Mikal ordered chili, french toast, and eggs with bacon. He ate it all. The diner we’re at in South Philadelphia has become the new haunt for the “girls”—the trans women, drag queens, and gay men who make up Mikal’s community. They come here in the early morning hours—after the Johns have gone home, but the drinks still have them buzzing.
It was a Monday morning in November. Mikal, who performs as a drag queen called Marcha, had been planning a routine that honors murdered trans women. He’s 23, and has lost five trans women in his life, ranging from acquaintances to members of his chosen family, all of them factoring into his life in profound ways.
London Chanel was the first. In May 2015, the 21-year-old was found bleeding from fatal stab wounds outside her Philadelphia apartment. Mikal knew of her; she was part of the Philadelphia trans community, a subculture that multiple Black trans women described to me as very small, and tight-knit. Five months later, the killings struck closer. Mikal’s chosen sister, Keisha Jenkins, was shot to death near Old York Road in North Philly, left bleeding out on the northern border of Hunting Park, an area where many trans women have been attacked and killed. At 19, Mikal had never experienced a friend being brutally murdered. Surviving Keisha’s death was a nightmare. And he had no idea at the time that it was only the prelude to an early adulthood defined by murder.
This year alone, at least 22 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S., most of them women of color. The murder of trans women is an insidious epidemic that occurs in galling disproportion to the general population; according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the life expectancy for trans women is just 35.
The lives of these women are lives ended often before they’ve truly begun. Their deaths also shape the lives of those survived by them. The friends and family—chosen and biological—left behind, charged with picking up the pieces in the aftermath. People like Mikal.
By age 14, Mikal had spent years in foster care, and was living in a group home. He came out onto the Philadelphia LGBTQ scene at the same time as five of his friends. He’s the only one who hasn’t since transitioned. For many years, his closest loved ones—his family—have been trans women.
“I met Keisha in the world of acquiring fast money, doing sex work,” Mikal recalled.
According to sources at the time, Keisha’s family didn’t accept her, and she struggled to find steady employment because she was trans. Though Mikal was able to sustain a paying job, which he attributes to his outward male appearance and the privilege that comes with it, Keisha wasn’t in that position.
Mikal is still haunted by the night of her death in October 2015. “She was over at my house, and I begged her not to go out there and because you have these gut feelings or feelings that you can't control. … I did her hair that day and I was like, ‘Girl, don't go out,’ ‘Child, relax.’ And she did anyway.” Keisha didn’t come home.
In the aftermath of Keisha’s death, the Philadelphia Police Department refused to acknowledge that her killing had anything to do with her gender, stating "It had nothing to do with her being transgender.” But when I was in Philadelphia in 2015, one Black trans woman claimed that Keisha’s alleged killer was a known client of trans sex workers on Old York Road. A man was arrested in relation to her death, but Keisha’s murder remains unsolved. The man’s public defenders did not respond to VICE for comment.
After Keisha died, Mikal created a slideshow to honor her life. The last known photo taken of Keisha was with him. She’s wearing one of his wigs, and in the corner of the frame you can see another person’s arm. That was Mikal “pulling her bra as tight as I could, so that she can have a push, in my bathroom.”
After 2015, I didn’t expect to meet Mikal again. But then, on November 5, 2018, 31-year-old Shantee Tucker was shot eight times along Old York Road, a street that borders Hunting Park, where Keisha was killed three years prior. Mikal knew her, too.
When we spoke one year ago, Mikal told me that Shantee “wanted better for herself, and she worked hard as hell to become better with every day she was granted.” She and Keisha had also known each other.
At the time of Shantee’s death, Mikal was living with Michelle Tamika Washington, 40, a Black trans woman highly regarded in Philadelphia’s trans community as a leader, advocate, and mother to countless young people. She took him in after Keisha died. He calls her his “mother.”
“Tamika almost kicked my fucking door down and woke me up,” Mikal said. “Shantee's dead,” he recalls her saying. It was as it always is: unbelievable, wholly unexpected, and almost too surreal and devastating to comprehend. “I'm like, ‘What?’” Mikal recalled. He had to go to Facebook for confirmation.
To some, it may seem unbelievable that a young person could lose so many friends to the same form of extreme violence in such a short period of time. But dealing with housing precariousness as a young Black queer person, and being part of a community of Black trans sex workers, Mikal knew better than to treat these murders like freak occurrences. “I knew it was inevitable,” he said.
Still, he couldn’t have been prepared to lose his mother, Tamika, on May 19, 2019.
Mikal was in New York City for an AIDS charity event when Tamika was gunned down. That’s when the phone calls from trans women across Philadelphia came flooding in. People were trying to piece together what happened. Tamika’s chosen sister Brandy contacted Mikal to ask about her whereabouts. He was confused—he had just spoken to her the night before.
After her death came into focus, Mikal says he hasn’t been the same.
Before I met Anayahrae, a Latinx trans woman, she told me, “Philly's small, so no matter what, I can meet you today and I will treat you like my sister tomorrow.” We met Tuesday night at the Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ health and wellness organization in Philadelphia’s Center City. Photos of dead local trans women were positioned on a wall near the entrance, lit by candles. Keisha Jenkins was there beside Shantee Tucker, and 15 of their local sisters. Their pictures were adorned with pink and blue notes, written in love and grief, by people who knew and survived them—sisters, aunties, and daughters of the dead.
In a side room, Anayahrae described life as a trans woman of color in Philadelphia, where a year without gruesome violence is unheard of. She and several other local transgender women—Ivy, Tatiana, Joniece, and Shayana—talked to me about being forced to quit jobs due to transphobic discrimination and managers who would misgender them or out them to customers. One woman said the police called her a “thing,” and couldn’t decide where to hold her. People have thrown frozen eggs at them on the street, assaulted them in public, and threatened their lives. At 16, one girl’s parents made her move into a single occupancy room on the third floor of the house where they lived and made her pay rent. On top of it all, they have each lost multiple friends to violence.
Ivy was 16 when she first lost a trans friend to violence, she said. “I'm 25 now, so I've lost about 12.” At least eight of Anayahrae’s friends have been killed since she was 16. She’s 28 now. Joniece has lost three friends in two years since coming to Philadelphia.
Tatiana is 30. When she was 16, a trans woman she knew was killed in Hunting Park, where Keisha, Shantee, and Tamika were murdered. “I never in a million years thought that it would happen again,” Tatiana said. Then, two years later, her chosen aunt, Stacey Blahnik, was strangled to death in her home. “She was so strong. She was our protector. She was the aunt that you went to when other girls were fucking with you. She was the one that would come around with her hair tied up ready to defend you.”
The death changed Tatiana’s life, and in many ways, it has permanently altered Philadelphia. Today, it is still one of the most high-profile unsolved murders of a trans woman in the city.
“Someone so strong, so tough, being murdered and being strangled and not being able to defend herself blew my fucking mind,” Tatiana said. “Since then, I have watched so many die.”
Watching such a ruthless and relentless pattern of violence inevitably has an impact on one’s own sense of safety. “Shantee was standing on the corner where she stood most of her life, and was shot down right there in her comfortable state,” Tatiana said. “All these murders are in people's vulnerable states. It prevents me from being vulnerable with people.” Tatiana started crying, and Joniece moved her seat, to give her sister a hug.
Joniece said she’s often worried when Tatiana meets with a man for a date. “I put on such a brave face and I face the world, but this shit is scary now. It's really scary. You don't know who's next.” Shayana handed them a box of tissues.
Seven of Shayana’s friends and chosen family are gone. And what she hadn’t yet announced to the group was that she had just found out about the death of another, her mother, Alicia. Shayana had been out of town for the last few days. When she came to the center for our chat, she stopped by the alter at the entrance to leave a note for a lost friend. There, she saw that Alicia’s face had recently been added. “I actually texted her phone this morning to ask her to braid my hair. I didn't get a response.”
Alicia took Shayana in after her first mother died, assuring Shayana that she’d never be alone. “I'm left now with no one to really show me,” Shayana said, still grieving and probably in shock. “Is she really gone? I know that it's real, but I can't really process that.”
Anayahrae turned to Shayana furiously. “The world expects us to be strong,” she said. “I've been into ballroom since I was 16. I used to put myself out there. Now I get scared to even walk out my door because it goes into the differences from when we were younger and we had courage and we had strength, to now, fear for anything. I get scared for when you want to talk, who you want to date, social media, anything. Because these men, you don't know their actions—anybody. Even friends, you don't. You get scared to create friends.”
And building safe relationships with men can feel impossible, since so much of the violence that trans women face comes from the shame that men who sexually desire and date them hold. Many of those men are “down-low guys” for whom it’s critical that the relationship be kept secret. If someone does find out, or the stress becomes too much, the outcome can be deadly.
“You don't even know if you can trust the person that you're dating now,” Shayana said. “You could be living with that person, sleep next to them every night, and don't know what's on their mind.”
Outside her apartment door, there are always men lingering on the stoop, Shayana said. She can’t leave her apartment without passing by them, so some days she just stays inside. She’d like to invite her girlfriends over to play cards, but doesn’t want to put them at risk.
The cumulative result can be like living in a war zone under a constant state of terror, with no space to heal or grieve before it’s time to grieve for the next person.
“I walk my neighborhood thinking, ‘My sister was killed around the corner here, and down the street. This person was killed here. This person was raped here,’” said Anayahrae. Like Mikal, everywhere she goes, she is reminded of violence. “It's a constant fear, because the fact that you live every day like it's your last,” Anayahrae said. “It goes into when you hear on Facebook, your sister's gone, it resonates with you even worse because that could have been you. So, I remember feeling like, ‘Am I next?’”
Anayahrae says she faces anxiety daily due to the constant trauma of being left behind again and again. “What can you do but just sit there and feel that pain, feel like nothing's happening? There's no support. No one's hearing you. Nothing's changing.”
Though Tatiana’s work in advocacy gives her a sense of strength, she has not been able to hide from the threat of death looming overhead. “Who's to say that once the rally is over, someone doesn't target me for murder?” she asked. Her sisters echoed her concern, nodding their heads in solemn understanding. “How do we heal when it keeps happening?”
After breakfast with Mikal, he took me to an alleyway in the gay neighborhood behind a popular bar where trans girls perform some nights. But, Mikal told me, it’s the alleyways where the real Black, trans community is built. Girls will turn a trick, or shoot the shit with their sisters after hours. Mikal stood at the intersection of those narrow Philadelphia streets, looking up at the trans and gay pride flags mounted on top of the building before him, as if looking up at heaven, where too many of his sisters are now.
Later, at sunset, Mikal wanted to take me upstairs to the rooftop of the gay club he’d been looking up at from the alleyway. This was another place where he spent time with his sisters. He sat on the edge of the building, and reached out to grab hold of the trans pride flag gently waving in the breeze. A look of terror and love overcame him. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much had happened since Keisha, and how he lost his mother less than a year ago. “Every death that happened just got closer and closer to her,” Mikal said, looking both backward and forward through time, unable to see peace in either direction.
Tamika made it past 35. She lived “above life expectancy rate,” Mikal said. And then one day, she left her home, not knowing she had only moments left to live. “She literally got up, went to Old York Road, and within an hour time span she was killed,” Mikal said, his hands clutching his sisters’ flag as he realized that for trans women of color, there may be no way to keep violence away forever. “She did everything that was right. Or so we thought.”