The Murder of Keisha Jenkins and the Violent Reality for Trans Women of Color
On October 6th, Keisha Jenkins was murdered near Old York Road. I went to Philadelphia to investigate her life, her death and the lives of other trans women of color fighting for survival.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
Keisha Jenkins was murdered at roughly 2:30 AM on Tuesday, October 6 at the northwestern border of Hunting Park in Philadelphia. The intersection of 13th and Wingohocking Streets, where Keisha died, lies within an expansive area known as Old York Road. Two days after her death, an anonymous caller tipped off police. Authorities arrested Pedro Redding and charged him with murder. Redding told police he didn't shoot Keisha—it was just his idea to rob her. He gave the names of three other individuals who he claims were part of the attack. They're still at large.
Keisha was an artist. She loved to draw, tattoo, even design clothes. She was a daughter, sister, auntie, and gay mom in her community. "She was relatable," said Amanda, one of Keisha's closest friends. Her name has been changed to maintain anonymity. "Everyone saw they own story in Keisha. That's who Keisha was."
She was new to transition, still figuring out her identity. That's no simple task for anyone at 22 years old, but it's more complicated for some. More than one of Keisha's friends describe her as "gender fluid," falling somewhere under the trans umbrella, both a butch queen in drag and a transgender woman. She shared different parts of herself with different people. It wasn't clear what direction she would go, but that didn't matter: Keisha's closest friends encouraged her to live her truth no matter what.
Many trans women of color in Philadelphia work the streets to survive. Keisha did. At times, it was validating, because men wanted her, but she mainly did it for the money. Amanda told me that her home "was not an accepting environment." Keisha's family didn't accept the trans part of her. "They dealt with it. They were ashamed for it. They didn't accept it."
Locals say Old York Road has been a popular stroll for sex workers since the 1960's. It was laid three centuries ago, carved in the earth to provide passage between two cities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Old York Road is a desolate line of concrete and hardened tar that stretches for miles. Hundreds of transgender women come to work there in the early hours after midnight.
At a press conference on October 12th, Homicide Captain James Clark of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) publicly stated that PPD does not believe Keisha was killed for her gender, or that the victim knew her attackers. Philly.com reported on Clark's statements, explaining the police force belief that Keisha's murder was merely a crime of opportunity. "'This is not a hate crime at all. It's a sad and senseless murder, but it's not a hate crime," Homicide Capt. James Clark said. "It had nothing to do with her being transgender. It had everything to do with the fact that they thought she had money."
Could the 'opportunity' Redding and the others saw in Keisha be separated from the context of her life as a black, transgender woman?
Two weeks after her death, my bus fell south from New York toward Philadelphia. One question fixed in my mind: Could the 'opportunity' Redding and the others saw in Keisha be separated from the context of her life as a black, transgender woman?
When I spoke to the PPD, they told me their investigation was ongoing, and did not elaborate.
In every article I've read about Keisha she is identified as a student of Temple University. Her Facebook profile indicates as much. On the evening of October 6th, hours after her murder broke the news, a young, transgender Temple student named Shane grieved in a public post on social media. "Rest in power to yet another member of the transgender community, and a fellow #Temple Owl," he wrote. "She was just a 22 year old woman. . . I'm just mentally checking out of humanity right now." I'd written to Shane before coming to Philadelphia; he agreed to help however he was able.
In the 2014-15 school year, Shane was president of Temple's Queer Student Union (QSU). Their group is comprised of hundreds of LGBT students and their allies. Shane informed me that the QSU meets weekly, on Monday at 6 PM.
Temple University is located along Broad Street in North Central Philadelphia. It is south of the true North Philadelphia area, and three miles from where Keisha Jenkins was murdered.
I arrived on Sunday evening. In the late afternoon on the following day, I drove north along Broad Street. The clean streets and well-lit shop windows of Central City gave way to garbage and overgrown weeds. Chicken wire tangled behind parked cars. Tall grass in a concrete parking lot swayed in the breeze. Boarded-over windows were weathered and gray like the patchwork concrete sidewalks flanking the street. I passed an abandoned construction site with an uprooted tree, cold and dry in the sun. If I'd continued north, in less than fifteen minutes Broad Street would merge with Old York Road, just two blocks from where Keisha was killed.
The tan enamel walls and tiles within Temple tightened amidst an increasing amount of well-lit glass. There was a sense of purpose in the students' eyes. Around forty people attended the QSU meeting. They were young, mostly white, and few transgender. We were seated in plastic chairs in a large conference room with two big screens and a projector anchored to the ceiling above us.
The material effects of systemic oppression are self evident in the Philadelphia transgender community.
I was allowed to make an announcement before the meeting began and asked for anyone with information to please speak with me after the meeting. Keisha was not a member of the QSU, and none of the student leaders running it knew who she was, though a few in the union later told me they thought they'd heard of her before. It didn't particularly surprise me that Keisha wasn't a member of the Queer Student Union. In New York, I've seen trans women encounter discrimination from the institutions and community resources that are meant to support and protect them. The QSU may not have seemed relevant or useful to Keisha. That was my theory at the time, anyway.
An hour later night had fallen, the students and I migrated to a coffee shop on campus, where they gather every week after their meeting for "queer coffee." I'd come to their city trailing a ghost, but these kids were full of life. Their silly, enthused energy was jarring but irresistibly hopeful. Though I asked anyone who knew Keisha to speak with me, they had no answers. We talked for a while and then, uncertain of the next step to take, I called a car to return to my apartment. Temple University faded behind me. If I turned around and drove north I knew I'd cross into another world.
The next morning I called Temple on my walk across town, asking for a comment regarding Keisha Jenkins' death. Apparently, the school's representative said, there is no record of Keisha attending Temple. Ever since the story broke, they've been looking for her in their records under various names, but have found nothing. (Upon my return to New York, I was contacted by more than one of Keisha's close friends. They heard that I was looking for answers. One of them told that Keisha applied to Temple, but she didn't get in. She changed her Facebook profile prematurely. After she was killed, the rumor that she attended Temple spread.)
I ended the call with Temple University, more confused and astray than when I arrived in Philly. Before I could think, I reached the Mazzoni Center, Philadelphia's primary resource for transgender individuals.
Show her as a human who has been treated unfairly, who has been treated extremely poorly and that is why she's as at 13th and Wingohocking at two o'clock in the morning.
Deja Alvarez works here. She's one of those women who accomplishes more in one day than you hope to all week. In addition to her work at Mazzoni's Trans Wellness Center, Alvarez works closely with Nellie Fitzpatrick, the Director of to Philadelphia's Office of LGBT Affairs. Deja also co-coordinates the Trans-Health Information Project. She's involved in an LGBT recovery house, and even works directly with the police department. "I do the trainings for all the graduating cadets," she said. "I work very closely with the deputy commissioner of police."
"One of the big issues when Keisha was killed—every reporter was calling and wanting to address, 'Oh was she doing prostitution? Was she doing street work? Why was she out there?' Listen. I'm not addressing that in an interview period, unless you're also willing to address why she was forced into that line of work, and show her as a human who has been treated unfairly and who has been treated extremely poorly and that is why she's as at 13th and Wingohocking at two o'clock in the morning."
"Let's address the fact that there's no equality," she said. "Let's address the fact that there's no safety in a school for her to go get an education. She's not out there because it's fun, or because that's what she wants to do."
Alvarez told me that the police in Philadelphia have improved significantly in recent years. In the winter of 2014, she had a part in the PPD's implementation of Directive 152, the first policy that dictates how the police department is to engage with the transgender community. "In all honesty, compared to just a few years ago, they've done a complete 360." She also explained that it isn't enough to focus on the murder and on the prostitution. "If you really want to help, then we stop all the things that lead up to it." Housing is the foundation. Without stable, safe housing it is incredibly hard—if not impossible—to manage the rest of a life. If a girl gets kicked out of the house for being trans, "the only way for them to be able to eat and have a place to lay their head is to hit the street and to make enough money to survive."
I'm tired of everybody bitching about the prostitution and bitching about the murders. What are you doing to change it?
"Stop teaching them survival skills and start teaching them life skills," Alvarez said. "Let's give them the tools that they need to succeed. I'm tired of everybody bitching about the prostitution and bitching about the murders. What are you doing to change it? What problem are you addressing?"
Alvarez told me that there is a new transitional living/recovery house for homeless transgender people in Philly. Divine Light operates eleven shelters throughout the city. With 31 rooms, the LGBT home is helpful. Most of the rooms even go to transgender women. But shelters are only a stopgap. Ultimately, they are an inadequate, short term fix for widespread, persistent homelessness. In addition, a shelter comes with its own risks. Other residents may try to rob or harass you. If you do sex work, as many homeless transgender women in Philadelphia do to survive, you may be targeted as one of the few people in a shelter who actually carries cash. There's one LGBT house, but the rest lump trans people in with people who may subject them to the same abuse they encounter on the street.
After our meeting at Mazzoni, Alvarez told me about a support group, somewhere I might meet other trans women who knew Keisha. She scribbled an address on a slip of paper and kissed my cheek.
Later, in another old tower in Central City, I signed my name on a log and was directed by a security guard to the group. Girls came and left over the course of two hours. Some brought kids. There was a platter of fruit and bags of chips. It reminded me of the support groups I attended at the start of my transition, but there were far fewer white people here, and the issues they talked about were different what I've confronted.
Trans women of color are the most vulnerable among us. This idea is repeated by LGBT activists, non-profit organizations, and social justice bloggers. It is repeated so often it becomes faceless, more of a radical factoid than a truth about real people. The women I met in Philadelphia generously painted a portrait of their lives for me, they shared about the world of loss they're living in. You and I live there too, of course, but we don't have to confront it for what it really is. We can choose not to.
At the end of the group, I gave my card to the girls and asked anyone interested in speaking to give me a call. By that evening, I'd heard from more than one young woman and arranged meetings for the following day.
That night, while taking a shower, my mind kept returning to something that Deja Alvarez implied: Something terrible brings girls to Old York Road in the middle of the night. Systemic oppression has become a buzzword, but the real, material effects of it are self evident in the Philadelphia transgender community. I wrapped my hair in a towel and dozed in the blue lit room. My eyes fell on the digital clock by the television. It was after midnight.
"When I was tricking heavily, I would invite the girls over, say, I'm doing a cookout at my house. They'd come and support." Cara said. She's in her early thirties, a natural conversationalist, and one of the women who had called me after the group the previous night. We could have talked for hours. Her name has been changed to protect her anonymity.
Cara and I sat down in the office of social worker Yoshiaki Yamasaki, in the same building where yesterday's group occurred. We were surrounded by lush, green potted plants and shared an overflowing paper bag of fresh baked pretzels. "We would have sleepovers and stuff, or meet up and go to The Gallery. Go shopping."
She described an unfortunate tension between the trans girls in Philly—sometimes your sister will set you up. But, nonetheless, Cara told me, "There is a sense of community here. Even down 13th Street. When the boys would go down there thinking they was going to come and mess with one, they had to mess with everybody." Trans women are regularly abused and assaulted on the stroll, she said.
"Old York Road is a warzone," Cara said. "One night I was on the corner, on my phone talking to one of my girlfriends, and this guy and this girl drove up in this car beside me. All I seen was a gun pointing out the window and I felt myself getting hit, pop, pop, pop."
It ain't even about going to Old York Road. Just being a trans woman in Philly, it feels like society has failed me
Though she didn't know at the time, Cara was shot with a BB gun, not a real weapon. "It hurt so bad and I'd just seen a gun. I should have known because of the sound but I thought I was shot. So I run to the gas station and I'm bleeding. I'm like, 'Help, I just got shot. [They said,] 'I can't do nothing for you, get out of here.'"
She ran to a bar, and got the same response. A couple saw the whole thing from their front porch, but they just went inside and didn't want to be involved. Meanwhile, Cara said, she was bleeding, believing she was seriously injured. Eventually she flagged down a police officer who took her to the hospital. "It wasn't until I got there that I found out it wasn't an actual gun, it was a BB gun. If that had been a gun I probably would be dead."
"It ain't even about going to Old York Road," Cara said. "Just being a trans woman in Philly, it feels like society has failed me."
Sex work is the only viable source of income for these women. Some families abandon their trans kids, so many find themselves homeless at a young age. In fact, the families of transgender youth often reject them. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in ten trans people are evicted from their homes because of their gender identity, and one in five transgender people experience homelessness at some point during their life.
Without a support structure, young people are more likely to cope with drugs. The Center for American Progress reports that "the stress that comes from daily battles with discrimination and stigma is a principle driver of these higher rates of substance use."
You think if you're not on the stroll you're not at risk. But there are people that just plot on you because of who you are
Gainful employment may be impossible without an education, especially if you're visibly transgender. I heard multiple stories of women who wanted nothing more than to leave the sex trade, but after facing discrimination at work they were forced to quit and thus pushed back into the margins of society.
A lack of education, homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, and sex work become part of a cycle. They impact each other and together are perpetuated. Judging by the efforts of the women I met and the obstacles they face, that cycle is almost impossible to escape from. You've got no education, you can't go home, no job will take you. The police profile you, and the men who want you also threaten to take your life if their secret is exposed.
"It could be zero below outside and you have to go out [to Old York Road] and stand and try to make money," said Cara, adding that many girls in Philadelphia live in hotels in groups. "That means you have to be out every night," she said. "And they still gotta eat, and it still costs money to be transgender on top of paying bills."
It isn't simple to escape the dangers of street-based sex work. Cara said that just being transgender can make you a target, especially if you live in a dangerous neighborhood as many girls do. "You think if you're not on the stroll you're not at risk," she said. "But there are people that just plot on you because of who you are. 'I dare you to go punch that faggot in his fucking face.' That's how it is. But those be the same guys that at night, when no one is looking, you know." Cara said that the same men who harass and abuse transgender women in Philadelphia want to have sex with them. In fact, everyone I interviewed for this article told me that.
She described being raped by a man on the stoop outside her home. "I probably could have fought him, but maybe he would have killed me. He had the audacity when he walked away to say, 'You better not say nothing to nobody.'"
You do a better job to a dog than to somebody like that.
"Even if you're just having casual sex, there's a chance that after y'all done they regret it and then try to hurt you because they feel like you made them do it," she said. "Some days I be scared to come out the house. I try not to come out after dark. I really be petrified of coming out the house when it's dark. Even sometimes in the daytime, because I don't trust people."
Cara only met Keisha a couple times. They first met in the summer of 2014, and then again this past summer, before Keisha was killed. She'd totally transformed, Cara said. Keisha told her she was thinking about starting hormones.
We lightened the conversation a little, and I thanked Cara for speaking with me before she left. Yamaski pulled out his phone. "Let me show you something," he said. "It's graphic, I apologize." The picture he showed me was of another trans woman that he'd been working with. It showed a deep, uncleaned wound on her head. The woman's hair was wet with blood and matted to her scalp. The wound had not been cleaned, and a row of staples was messily placed over it. "The police were there, the ambulance was there. But there was no police report done," he said. "She was taken to a major hospital in Philadelphia, and that's the kind of job that they did on her. You do a better job to a dog than to somebody like that."
"It's victimizing someone who was just assaulted," he said, explaining that the systems in place to care for people are working against trans women. "As progress is being made, we are kind of hitting a backlash. [But] we have the fortune to have a great person in the city, Nellie Fitzpatrick."
Yamasaki told me that Fitzpatrick, the LGBT advocate within City Hall, ensured that detectives were sent down in the aftermath of the woman's mistreatment and that a police report was made. "My question is, what happens when we don't have those allies in the city?" he asked. "[Change is] not part of the culture, it's [only] because we have some incredible heroes in the city that actually are making some of the changes happen. My concern is if they get removed, we go back 50 years." When Yamasaki and I spoke, the Office of LGBT Affairs was not a permanent fixture in Philadelphia city government. In fact, it was only voted on and made permanent last week.
One of the other young women from the support group came into the office. Her name, too, has been changed to protect anonymity. "Old York Road will eat you and spit you out," Alex said. She explained what it's like to be on the street and transgender in Philadelphia: "All you can do is yell and scream. You can't do nothing but fight back."
"At the point in time [sex work] was about surviving. And at the point in time I thought as if, I ain't gonna lie, I didn't care about anything. Every dollar, I tried to save it, or tried to penny pinch on what I had."
Thanks to community resources in Philadelphia, Alex was able to stop doing sex work. She is currently studying for her GED. "When I first came here, I didn't give a fuck about anything. I just came here high, drunk, didn't care. Now I realize that if these people are here to help me, why can't I help myself? So while I'm helping myself, I get the help from them too. I had to change all that, and I did that for myself. I didn't do that for anybody else."
Old York Road will eat you and spit you out. All you can do is yell and scream. You can't do nothing but fight back.
Alex told me that Keisha was a nice person. "But, you know, people can take it kind of for weakness. I don't really put myself in younger people's minds, because I don't know what they're thinking at that point in time, I don't want to say something. She was just a playful person. She was happy; I didn't really see no type of disrespect. I didn't see no type of a person that was always fighting or crazy. She was just a happy person when I met her."
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Alex if she'd heard that someone was arrested for Keisha's murder. She had. I asked her if she'd seen Pedro Redding's photo. She said she had, then I asked if she knew him. The following statement cannot be verified or confirmed. Broadly contacted the Defender's Association of Philadelphia, who are representing Pedro Redding, but they did not return our request for comment. "It was a client. I can say that it was a client. I don't put myself in stuff like that, so I don't want to say I knew this person, because we only had sex. But, I never knew that he would be that type of person to beat somebody and kill them."
The question circling in the back of my mind resurfaced: Could the "opportunity" Redding and the others saw in Keisha be separated from the context of her life as a black, transgender woman? Keisha was known as a high earner on Old York Road, so she was targeted for that, but when she fought back, and she fought hard, two gunshots ended her life. Why did Keisha's killers view her as disposable? Did they think no one would care if she died because she's transgender, that no one would call the police or, if she made it to the hospital, she wouldn't be treated like a human being?
It was my last night in Philadelphia. I lay awake for hours, going over the interviews again and again. Keisha faded in and out on my computer screen, in a memorial slideshow one of her friends posted to her Facebook wall in the days after her murder. Another friend had posted a video of Keisha; their post says it was taken 30 to 45 minutes before her death. In the video, Keisha and two other trans girls are dressed up, laughing at the camera, listening to music at a take-out place. "I'm still in shock," the friend wrote. "Everything happened in the blink of an eye."
In the morning, I called a taxi and asked the driver if we had time to drive along Old York Road before going to the bus station. I'd miss my bus, he said, so we headed straight for 30th Street Station. A moment later he sighed, and told me that someone had just been killed up there, along Old York Road. A crossdresser, he said.
I know, I told him—I'd come to Philadelphia to write about her death.
"Get out of here!" he said, incredulous. He saw me in the rearview mirror, but didn't realize that I'm trans. "You go up to that park at three o'clock in the morning, the hair stands up on your neck. That's not the first time [someone was killed]."
"What they did was, they robbed the person and they killed them. I think they thought they was robbing one of the girls and when they seen he was a man, the whole perspective changed from a robbery to something else."
I'd been back in New York for a week when Amanda and I spoke on the phone. The news of Keisha's death broke her heart, but it didn't surprise her. She's always known what Old York Road entails. "They've watched almost all their girlfriends pass away, get killed, get raped, get beat, get robbed. They've watched all of it. They're tired of it. But it's oppression. One generation leaves, the next generation comes out there."
"[Keisha] lived for the day," Amanda said. "When she woke up she thanked God. That's how she lived. She didn't live for the future. She didn't live for the past. She lived in that moment, at that moment, at that hour."