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Ariel Maryann hadn’t yet had time to process the death of her sister, Riah Milton, when she was misgendered by police and local media.
Milton, a 25-year-old Black trans woman who lived outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, was lured to her death last Tuesday by a group of teenagers who intended to rob her, according to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement officials, who repeatedly referred to Milton by male pronouns and used her discarded birth name in local news reports, said she died after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds.
Seeing Milton misgendered and deadnamed was not the way Maryann wanted to remember someone she described as a “beautiful person” with a “good heart.”
“I want justice for my sister, and I want people to realize that there is power in names,” said Maryann. “I’m sure you’ve heard the line, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot hurt me.’ That is vastly inaccurate, because when you intentionally deadname someone, you are saying their existence as a trans person and their existence as a human does not matter.”
It’s never easy to be a Black trans woman in America, but last week was especially trying. A mere 24 hours before Milton’s body was discovered, Philadelphia police found the body of Dominique Fells, a 27-year-old Black trans woman. The blows to an already ailing community didn’t stop there: Casa Ruby, a nonprofit serving trans women of color in Washington, D.C., was threatened with a Pulse-style massacre on June 7, just before Donald Trump announced the long-expected repeal of nondiscrimination protections for trans patients under the Affordable Care Act on Friday.
Amid darkness, there has been a glimmer of hope: Organizations led by Black trans women are seeing near-unprecedented levels of support in the form of marches and donations. However, activists and community members told VICE that the long-overdue spotlight on anti-trans violence is just the beginning of what needs to be a much larger conversation on how to prevent these homicides before they occur.
Over the weekend, protesters rallied in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago to call for justice for Milton and Fells, as well as greater focus on the Black trans community in the national conversation about police violence and systemic racism spurred by the death of George Floyd. Photos of the events show crowds filling the streets as far as the eye can see. In Brooklyn, organizers estimated 15,000 attendees, a figure they based on police scanner reports. Marchers on Hollywood Boulevard stenciled the street with the words: “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
The message was intended to call attention to an ongoing crisis that the American Medical Association has referred to as an “epidemic.” The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, reported that at least 27 trans people lost their lives to violence in 2019, and the killings of Fells and Milton marked the thirteenth and fourteenth homicides of Black trans women, respectively, so far this year.
The thing that hit Sharron Cooks, a community advocate based in Philadelphia, the hardest about Fells’s death is how brutish it was. Although little is known about the circumstances leading up to her murder, Fells was dismembered and her remains were found in the Schuylkill River last Monday evening. Cooks said local community members are experiencing “second-hand trauma” and “shock as to the manner in which Dominique was killed.”
While some of the notes might be different, Cooks said the melody is horrifically familiar. At least seven trans women have been murdered in Philadelphia since 2013, including Alicia Simmons, Michelle Washington, and Shantee Tucker.
“I can almost predict how these things are going to go because it happens so often, and that's the really gut-wrenching part,” Cooks said. “There’s going to be a memorial. People are going to talk about it. It’s going to make the press, and then there’s going to be another murder. We haven’t learned anything from the string of murders that have been happening, and unfortunately that’s how it goes. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
Advocates hope the deaths of Milton and Fells—along with Tony McDade, a Black trans man shot to death by Florida police in May—prove the urgent need to address the particular yet routine circumstances which lead to these tragedies. Eliel Cruz, director of communications for the Anti-Violence Project, said the basic fact is that society treats transgender people as “disposable,” which leads to extraordinary levels of abuse and discrimination at every turn.
“We're talking about all forms of violence,” Cruz said. “It is intimate partner violence. It is hate violence. It is police violence. It is both strangers and people who they have romantic or sexual relationships with.”
One of the things that makes it particularly difficult for trans individuals, particularly Black transgender women, to escape this pernicious cycle is the few opportunities they are afforded to make their way in the world. Cruz cited the case of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old trans woman who died in solitary confinement in Rikers Island last year. Footage released by NBC News on Saturday showed that several guards laughed while Polanco, who suffered an epileptic seizure, lay unconscious in her cell. They waited an hour and a half before calling for medical attention.
Polanco, a member of New York City’s ballroom scene, was treated with the same derision when she was alive. Cruz said family members have told stories about Polanco asking for a job application, and the manager “would laugh at her, or deny her the opportunity to even apply.” She survived off of sex work, which led to her arrest on a misdemeanor charge of prostitution and a low-level drug-related offense.
“It happens again and again and again,” he said. “It’s important for us to have the same amount of care when Black trans people are alive because it gives them their flowers in life, not just in death.”
While a pair of GoFundMe campaigns for Milton and Fells have raised over $160,000 to help their families with funeral expenses, many hope to see that same level of investment in Black trans women before they become hashtags. The nonprofit G.L.I.T.S.—which stands for Gays and Lesbians in a Transgender Society—recently surpassed its goal of fundraising $1 million to create long-term housing for vulnerable, low-income Black trans people living in New York City—an absolutely enormous haul for a modestly sized community group.
Cooks also wants LGBTQ nonprofits across the country to expand into education and empowerment training to help “give them tangible professional and personal skills to allow them to be able to make a wage.” She said that providing mentorship and peer support can be incredibly valuable for marginalized people too often told they have nothing to offer.
“Social rejection and discrimination wears on people’s self-esteem,” Cooks said. “By ignoring that huge problem, people are falling through the cracks.”
Maryann, who is also transgender, knows that if society had valued her sister’s life, it would have changed everything. She was raised in a different household than Milton, and they kept in touch through letters and texts. When Milton’s face splashed across her computer screen in the news article about her death, it was the first time Maryann had seen her since April. They met up to discuss the plays Maryann, a 22-year-old theater nerd and recent college graduate, had seen lately.
Milton seemed “genuinely happy just to be listening and getting to learn more” about her younger sister, and Maryann said she looked forward to “creating that sisterly bond” with someone she’d only known from afar.
“I was just beginning to know her, and she was taken out of this world,” Maryann said.
Shortly after that final conversation, Maryann learned that Milton was planning to go back to college after being inspired by her younger sibling’s example, a dream that never came to fruition. Milton didn’t realize that getting a degree was a real option for her until she saw that Maryann “was openly trans and didn’t care what anyone thought.”
When thinking about her sister’s life and what she could have achieved if she got a chance to succeed, a lyric from the Broadway musical Hadestown has been playing on loop in Maryann’s head. “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway,” the verse goes.
“What happened to my sister was devastating, but we need to keep this conversation going,” Maryann said. “We need to keep that flame, so it can’t happen to another girl.”
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