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Violence against transgender community grossly underreported in Cleveland

Devinity Jones runs the Trans Wellness program at the LGBT Community Center in Cleveland, but...
Devinity Jones runs the Trans Wellness program at the LGBT Community Center in Cleveland, but her life wasn't always like this. The transgender woman admits she's been pistol-whipped, attacked, and raped, simply for being herself.(Devinity Jones)
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 7:29 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) -The year 2021 was the deadliest year in America for members of the transgender community and unfortunately, Cleveland was no exception to the somber and sad trend.

When Devinity Jones came out as transgender, she lost her job and ended up on the streets.

“I’ve been sexually assaulted, pistol-whipped all that, you know, just to survive, just to live in this world, just to be who I think I want to be, but it’s not right,” said Jones, HIV prevention and transplant coordinator at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.

Jones is now 43 years old, an age she never imagined she’d make it to. The Human Rights Campaign; a national LGBT advocacy group that tracks hate crimes paints a bleak picture. It estimates transgender women are more than four times more likely to be murdered than cisgender women and most of those victims are Black.

In 2021 53 trans-Americans were murdered, compared to 44 in 2020, and 25 murders in 2019.

“I’ve seen so much,” Jones said. “I’ve seen my trans sisters getting killed and slain. There was one incident, we was, you know, on the beat, as you would call it and this van pulls up, and I just didn’t you know, I, what people may call it a spider-sense or whatever you may call it, something like that came and I just didn’t feel right and so I went to walk away. Soon as I was walking away, the door opened and they just started shooting and so my one trans girl that was still there, she had ended up getting shot and so the van drives off. So, I run back to her, and she died in my arms.”

Jones runs the Trans Wellness program at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, but Jones wasn’t always the successful, strong woman she is today. After she came out as transgender, she ended up homeless. Out on the streets without many options, she became a sex worker. in 2003 Jones says she was raped by a stranger in Cleveland.

“I ended up running to one of my friends’ house that lives not too far from there and it was just, it was just really bad,” Jones admitted. “And it was like a whole year of me like getting over that, you know, testing myself for HIV. It was just a lot for that whole year for me.”

Jones says she was too afraid to report the crime to police.

“Mhm,” Jones said. “That they wouldn’t even care.”

19 News uncovered new data that show hate crimes against the transgender community are on the rise in Cleveland.

According to data from the FBI and the Cleveland Police Department, there were a total of 19 homicides and assaults associated with hate crimes against transgender or gender non-conforming people in 2020. The year before there were only three; that’s a 533% increase.

Research from the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups suggests that many of these crimes aren’t even reported. That means people who are attacked sometimes don’t report the crime to the police.

Part of the reason, as 19 investigators discovered, Ohio’s current hate crime law doesn’t even touch on gender expression. It relates to race, but it doesn’t say a word about gender identity. State Senator Nickie Antonio wants to change that.

“What I can tell you from introducing hate crime legislation in Ohio before, I’ve introduced it multiple times,” explained Senator Antonio. “What we tried to do with that legislation is update the current code, which we don’t even have hate crime as a law. What we have is ethnic intimidation law that tells you kind of how old the law is too it goes way back to the 50s, I think, but the law is written so that it really addresses crimes against property, like vandalism more than crimes against persons.”

Antonio says for a crime to have hate crime status in the state of Ohio it has to meet the federal definitions.

“Very few of the crimes end up rising to that, which is why we do need an update in hate crimes law in the state of Ohio,” Antonio said. “Probably not this General Assembly, but next General Assembly, it’s one of the things I want to work on.”

There’s slightly more legal protection for the transgender community in Cuyahoga County where the law is more specific to include protection for people who identify as transgender. For years Senator Antonio and other Ohio legislators have been trying to add gender expression and sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination law. The Ohio Fairness Act has been introduced seven times in the past 11 years.

“There are clearly some folks in the legislature that see this as a way forward for Ohio, economic advancement, and it’s the right thing to do, by the way,” Antonio said. “But we just have not been able to get a critical mass to vote for it.”

Under current law, a person in Ohio can be fired from their job, evicted from their home, or refused service just because of their gender expression or sexual orientation. Senator Antonio is hoping to finally get the Fairness Act passed this year. It’s something Cleveland transwomen like Eliana Turan have spent their entire lives fighting for.

“Look, if you are a cisgender, heterosexual, Clevelander, Ohioan, American, or just a human being in this world, this is your crisis, too, because we are your family members,” Turan said. “We’re your neighbors. We’re your coworkers, you know, we live in, we’ve been living in this world, with everyone else for as long as humankind has been around and, you know, my firm and true belief is that hatred anywhere is hatred everywhere.”

Just last summer, a transwoman was shot to death in Cleveland. 19 investigators wanted to find out why it took so long for her death to receive media coverage.

“Tierramarie was a beautiful human being, you know, I had the privilege and pleasure of knowing her for the short time that I was able to,” Turan said. “She was just filled with kindness and joy and optimism, and she had walked through a lot in her life, before coming to the center, before coming to Cleveland.”

36-year-old Tierramarie Lewis came to Cleveland looking for a fresh start.

“She told me this, ‘Can I be like you? I don’t want to be a prostitute. I don’t want to, you know, do drugs. I just want to just live my life. I’m just tired. I’m so tired,’” recalled Jones.

Devinity Jones says the transwoman came to the LGBT Community Center for help in early 2021.

“I got her checked into the rehab, I went and found our crisis department to give her housing,” explained Jones.

Jones says Lewis ended up leaving the shelter after staff members allegedly ridiculed her for being transgender.

“Between that and keep getting the door shut in your face so many times she ended up relapsing,” said Jones.

So, Lewis ended up back on the street. Then on June 12, 2021, the unthinkable happened. Lewis was shot to death on East 79thStreet and Cedar Avenue in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to find that stability that she was desperately looking for,” Turan said.

Jones still blames herself.

“I still to this day, I feel like I failed,” Jones admitted. “It was just like, heart-wrenching and so it’s even to this day, I still feel like you know, I let her down.”'

19 investigators did some digging and learned at least 14 transgender people have been murdered in Ohio since 2013. Turan believes if Lewis hadn’t been connected to the center, her murder might not have been included in the data at all.

19 investigates looked into death records and discovered a major issue - the medical examiner’s office and police often misgender victims, using gender or name they no longer identify with.

We reached out to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office who told us “Per the CDC’s instructions on the reporting and registration of deaths, we report on sex -- not gender. Sex is determined by anatomical inspection of the body and/or medical records.”

19 News asked the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office for an on-camera interview, but they declined our request.

In an email, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office said they are aware and sensitive to these issues, and they have been discussing how they can address the underreporting of transgender individuals. They added their hands are tied saying “We must adhere to the legal mandates of the office which require us to focus what we can prove in a court of law, thus biological evidence vs. individual gender identity preferences especially when they are in conflict with family wishes which we cannot control and occur outside of our legal authority.”

A second issue relates to their case management software. They say it has limitations on how they can track and classify the deaths of transgender people. Right now, they are working on an update.

“I think is just re-victimizing the victims, families and friends and people around them that cared about them, and knew them for who they were,” said Senator Antonio.

Senator Antonio is a member of the LGBT community, she says this is an issue that hits close to home.

‘I don’t know if it’s a legislative fix or a policy fix,” Antonio said. “Now it could be a policy fix, or a practice fix as far as what coroners if there’s a possibility to add documents to what they already use, in addition to the physical examination and that’s something we can look into. On the list, there’s a lot of things and one of the things I think to start with is just to find out if there’s a good model somewhere, you know, because something tells me probably, in some other states, there might be models that we could look at of how they do this better.”

19 News asked Senator Antonio if she’d consider introducing legislation to combat the issue.

“Well, we could certainly suggest it and have the conversation,” Antonio said. “I think it’d be an uphill battle, perhaps, but that’s never stopped me from introducing legislation before especially, you know, when it’s a good policy, it’s a good policy and we need to have the discussion.”

In the end, all of this comes too late for Tierramarie, a young life lost to hate and violence.

“There’s still work to do, there’s still more to do,” Jones said. “There’s more for me to make the city aware that trans people are not just monsters or not just someone they could just murder and be done and get over with.”

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office also told 19 News they’ve seen an increase in public records requests for statistics involving the transgender community, so as a result, they will be including statistics in their annual report going forward to more accurately reflect deaths in the trans community.

The LGBT Center’s trans wellness program recently received a $100,000 grant to hire trans people to go out into the community and educate the public.

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