The Invisible Killing of Tony McDade

The Invisible Killing of Tony McDade
Image:Tony McDade

On May 27, Tony McDade, a trans man and Tallahassee resident, was killed by a police officer. No video exists of his death, so both local and national outlets have deferred to the police department’s description: McDade was a suspect in a fatal stabbing; as officers attempted to arrest him he allegedly moved as if to draw a weapon and was shot. Though a Florida law allows the person who killed him to remain anonymous, bystanders identified the officer as white.

Days after McDade’s death, Equality Florida issued a report calling the state an “epicenter” of brutal transphobia, a situation they found was exacerbated by the police and local media. “Issues of misgendering by law enforcement and the media often cloud initial reports of trans related violence, disrespecting the victims.” After his death, residents of his apartment posted Facebook Live videos, contrasting police reports that McDade had posed a threat; one resident in the apartment complex, Clifford Williams, said that police had opened fire on McDade with no hesitation, contradicting the narrative that officers feared for their safety. But even in such accounts, residents still misgendered McDade.

Trans people are denied safety in their lives, but they are stripped of peace even in death, their identities picked apart and questioned with more scrutiny than the events surrounding their murders. In its report of his death, the Tallahassee Democrat misgendered McDade and employed his dead name in service of a narrative of him as an unreliable victim, speaking with residents who claimed he “wore men’s clothes but identified as a woman.” WFSU, a Florida public news outlet, also misgendered McDade. Citing the police’s official account, the outlets said that McDade had fatally stabbed someone minutes before his death. Earlier in the day, McDade had posted a Facebook Live, in which he claimed he was seeking out several men who had attacked him the day prior in a transphobic attack. “You killed me,” he said, articulating how the attack devalued his existence both psychically and physically. “I’m gonna kill you.”

Addressing the police’s claims that McDade was a danger to them, Tallahassee Community Action Committee member Delilah Pierre told local outlet WCTV:

“People will try to tell you he just committed a stabbing. People will judge him, and act like they can have anything to say about his actions and they have no right. They have no right to say anything about Tony McDade or his actions, when you’re a trans person, when you’re a black person who is constantly beaten down by the system in every way possible.”

Alongside the Tallahassee Police’s swift action to render McDade an alleged killer, his death is not the first time a publication has misgendered a victim of the violence that black trans people endure in America. It is also not the first time a black trans person’s murder has gone largely ignored in the larger conversation about police brutality. But amid what has been described as an epidemic of violence against black trans people, the erasure of McDade’s death is abhorrent, especially in the early days of Pride, when of the oppression the LGBTQ+ community faces is either sanitized and given a rainbow sheen or generalized into a specter of violence, stripped of the underpinnings of race.

June is pride month. Sharply contrasted by McDade’s death are the tactics many in the LGBTQ+ community have employed in the last 50 years to remove black trans people from the official history of liberation movements. Stonewall’s history is still contested, despite overwhelming evidence that black trans people and drag queens led the organizing, the protests, and ensuing riots. A demonstration for Tony McDade and Nina Pop, a black trans woman murdered in early May in Missouri, will be held Tuesday night at Stonewall, reinforcing the Inn’s permanence as a place of black trans solidarity and power. Still, when trans people are murdered, especially black trans people, their deaths are often compartmentalized by white queer people everywhere else, working as bystanders or Pride organizers or nonprofit heads or attendees of various Trans Day of Remembrance rallies. This community ropes those murdered into a digestible package of LGBTQ+ victimhood, removed from white supremacy, removed from the cancer of institutionalized racism and police violence.

McDade is the 12th trans person to be murdered this year alone. In 2019, the Human Rights Campaign claimed that of the (at least) 26 trans and gender non-comforming people killed, most were black. In 2018, the overwhelming majority of the 26 trans women killed were also black trans women. Since 2013, when the Human Rights Campaign first began documenting official numbers, a report in 2019 found that 127 were people of color, which here feels safe to assume stands largely for black trans people. These numbers are cited by well-meaning activists, especially white ones, to show that they “hear” the trans community’s cries for protection and advocacy. But often, the deployment of statistics, even here, becomes a Trojan horse, infiltrating the context of the dual racism and transphobia that kills trans people like McDade, whitewashing it with broader appeals to the suffering of the LGBTQ+ community. These victims are murdered because of transmisogyny, but that transmisogyny is informed by white supremacy. Justice will not be found unless the community comprehends, and moves to fundamentally address, both contexts.

This is not to say that no LGBTQ+ organization or activist-led movement centers a coherent analysis of race and transmisogyny. Rather, the broader language of the community, led primarily by affluent white gay men, especially amid “marriage equality” and bathroom access debates, leans more towards generalization. Bathroom accessibility affects all trans people, even if non-white trans people are more likely to be harassed in public. Even with the ability to marry, black and brown queer people are more likely to lack the things marriage affords affluent, white queer people—chiefly health insurance. And when, at Pride, organizers rattle off lists of often faceless trans people, transphobia is less threatening as a concept than admitting racism both fuels transphobia, and defines organizing choices, sexual preferences, and identity politics across the community.

Following McDade’s murder, Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey wrote: “This comes on the heels of disturbing events around our nation that we will not ignore. My heart goes out to the friends and families of those who lost their lives today and to the entire community that has been traumatized by today’s events.” The officer has been placed on administrative leave, but that is only pending “further investigation,” which recent history tells us will likely result in his reinstatement. Neither the police, nor the outlets who first broke the story, have retracted their misgendering of Dade. Mayor Dailey spoke of trauma, but what of McDade’s trauma: Living in a country, and inside of a community, where black trans people are too often discarded and violated and stripped of basic rights.

To donate to Tony McDade’s memorial fund, go here. You can also donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute here, the Tony Mcdade and Nina Pop Mental Health Recovery Fund here, and the Trans Women of Color Collective here.

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