Violence Engulfs Transgender Population in D.C.

A wave of violence engulfs transgender people, whose murder rate may outpace that of all other hate killings

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a city with no shortage of desolate neighborhoods, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bleaker spot than the corner of 50th and C streets.

On one side there's a decaying school, its playground barren as a prison yard. Extending up a couple of blocks is a string of deserted apartment buildings with boards and burned-out holes where windows used to be. Just across the way, folks still live in a set of matching brick buildings.

It's a tough place to grow up, especially when you're different. Especially when you're convinced that you're a girl with a boy's anatomy. Especially when the other kids taunt you and throw bricks at you and you have to quit school because you can't stand it anymore.

Especially when you're determined to live openly as a transgender woman, considered by many the lowest of the low.

Stephanie Thomas could have told you all about it. Until last Aug. 12.

Around 11:30 p.m. the night of the 11th, 19-year-old Thomas and her best pal, 18-year-old Ukea Davis, reportedly told friends they were going to a nearby gas station for cigarettes. Nobody can say for sure where they actually went.

But just about everybody in the city knows that a little after 3 a.m., the friends were sitting in Thomas' Camry at a stop sign on the corner of 50th and C. Almost home. Then a car came up beside them, and the two were pelted with fire from a semiautomatic weapon.

According to an eyewitness report, another car approached after the shooting. A man got out to see what had happened. Davis was already dead. When the man nudged Thomas' shoulder to see if she was still alive, she moaned in confirmation. But her helper fled as the first car returned. The gunman got out and fired more shots, making sure Thomas was dead.

By the time rescue workers reached the bloody car, she was. Like her friend's, Thomas' body had been pumped full of bullets — at least 10 apiece.

A block up 50th, Thomas' mother, Queen Washington, got the news at 5:30 a.m. She'd been well aware that it was dangerous to be transgender in D.C. — or anywhere else in America, for that matter. But she hadn't seen this coming.

"If he'd known somebody was after him, I'd have known," says Washington, a feisty administrative assistant at the federal Bureau of Land Management who never got used to calling Stephanie "she."

"We were tight. He'd come by just that afternoon with his girlfriends, before he went to get his nails done. We kept it real, him and I. He knew I'd always protect him as much as I could."

Washington knew early on that protecting her youngest kid, whose name was Wilbur when she adopted him at three months, wouldn't be easy.

"He was a beautiful child, always very dainty, always very feminine. In first grade, a teacher — a teacher, mind you! — called him gay. I had to immediately go up to the school and get her straight. He came home that day and my neighbor told him gay meant happy. We looked it up in the dictionary. 'See?' I said. 'It's true!'"

It would have been tough enough to grow up gay on 50th Street, even when you could run home to the lavishly decorated apartment where Washington has lived for 35 years. But Wilbur wasn't gay.

By the time he was 8 or 9, his mother "knew for sure that he wanted to be a girl." At 14, he began to live that way, borrowing the name Stephanie from a cousin he admired.

He joined a local support group called SMYAL (Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League), where he met Davis. The two became inseparable friends, helping each other "transition" into living as females.

Washington, who has stubbornly refused to abandon her neighborhood because "kids here need someone to love them, need to see people who are trying to be about something with their lives," became a kind of surrogate mom to Davis, whose own folks were not so accepting. But it wasn't easy for her, either.

"It's hard for a mother," Washington says, thumbing through a scrapbook she's assembled in memory of her son-turned-daughter. The pictures show Wilbur on the beach during family vacations; Wilbur clowning with his cousins; Wilbur in his early teens, grim-faced and downcast.

"That's the last picture of him as a boy," his mother says, "before he became who he was." By contrast, she flips to a photo of Stephanie at 18, bear-hugging her mom. "Look at that smile!" she says. "He was a happy person — after he came out. You see? He didn't have those sad eyes no more."

The only thing that would have been worse than the brutal murders, Washington says, would have been never seeing that smile. "At least he had a chance to be who he was," she says. "I told him, God don't make no mistakes. I know you didn't make yourself. Who would make up a life like this? Who would be something the world hates?"

Vigils and Violence
Even in a city with the nation's highest murder rate, the execution-style slayings of two transgender teenagers was bound to cause a stir.

Mayor Anthony Williams spoke at an emotional vigil for Davis and Thomas. D.C.'s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, forcefully urged police to investigate the double homicide as a hate crime.

The best friends' joint funeral was packed. The Washington Post devoted a 3,500-word feature to the two lost lives. Local transgender activists redoubled their efforts to forestall another tragedy. Police vowed to do the same.

This Aug. 12, on the first anniversary of their deaths, there was another vigil for Davis and Thomas.

By now the sadness had hardened into bitterness — over the lack of an arrest in the case, over police officials' reluctance to classify the murder as a hate crime, and over the continued violence that had claimed another transgender victim, Kim Mimi Young, in April. The mayor came again, along with the chief of police. Frustrations were vented. Promises were made.

And then all hell broke loose.

Early on the morning of Aug. 16, four days after the vigil, one of the District's best-known transgender nightclub performers, 25-year-old Latina immigrant Bella Evangelista, was shot and killed by a man who had paid her for sex. Police arrested 22-year-old Antoine D. Jacobs as he pedaled away from the scene on a bicycle, charging him with first-degree murder and later with a hate crime.

Four nights later, shortly after a vigil was held for Evangelista, police found the dead body of Emonie Kiera Spaulding. The 25-year-old transgender woman had been brutally beaten, shot, and dumped nude in a stand of scraggly, trash-strewn woods bordering Malcolm x Avenue. Her clothes were found a day later in a nearby Dumpster.

Another 22-year-old, Antwan D. Lewis, was arrested a few days later and charged with second-degree murder — but not, so far, with a hate crime.

The same night Spaulding's body was found, another transgendered woman, Dee Andre, survived a shooting near the U.S. Capitol. Alarmed transgender activists convened a series of community meetings, hoping to calm nerves and band together against the violence.

Instead, the meetings only added to the sense that D.C.'s transgender community was in a state of emergency: "We heard of at least 14 other assaults happening that same week," says Jessica Xavier, a local activist and volunteer coordinator.

If this wave of crimes could somehow be tied together — if there were a serial perpetrator, or some kind of "trigger" event — the city's transgender population might be resting a little easier. But the assaults and murders appeared to be isolated cases of hatred. And though the sequence of events was extraordinary, the violence was not.

In 2000, Xavier had conducted the first study of transgender people in the District. At the time, the results had seemed plenty disturbing. Of the 4,000 transgender residents Xavier identified, a whopping 17% said they had been assaulted with a weapon because of their gender identity.

Four years later, the violence appeared to be spiraling out of control even more — despite the fact that D.C.'s Metropolitan Police in 2000 had launched an innovative Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) designed to tamp down the violence.

"We're scared," says Mara Kiesling, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality. "This spree of violence made us feel more vulnerable than we deserve to feel. I'm sure it's increased the hopelessness for a lot of people. When you start hearing about 18 events in a week, you don't know what to do."

But if they aren't sure what to do, folks in Washington's transgender community certainly know what to think. "What we're seeing is a war against transgender women," says Xavier. "And it's not only here — it's happening everywhere in this country."