A Life Cut Short:
Gender Identity Discrimination
Murder of Chanelle Pickett
In November 1995, Chanelle Pickett, an African-American transsexual woman, was strangled to death at age 23. At her service, Chanelle’s twin sister, Gabrielle, also a transsexual woman, remembered her as a vibrant person, “full of life… high-spirited… with many goals.”
In the year prior to Chanelle’s murder, the two sisters, both working steadily at NYNEX in Brookline, MA, were “outed” as transsexuals, viciously harassed by a supervisor for six weeks, and ultimately fired. Stunned, exhausted, and unable to find work elsewhere, both women fell quickly into desperate poverty. Chanelle, a prime target for a man with a predatory attitude toward transgender women, turned up dead in William Palmer’s apartment. According to the coroner, Chanelle’s body was found with “bruised face and lips,” and her “brain was badly swollen, the neck muscles were bruised, and there was hemorrhaging in the eyes.” Despite strong physical evidence against Palmer, he was convicted only of assault & battery. He received 2 years of jail time, a longer sentence than the prosecutor had requested, with Judge Robert A. Barton acknowledging the particularly “vicious” nature of the killing.
Unprotected in most jurisdictions from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, transgender people often face sustained harassment on the job and are frequently fired without cause whether they transition, come out, or are ‘outed’ as transgender. In the hiring process, transgender people often face intense transphobia (the irrational fear of transgender people and people who do not fit conventional gender stereotypes). Additionally, transgender people are often denied housing, credit and educational opportunities. All this leads to high levels of poverty and limited economic opportunities.
The discrimination faced by transgender people amplifies their vulnerability to violent crime. Chanelle’s sudden fall from life with a steady job and a bright future into poverty, desperation, and violent victimhood is a shocking story; it is also a story faced by many transgender people, particularly transsexual women.
Violence against transgender people is epidemic. Every month, 1 to 2 transgender individuals in the US is brutally murdered. According to a survey conducted in Washington DC, approximately 43% percent of transgender people had been victims of crime. Of those crime victims, 17% had been physically assaulted and a further 17% had been assaulted with weapons. Transgender women of color are particularly vulnerable.
Transphobia is often a trigger for violence. At the same time, the high vulnerability of transgender people to hate crimes, and crime in general, is a consequence of poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.
The tragedy of Chanelle Pickett’s murder illustrates some of the connections between violence and pervasive employment discrimination. Chanelle was an ordinary woman working at NYNEX until her transsexuality made her a target for harassment. Although she properly sought help from a supervisor, her predicament was ignored. She transferred to a different department, but harassment against her continued openly and unabated. Eventually, she was fired. Unable to find work and having exhausted her legitimate options, Chanelle finally turned to prostitution for survival, a dangerous last resort. Before her murder, she surely suffered hopelessness for many months, feeding a growing desperation that led her to take risks that would never have been necessary had she not lost her job.
Chanelle Pickett’s killer did not just target a transsexual woman; he preyed on a woman who had already been victimized because of her identity. Chanelle lost her livelihood because of transphobia, and her opportunities to rebuild her life were nearly non-existent because of pervasive discrimination. Unprotected by laws against discrimination, her vibrant life was brutally cut short because so many doors had already been closed to her.