn Oakley in an interview.

PHOTO: Participants seen at the Reclaim Pride Coalition's (RPC) fifth annual Queer Liberation March in New York City, on June 25, 2023.
Participants seen at the Reclaim Pride Coalition's (RPC) fifth annual Queer Liberation March in New York City, on June 25, 2023.
Erik Mcgregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

Advocates say laws targeting transgender people make some feel emboldened to police how others look, often enforcing an idealized version of womanhood. It puts "everyone in an unsafe position," Thomas said.

Several states in the U.S. have implemented restrictions that bar transgender people from using facilities or playing sports that align with their gender identity. More than 220 bills targeting the transgender community, including such restrictions, have been introduced so far this year, according to the HRC.

In some cases, proposed legislation restricting transgender girls from girls' sports asks athletes to "prove" their gender, via a genital exam, confirmation of chromosomes, or hormone level tests -- which have led to controversy and outrage and has led to the removal of such stipulations from legislation.

"We're talking about a procedure that is not medically necessary and would be deeply traumatic as a requirement to be able to play, you know, eighth-grade volleyball," said Oakley.

Even so, biology and gender aren't neat concepts, advocates say. Up to 1.7% of people are born with intersex or atypical reproductive and chromosomal traits, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In 2021, more than 450 feminist leaders -- including Gloria Steinem, Regina King, Chelsea Clinton and Selena Gomez -- signed an open letter to stand in solidarity with transgender women and girls, saying that transphobia goes against the foundational beliefs of freedom for women.

"These public spaces belong to all of us," said Thomas. "When we have laws that are restricting our ability to move about the world in public spaces, when trans people are made to feel that they don't belong, it creates problems for everyone."

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