CLEVELAND — On one of the busiest streets in Cleveland’s bustling Ohio City neighborhood, Tabletop Board Game Cafe proudly supports members of the LGBTQ+ community with a symbol of solidarity.
“When I think of the quintessential safe space for the trans community, I think of Tabletop," Arwen Kathke said. "I’m looking right now, and I’m seeing a giant American flag with PRIDE colors on it."
Arwen Kathke, a board member of the nonprofit LGBTQ+ support group PFLAG Cleveland, said finding community with safe spaces and support as a transgender woman is vital.
She has to think about her safety almost all the time, something she said she never had to do before she started her coming out process in 2011.
“This little nagging thought in the back of my mind, that was never there before I transitioned, of am I going to be safe?" she said. "Am I going to go outside and somebody is going to harass me?"
Violence is a very real threat for transgender people across the world, country and here in the city of Cleveland. In 2021, The Human Rights Campaign tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents against transgender and those who are gender non-conforming, with 50 fatalities documented.
The HRC has been tracking data related to fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals since 2013.
In a report titled An Epidemic of Violence 2021, the group recorded 47 fatalities at the time of publication, which put the year on track to be the worst since the organization began tracking this data eight years prior when the FBI first started reporting hate crimes against these populations.
The FBI data shows the number of hate crimes committed against transgender and gender non-conforming communities increased, using data broken down into the following categories of hate crimes: anti-transgender; anti-gender non-conforming; and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
In 2013, these combined categories accounted for 21 reports, or 6.2% of the FBI’s total reported hate crimes that year in Ohio. There’s then a dip, leading to 2015 where these combined categories account for only 2.2% of hate crimes.
There’s then an incline in the FBI’s data jumping to 13% of hate crimes in 2019 and 11.7% in 2020. The FBI’s database currently does not show numbers for 2021.The numbers reflect just reported hate crimes, not necessarily fatal ones like those tracked by the Human Rights Campaign.
In fact, the HRC specifically notes violence against these communities "is often reported inaccurately and insufficiently."
"Victims are consistently misgendered, and crimes against them are consistently underreported," the HRC report states.
One individual shown on the HRC's list was Tierramarie Lewis — killed in June 2021 — who was the 10th transgender woman to be killed in Cleveland since 2013, according to the HRC.
“I met her. She was very shy, very reserved, which is a given because a lot of Black trans women, it’s hard to trust other people," said Devinity Jones of the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland. "You don’t know what to expect. People are always after you, and I knew that."
Devinity Jones is the center's Trans Wellness Coordinator and was one of the closest people to Lewis. She said the transgender murder crisis disproportionately affects women of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, trans women of color make up four out of five anti-trans homicides in the U.S.
“If you are a Black person, especially a Black trans person, you are really starting out the gate with three strikes,” Jones said.
Black transgender women are vulnerable for a variety of reasons and are disproportionately affected by this violence, according to the HRC, which states in an article that transgender women of color must contend with "the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia..."
Jones expressed that the lack of safe spaces and support systems also play a major role and said she has seen too much violence against those she loves.
“Some of my first trans friends that I first met going to my first gay bar and finding out what sisterhood is about, and the first girl that put makeup on me and all these different things — you're standing there, and you see them get slain and killed,” Jones said.
Jones and Kathke said the alarming trend of trans murders and violence against the trans community, combined with growing legislation aimed at transgender individuals, makes it harder to have hope for the future. But it does give them motivation to keep speaking out and doing the work to create a safer community here in Cleveland.
“’We’re all banding together, pulling every resource that we got to try to make this better for the next trans person and also just for us,” Jones said.