On Oct. 21, a body was found off a county road west of Corpus Christi, Texas, with bullet wounds to the chest, abdomen, and shoulders.
The victim was Stephanie Montez, a transgender woman. But because police misidentified her as a man, it was not until last week that Montez, 47, was known to be among the more than two dozen transgender Americans killed this year.
Even as transgender people have scored political victories and turned public opinion in favor of more protections, violence has risen, especially against black and Hispanic transgender women. And Montez’s case shows the difficulties advocates face in tracking killings and other hate crimes.
The full death toll is impossible to determine, but by rights groups’ estimates, each of the past three years has become the deadliest on record.
The Human Rights Campaign has documented the killings of 25 transgender people in the United States so far in 2017, compared with 23 last year and 21 in 2015. Other organizations, like GLAAD and the Transgender Law Center, have slightly different tallies, but the trend holds.
Transgender people have been killed this year in Chicago and in Texas, in the Ozarks of Missouri, and on the sidewalks of Manhattan. They have been shot, stabbed, burned, and in at least one case pushed into a river. On average, one to two have been killed somewhere in the United States every week.
And experts say these numbers almost certainly understate the problem. Local officials are not required to report such killings to any central database, and because police sometimes release incorrect names or genders, it can be difficult to know that a homicide victim was transgender. So advocacy groups are left to comb news reports and talk to victims’ friends or family.
Even so, Sarah McBride, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, said the rough numbers strongly indicate that violence against transgender people is increasing.
Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said that since the 2016 presidential election, her organization had recorded a spike in incidents of hate violence — both homicides and other crimes — against transgender people as well as members of the broader gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
“There is an increased climate of hate that is, in some cases, being allowed to grow,” Tillery said.
Said Isa Noyola, deputy director of the Transgender Law Center: “The same stigma and the same sort of fear that is trying to be embedded in our society are the driving factors of the extreme forms of violence that are taking place. A lot of these cases are happening in regions where there are a lack of protections and there’s a lack of understanding and infrastructure for trans folks to live their daily lives.”
In some sense, experts said, the increased awareness that leads to more acceptance also draws the attention of would-be perpetrators.
“There’s no question that transgender people and the trans community have seen an increase in our profile and in our visibility,” McBride said. “In many cases, that is a good thing. It results in more hearts and minds opening. It allows for progress legally, socially.” But it may also stir up violent opposition, she said.