Alani Houston still lives three blocks away from where it happened, just after midnight on August 17, 2013 — and the memory sometimes resurfaces.
Islan Nettles was walking home with a friend when she ran into James Dixon and a group of six young men headed south on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, on their way home after plans had been cancelled. As the two groups collided, a drunken Dixon, 23, began flirting with 21-year-old Nettles, whom he thought “was a female.” Dixon told police he didn’t remember the exchange of words.
But when one of his buddies shouted, “That’s a guy!”, Dixon pushed Nettles away, and she pushed back. Dixon said he tripped and “got enraged,” so he punched her in the face. Nettles fell down and hit her head on the curb, causing a serious brain injury. Dixon swung a second punch “as she lay on the ground,” while “driving the side of her head into the pavement,” according to prosecutors.
Dixon ran off and forgot about the incident until he heard gossip around his neighborhood that Nettles was “about to die” and that his friend Paris Wilson was taking the heat for it. So he turned himself in.
“This was somebody that I considered to be a sister,” said Houston, 27, who met Nettles through a mutual pursuit of modeling and Harlem’s vibrant ballroom scene.
Nettles was in a coma for three days before she was taken off life support — prompting rallies, protests, and vigils in New York and around the country.
The killing of Islan Nettles became one of the nation’s most high-profile cases involving the “gay and trans panic defense,” an ill-famed legal strategy that consists of blaming a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity for the defendant’s violent reaction, typically to reduce a murder, manslaughter or homicide charge. On June 19, New York legislators unanimously voted to ban it, making it the sixth state to do so.
While no court recognizes gay and trans panic as a freestanding defense, it is still valid in 42 states. Attorneys and defendants have argued the tactic in U.S. courtrooms as part of provocation, insanity, and self-defense claims since the 1960s. Eight states — California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine and Hawaii — have outlawed the defense since 2014. Similar legislation was introduced in seven others, as well as in Congress.
Seth Rosen, the director of development of the National LGBT Bar Association, one of the sponsors of the federal bill reintroduced in the Senate in early June, says the defense doubly victimizes LGBTQ people — by justifying the violence committed against them.
"It only promotes stigma"
“Lawmakers have to understand that this is a defense that devalues the lives of LGBTQ+ people,” Rosen said. "It only promotes stigma. And they have to realize that this is something that needs to go away and that LGBTQ people are deserving of equality in the courtroom and out of the courtroom.”
The concept of panic defense is rooted in psychiatrist Edward J. Kempf’s idea of “acute homosexual panic.” Kempf coined the term in 1920 to diagnose a neurosis observed in all-male barracks during World World I, or “panic due to the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings.” Kempf’s disease, as the condition became known, appeared in the DSM as a psychiatric diagnosis until its complete removal in 1987.
While no court recognizes gay and trans panic as a freestanding defense, it is still valid in 42 states
Dixon eventually dodged a hate crime charge. Prosecutors could not prove that he had battered Nettles “in whole or substantial part” because of her transgender identity, the New York state statute requirement.
Instead, Dixon was charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter, as well as first-degree assault. He pleaded guilty to the top charge — manslaughter in the first degree — after Justice Daniel P. Conviser ruled that Dixon’s videotaped hour-and-ten-minute 2013 police interrogation, in which he claimed that he’d felt duped and humiliated by the revelation of his victim's gender identity, was admissible in court — amounting to the trans panic defense airing in a court of law.
On April 19, 2016, Justice Conviser sentenced Dixon to 12 years in prison, overriding the Manhattan DA’s Office’s recommendation of 17 years.
At Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, now 27-year-old Dixon tries to stay out of trouble. He keeps to himself and spends his time reading, writing, or dreaming about a music career.
But when VICE News met with him at the facility in April, Dixon recanted his story. He returned to the very first version he gave police back in 2013: that he tripped and fell while running across the street, and that when he got back up, he noticed two girls were laughing at him, so he punched one at random.
“I thought somebody was attacking me,” Dixon told VICE News. “That’s the reason for what happened.” Then he shrugged: “Wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong people.”
Living with the mistake
When asked whether he regretted killing Nettles, Dixon said he has already taken responsibility and is trying to move on. “A mistake is a mistake,” he said. “I gotta live with it, and that’s it. There’s nothing I could do to change back time.”
He asserted that NYPD detectives had forced him to confess. “I thought I didn’t have a choice at the time,” Dixon said. “I thought this would make things better for me, but it didn’t.”
Dixon confessed to investigators that he’d been “fooled” a day or two before attacking Nettles, by two women he had been “trying to mingle” with, unaware of their transgender identity until his friends broke the news: “That’s not what you thought it was.” When investigators asked Dixon if he felt fooled a second time by Nettles, he said “yes.”
But speaking to VICE News, Dixon denied having ever met a transgender person prior to his encounter with his victim.
“Sadly, the crazy part about it is [that] he probably really was into her,” Houston said in a phone interview. “I believe the presence of his friends was what made him intimidated. The fact that he was trans-attracted and his friends were present initiated the anger in him. If you’re beating somebody with your bare hands, you’re trying to kill this person. I think a lot of it had to do with him being attracted to trans women in the past. But this time, he happened to be with his homeboys.”
Houston, who is transgender herself, says part of the problem stems from a prevalent misconception about transgender women. “If you like women,” she said, “you’re probably going to see a trans woman who you find attractive because you wouldn’t know that they’re trans. If you’re attracted to women, you’re attracted to trans women. That’s how the brain works. You’re attracted to femininity, the female anatomy.”
Houston suggests that transphobic violence primarily comes from a deep-rooted incarnation of homophobia — whereby trans women aren’t regarded as “real” women, but as men “dressed as women,” as the detectives continually describe Nettles in the tape. “There are many different types of trans women that represent many different types of cis women,” Houston said. “It’s the attraction that they reject, because they see us as men who surgically enhance their bodies.”
So if a heterosexual man flirts with a trans woman, he puts himself at risk of coming across as gay, the ultimate shame and dishonor to his friends.
Houston believes that making space for dialogue about attraction to trans women is a necessary first step. “I think we need to start conversations with trans-attracted men, what it means to be trans-attracted,” Houston said. “How do you deal with that in terms of family and friends?”
Cover image: Michael Lopez/VICE News