Illustration by Jessica Olah
In the wake of extreme violence against transgender women in 2015, Broadly investigated the underlying cause of their deaths. We spoke to police, experts, and family and friends of the victims to find out who these young women were and why men are attempting to create a world where they don't exist.
2015 was a momentous year for transgender people in the United States. Themes of gender variance overwhelmed pop culture, culminating around the celebrity of Caitlyn Jenner and around multiple trans-centric Hollywood productions. Tangerine even began an unprecedented Oscar campaign for transgender actors. These strides are triumphant but they also overshadow a human rights crisis in the US: 2015 marked the last year in the lives of 23 trans women who were killed by acts of extreme violence.
This October, in Philadelphia, a 22-year-old trans woman named Keisha Jenkins was shot and killed. A group of men fled the scene where she fell. In Fresno, in July, an unidentified driver beckoned Casey (aka K.c.) Haggard to his car. When Haggard leaned toward the passenger seat window, someone in the vehicle jabbed a knife into her throat then sped away. In February, Yazmin Vash Payne was stabbed by her boyfriend, Ezekial Dear. After killing her, Dear set their apartment on fire, leaving Yazmin to burn. More than one of this year's 23 lost souls were buried in shallow graves. In August, Shade Schuler's corpse decomposed beyond recognition in a vacant field in Dallas. Police attempted to identify her body by illustrating her tattoos, which they asked the public for help in identifying. In May, Mercedes Williamson's lover killed her then hid her body in his father's land in Rocky Creek, Alabama.
Mercedes Williamson (left), Tamara Dominguez (Center), Keisha Jenkins (right), Illustration by Jessica Olah
In 2014, the murders of 12 trans women were reported in the United States. That number almost doubled this year. The murders of 22 trans women were reported in 2015. An additional trans woman, Mya Hall, was killed by police in March. We've never really known how bad the crisis truly is, and we still don't. As Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality testified on Capitol Hill, at the Congressional forum on transgender violence that was held on November 17th, "We know the numbers are far higher than that. Even the FBI will admit the data are collected and reported so inconsistently as to render them almost meaningless."
The majority (13) of the 23 trans women killed in 2015 were under 25 years old. Mercedes Williamson, 17, was the youngest. Josh Brandon Vallum is being charged with her murder. Amber Monroe, 20, was gunned down near Detroit's Palmer Park in August. Her friend, Julissa Abad, spoke with Broadly on the phone. She's also transgender, and knew Amber from the 6 Mile and Woodward area of Detroit, where the killing occurred. It's an area known for transgender sex work. "[Amber] was full of life," Abad said. "Always laughing and joking. She was really young. Regardless of the bad experiences we go through, she was optimistic, wanting to do better in the future while understanding that [sex work] is what she unfortunately had to do in order to survive." This December, the NCTE published a co-authored study on transgender women in sex work. They found black trans women were 44 percent more likely to engage in sex work than their white counterparts. Latina trans women were 33 percent more likely. In general, people of color in their study experienced "far higher levels of poverty, mistreatment, and negative health outcomes."
If we consider poor, trans sex workers, they are exposed not only to violence from clients and johns, but sometimes from police as well.
Judith Butler is an acclaimed gender theorist and philosopher. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble is considered by many to be the magnum opus of Queer Theory. Where many of her contemporaries in academia twisted second wave, so-called radical feminism against transgender identity, Butler has publicly supported trans people and affirmed their self-identified gender for decades. She wrote to Broadly in an email. (Her comments are excerpted throughout this piece. They can be read in full here.)
"I cannot say how gender comes into play in each of these situations," Butler said. "But one thing we can know is that it is not exactly a 'variable' that can be separated from the issues of class and race with which it is intertwined... If we consider poor, trans sex workers, they are exposed not only to violence from clients and johns, but sometimes from police as well." She adds that the youth of the trans women who were murdered in 2015 made them even more vulnerable. "I wonder whether the younger trans women are being mentored and protected, or whether they are operating outside of networks...Youth can be attractive precisely because of their vulnerability, and they can also be exploited and murdered because of that vulnerability."
Papi Edwards was young, only 20 years old. According to Buzzfeed News, she was shot in January in the parking lot of the Fern Valley Hotel, where she was staying with two of her girlfriends in Louisville Kentucky. Henry Gleaves, the man who allegedly shot her, met her for the first time at the hotel. When he arrived she disclosed her gender identity, explaining that she was trans. Video shows Gleaves following Papi and her friends down a hotel hallway as they exit into the parking lot. He steps halfway through the doorway, allegedly fires a gun, then runs back into the hotel, and through the lobby. Papi's friend Tiffany told Buzzfeed News, "Papi got shot because she was a transgender female."
CBS News reported that 21-year-old Zella Ziona was flirting with her boyfriend, 20-year-old Rico LaBlond, shortly before the young man shot her to death in an alley in October. According to their report, LaBlond was "embarrassed that Ziona showed up in the presence of some of his other friends."
Zella and Papi are not alone. The killer has yet to be identified in seven out of the 23 cases this year, but of the cases where the killer has been identified, the majority (14) of the assailants were men. At least nine of those 14 men were either in an area known locally for trans sex work at the time of the murder, or they had personal relationships with their victims. The details in Zella and Papi's cases correlate to a trend in the violence against trans women in 2015. As far as we know, only one victim, Jasmine Collins, was killed by a woman.
"If a trans woman flirts with a man who is straight, and that man feels humiliated or mortified, it is probably because he is [being] identified as someone... who could himself be involved with a trans woman or might himself be one," Butler said. "For some straight men, it may be possible to flirt back or to say, 'Thanks but no thanks,' and for others, they reach for a gun." What accounts for that? Butler suggests that a man like LaBlond, who kills a trans woman like Zella Ziona, may feel "attacked" by the flirtation.
Killing is an act of power, a way of reasserting domination, even a way of saying, 'I am the one who decides who lives and dies.'
"Killing is an act of power," she explained. "[It is] a way of reasserting domination, even a way of saying, 'I am the one who decides who lives and dies.' So killing establishes the killer as sovereign in the moment that he kills, and that is the most toxic form that masculinity can take." The gender of the killers is important. Following Butler's logic, violence against trans women may be traceable to that moment when men are confronted with the fact that there are people in this world who have beat the system by liberating themselves from the supposedly inescapable confines of sex. "Trans women have relinquished masculinity, showing that [such a thing] can be [done], and that is very threatening to a man who wants to see his power as an intrinsic feature of who he is." The expression of power that Butler identified can be seen in the extremity of violence that these men put upon their victims; Zella wasn't shot once. According to police reports, LaBlond fired multiple times into both her head and groin.
According to KCTV News, in August, Tamara Dominguez, 36, was dropped off in a parking lot in Kansas City by an unidentified driver of a Chevrolet Avalanche in August. After Tamara exited the vehicle, the driver repeatedly ran her over with his massive sport utility truck. Tamara had been engaged to her boyfriend, who she met after moving to Missouri. Her fiance told the Kansas City Star that she came to the United States to escape the discrimination she experienced in her home country of Mexico. Tamara was in college and planned to become a nurse. "She had a lot of dreams," her fiance told the Kansas City Star through an interpreter. "She came from a place where she suffered a lot. That is why she came here."
"Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough," Butler said. "At a certain point, she is already dead, but he is not finished killing her. Why? It is because he wants to obliterate any trace of his own relation to that living person, obliterating a part of himself and [the] living person at the same time. But also establishing his absolute power and so his own masculinity as the site of that power."
In October, a month before the LGBT Equality Caucus within Congress convened to address this violence, I investigated the murder of Keisha Jenkins. Keisha, 22, was allegedly killed by a group of four men off an impoverished stretch of tar in Philadelphia known as Old York Road, a popular stroll for transgender sex workers since the 1960's. Around two o'clock in the morning, Keisha exited a vehicle at the intersection of N 13th and Wingohocking Streets along the northwestern border of Hunting Park. She was ambushed by a group of men, including Pedro Redding, who was later arrested and charged with her murder. Keisha was robbed. When she fought back, someone pulled a gun and killed her.
Read More: The Violent Reality for Trans Women of Color
Though the police quickly announced that Keisha's death was not a hate crime, my investigation suggests otherwise. I stayed in Philadelphia for less than a week, but in that time I heard from other trans women who practice sex work along Old York. They told me that Pedro Redding wasn't just a guy looking to rob someone; one woman claimed Redding was also her client.
Karen Adell Scot is a former police officer, and she runs the Fresno-area transgender support organization TransCare. Scot knew Casey Haggard, the 66-year-old woman who was stabbed in the throat by an unidentified driver. Few other local trans women knew Casey, Scot told Broadly. "She had been presenting as a male and had been working as a nighttime security guard until retiring," she explained. According to Scot, Casey had only attended local trans support groups on four occasions. "She [came] out there and introduced herself by her true name, Casey. [She] was sweet, kind, and happy to be her true gender. She was helpful, and she was a gentle and totally harmless person."
Scot was approached by FOX 26 the morning after Casey was killed. "I told them she was targeted purposefully," she said, adding that the murder vehicle passed Casey three times before calling her over. Scot believes that the people inside the Saturn SUV managed to catch Casey's attention by pretending to be lost. "The passenger held a long straight knife in their left hand and a smartphone on a map page in their right hand. The driver had put the vehicle into drive for a quick getaway before Casey got to the vehicle, shown by a reverse light flash and then brake lights."
Casey died alone in the dirt in the dark. She never got to enjoy being her real self but had her life stolen.
"Casey received a death strike into the left carotid area of her neck and bled out in less than 25 steps. She died alone in the dirt in the dark. She never got to enjoy being her real self but had her life stolen," Scot said. "The vehicle has never been found." A few months after Casey's murder, Scot says she was targeted by a man in a vehicle after she left a local "Miss Trans" event. "The driver tried to catch me, chasing me across southern Fresno and cornering me in a closed gas station," she recalled. Because she's a police-trained driver, she said, she managed to get away. Scot added that Fresno PD never followed up with her about the incident: "I gave my description to the FBI and it possibly matched the description of the driver of the vehicle that murdered Casey."
Hate crime law identifies otherwise isolated criminal acts as part of a broader trend of prejudice driven violence against groups of people with (perceived) shared characteristics. The failure to recognize a hate crime for what it is may put other people in danger. "Every time one trans person is killed, the message goes out to every trans person: you are not safe, this dead body could be yours," Butler wrote. "When the crime is not named as a hate crime, or when the crime is dismissed because the murderer was somehow 'prompted,' the police are sending the same message as the murderer."
Before becoming the target of a hate crime, Keyshia Blige was joyful. Her friend Sasha Love told The Guardian that Keyshia's attitude changed in 2011 when four men beat her, hitting her more than 30 times and injuring her so badly she suffered nerve damage in her face. Four years later, she found that joy again. "She was the happiest I had ever seen her once she started transitioning," Love told the Guardian. In March of this year, fatal shots were fired at Keyshia as she drove down the street in Aurora, IL. She was hit and attempted to keep driving, but crashed and died.
"In short, the case remains under investigation and no one has been arrested or charged but we continue to aggressively pursue any leads," Dan Ferrelli, the media relations manager for the Aurora Police Department, wrote in an email to Broadly. "The murder was absolutely not a hate crime."
Every time one trans person is killed, the message goes out to every trans person: you are not safe, this dead body could be yours.
Kandis Capris was shot outside an apartment complex in Phoenix, AZ in August. In the wake of her death and police investigation into the murder, ABC 15 reported her family believes that not enough is being done to find the person who killed Kandis. "I want justice for my child," her mother told ABC 15. "I want justice for the transgender community." Family and friends of Kandis believe her murder was a hate crime, although it's not being investigated as one. A representative from the Phoenix Police Department told Broadly, "Determining if a case is a hate-crime is helpful when it comes to the investigation. [But] as far as homicide goes, it's treated as any case."
It isn't clear what kind of evidence investigators need in order to correctly categorize these killings. According to Butler, it isn't possible to separate the victims' deaths from the context of the their lives as transgender women, and as trans women of color. "The police are in this sense part of the very problem, refusing to name the crime, and so refusing to prosecute." she said. "The lives of transgender women of color are not accorded the same value as white women who are cisgendered, that is true. But what is really needed is an anti-racist, anti-transphobic movement that draws from women of color feminism and its trenchant critique of racism and police power."
Social justice movements have converged in 2015. It isn't a coincidence that the trans movement is gaining traction and coming to a head half a century after gay liberation and the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 70s, or that those movements are having their own revivals. Butler noted that people are angry. "They see how class differences are intensifying [in this millenium], how their future horizons are shutting down, how there is no protection from police. They also see that major powers are thwarting the realization of equality and dignity, whether it is the right-wing assault on Planned Parenthood, the killing of unarmed black men and women on the streets by police who are then exonerated, or the radical lack of publicity given to the killing of transgender people; their deaths are not noticed, their lives are considered ungrievable."
These 23 deaths are a natural consequence of structural inequality. We collectively failed these women. If we do not publicly condemn this extreme violence, if we shy away from correctly categorizing it, and if we fail again in 2016 to help these women before more of them die, then their lives and deaths will again be treated as little more than hot topic fodder for headlines and radical social media rallying cries. Yes, these women deserve to be known for who they were when they lived, but what they really deserved was a life without extreme violence.
Butler suggested that these acts of killing are an effort to create a world in which transgender women do not exist. "My sense is that a movement that seeks to realize a better world for trans people should be joined by all of us, regardless of how we identify," she wrote, explaining that protecting people from violence is important, but that it would be unwise to rely on law enforcement to do so. "Perhaps another kind of power, the power of self-determination, is what we need to strengthen so that a movement against transphobia is linked with the struggle against racism and poverty, against homophobia and misogyny, and against radical economic inequalities. Countering transphobia is, and should be, central to all those struggles."
"All of these are lives that matter," Butler said.
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