Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
In August 2013, Islan Nettles, a black transgender woman, was attacked by a group of men while walking down the street in Harlem. One of the men beat Nettles so brutally that she died in the hospital several days later.
Police initially arrested 20-year-old Paris Wilson for the attack and charged him with misdemeanor assault, sparking outcry from Nettles’ loved ones and the transgender community. Wilson was released, however, after another man, James Dixon, confessed to the attack. More than two and a half years later, Dixon has pled guilty to killing Nettles in a trial that has laid bare many of the disturbing factors that so often play into violence against transgender women.
Before accepting a plea deal this week, Dixon pled not guilty to first- and second-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault in connection with Nettles’ death. During the trial, a 2013 interview of Dixon revealed that he had been flirting with Nettles until his friends identified her as transgender, at which point he felt his “manhood” had been threatened and he attacked her out of “blind fury.”
“I just didn’t want to be fooled,” Dixon said, highlighting an all-too-common misconception that transgender women are attempting to trick or deceive straight men into having sex with them. This misconception relies on some false and extremely harmful ideas, namely that transgender women are not “real” women and that a man who is attracted to a transgender woman is gay.
“It pains me that young men in our society are still being conditioned to measure their manhood based on antiquated standards steeped in homophobia, transphobia and misogyny and their ability to violently dominate others,” said Beverly Tillery of the Anti-Violence Project in an op-ed with The Advocate. “After Dixon was taunted by his friends for being attracted to a transgender woman…he clearly felt he needed to respond violently to defend his own masculinity. But what would have happened if he had been man enough to either admit his attraction to transgender women or simply say he was not interested and walk away.”
While Dixon’s guilty plea and his sentence to twelve years in prison brings closure to the case, for Nettle’s family and friends, and to many transgender advocates, justice has not been served.
"It's not enough. It's a slap in the face," said Islan’s mother, Delores Nettles, to DNAInfo. "He'll still be a young man in his 30s when he gets out. Islan is gone forever."
“Islan isn’t the first death of a transgender woman of color, and she’s not going to be the last,” said transgender writer and activist Janet Mock in 2014 to OUT. “I’m at risk every day myself just walking the streets of New York City. We all are.”
For more information on violence against transgender people, visit hrc.org/trans-violence.