Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more transgender people have been killed than ever before. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 45 transgender people have been murdered in 2021, making it the deadliest year on record with most deaths occurring to Black or Latina/o/x transgender people. Despite the national legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and legal protections for LGBTQ+ folks in the workforce in 2020, many LGBTQ+ youth still face discrimination in their public, professional and private lives. Many youth are still thrown out of their homes after coming out as LGBTQ+ to their families. Ironically, they can face the most brutal discrimination in their own households than as strangers roaming their urban environments.
In addition to experiencing abandonment from their families, transgender youth quickly face various obstacles such as academic challenges, employment discrimination, homelessness, unsafe work environments, substance use and neglect from the foster care system. The most unfortunate hardship is when transgender people experience anti-trans violence and hate. Unfortunately, many people have recently posted these incidents of violence toward transgender people on social media for internet users to witness.
Stories of transphobic violence have also been shared and have resurfaced online, leading to tributes and offerings from LGBTQ+ organizations and activist groups such as Brave Space Alliance, Broadway Youth Center, Puerto Rican Cultural Center and more. Without the increased use of social media during the pandemic, the deaths of Chicago trans women Selena Hernandez-Reyes, Tyianna Alexander, Courtney Eshay Key, Briana Hamilton, and many more would have received minimal news coverage.
Like many victims of transphobic violence, Paige Clay did not have her story told by many news outlets. Her story is an example of one of many outcomes for “at-risk” inner-city LGBTQ+ youth. Paige was killed on April 16, 2012 in an alley on the west side of Chicago at 3:52 a.m. from a gunshot wound to the head. Since her death, no perpetrator has been criminally charged with her murder. Upon reading Paige Clay’s story, I had become accustomed to assaults on transgender people, as it is not a distant issue for me. Coming out as transgender in a lower-income area of Chicago multiplies the challenges of daily life.
According to Brian Turner, a social worker for TaskForce Prevention & Community Services in Chicago’s west side, Paige Clay was known to have an unstable childhood. She did not have the support of her mother or father growing up and became a ward of the state at 9 years old. The state did not provide Paige with many resources or support. Paige also experienced mistreatment in the foster care system. She quickly found refuge in TaskForce Prevention & Community Services when Turner’s aunt became Paige’s foster mother. At the time of her death, she was a rising star in Chicago’s ballroom scene, an underground competition of drag performances for LGBTQ+ people. Paige found a chosen family in Chicago’s local transgender community and was medically transitioning with the help of medical and mental health services provided by TaskForce.
Unfortunately, many social service agencies do not offer or respect affirming care for LGBTQ+ people, especially for trans people. Many government state programs devalue and dehumanize their own patrons and reduce them to a case number or document on file. Paige Clay received the support and guidance she truly needed through a LGBTQ+ community center close to her zip code. Chicago organizations such as TaskForce, El Rescate, Broadway Youth Center, Vida/SIDA, and Test Positive Aware Network offer an array of drop-in services including individual counseling, group therapy, hormone replacement therapy, temporary housing shelters, legal name changing services, and HIV and STI testing. These are exactly the kind of government services that should have been provided for Paige, regardless of her place of residence, sex work history, gender identity, race or income level. Paige Clay’s story has shown that traditional social service agencies in the United States still disregard and discriminate against their patrons of color, patrons of LGBTQ+ identity and those of lower class.
The welfare system only treats its patrons as numbers and not as human beings. We become property of the state, but the state claims no responsibility for our wellbeing. Paige Clay’s unfortunate outcome as a transgender person is not the first and far from the last. Traditional social service agencies’ indifference and lack of concern for our foster youth only creates negative outcomes and statistics upon aging out of the system. These public aid agencies must become proactive for their patrons who face these obstacles. LGBTQ+ organizations and social service agencies must collaborate more with the foster care system to expand their services to Chicago’s most “at-risk” youth. If Paige Clay was given more proactive affirmative care from the state of Illinois, she would still be with us today.