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
By Bob Moser
'Her Life Didn't Count'
Washington's seminal bad-cop moment happened almost exactly seven years before the double murders of Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis — on the very same street corner where the teenagers met their deaths.
On the morning of Aug. 7, 1995, a car accident left 24-year-old passenger Tyra Hunter bleeding profusely on the corner of 50th and C. Hunter, who had been on her way to work as a hairdresser, was pulled out of the car by bystanders before firefighters and Emergency Medical Service workers arrived at the scene.
Eyewitness Catherine Poole told investigators that Hunter was conscious and "starting to complain of pain" when the rescuers arrived.
"[T]he ambulance person that was treating [Hunter] said to her that 'Everything is going to be all right, honey,'" Poole continued. "At that point, she started to urinate on herself. The ambulance person started to cut the pants legs on the jeans. ... [H]e started cutting up the leg and suddenly stopped, and jumped back when he found out that she was a man and said, 'This bitch ain't no girl ... it's a nigger, he's got a dick.'"
Two other witnesses corroborated the slur, and backed Poole's assertion that the emergency service workers and firefighters stopped treating Hunter for upwards of five minutes while "laughing and telling jokes" about her.
Two hours later, Hunter died of blunt trauma at D.C. General Hospital — after also being denied treatment by a doctor. No firefighters, emergency or hospital personnel were disciplined, and the city refused to take responsibility for the death, saying that Hunter was too seriously injured to survive.
But when Hunter's mother sued the city, a jury found that Hunter's civil rights had been violated at the accident scene, and that her death had likely been caused by medical negligence. (Experts testified that with proper treatment, she had an 86% chance of surviving.)
After the jury awarded Margie Hunter $2.9 million in damages, the city further alienated its transgender residents by appealing the decision — ultimately agreeing to a $1.75 million settlement.
The message of Hunter's mistreatment was clear, wrote local activist Richard Rosendall: "She was transgender, and her life didn't count."
Transgender activists say law enforcement personnel have been sending that message for years. When she was a youngster on the streets, says Toni Collins, "You'd be surprised how many policemen I had sex with. They'd say, 'You do it with me, or I'm going to arrest you for prostitution.' Then they'd tell me to go home and I better not tell anybody."
She did as ordered. "Who would you tell?" she asks.
Sgt. Brett Parson, the GLLU chief, acknowledges the "violent history" between transgender people and law enforcement. But he doesn't agree that police are more biased against sexual and gender minorities than the average population.
Nor does Gary Shapiro, a hate crime expert with New York's Nassau County Police Department. "More and more, every day, there's pressure on officers to be knowledgeable and sensitive — to racial differences, language differences, sexual differences," Shapiro says.
Still, he acknowledges that the transgender community's perception of cops as enemies is "understandable. Especially in that area, we've still got a long way to go."
Parson knows it's a long haul. His unit has won the trust of Washington's transgender activists, but it's a tougher challenge on 5th and K.
"I talked to a transgender girl last night and she says, 'By the way, where were you last week when I got beat up?' I said, 'I don't know — but why didn't you call me?' She said, 'Why would I call you guys? You're not going to do anything.'
"I haven't gotten through to her yet that we will do something. Then a lot of times when someone gets killed, we'll find out they've been assaulted a lot."
It's always possible that the killers were among those who'd been committing assaults. But as long as the assaults go unreported — as long as transgender women feel like they can't trust the cops — there's no way of knowing whether lives like Emonie Spaulding's or Bella Evangelista's might have been spared.
Dreams and Nightmares
These days, most people understand that hate crimes are message crimes. Most people know that when a transgender person is victimized, it doesn't just affect her friends and family — it terrifies a whole community of people who can't help feeling they might be next.
But most people, luckily, don't know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a message.
Ruby Bracamonte is not so lucky. On a bright cold day in early November, she sits wrapped up in a baby-blue sweatshirt, recalling in a whispery voice how she heard the news that one of her closest friends, Bella Evangelista, had been murdered.
In a grim bit of irony, Bracamonte was with her Latina transgender support group at a local community center on Aug. 16. The group was busy with an ongoing project: documenting, in words and images, the lives of transgender Latinas in the U.S.
"The next thing we know, a police officer walks in. He's like, 'I'm sorry, but we have this body we found and we need somebody to recognize it.' There was silence. He passed around a picture of what had happened to her. And that's how we found out. That picture is still in my head."
Before Evangelista's killing, transgender Latinas in Washington had hoped that they might evade the worst of the violence, since the previous murder victims had all been African American.
"For a lot of years, a lot of us have been very open," Bracamonte says. "It seemed ok. We have been mostly accepted in Hispanic neighborhoods. We may be called names, but we don't get killed. That's what we thought. Boy, have we learned."
Bracamonte, who in the early 1990s began transitioning into living as a woman with a group of friends that included Evangelista, has learned more than most. For years, Bracamonte, who has a steady job and a nice apartment, had been keeping her door open to down-and-out transgender friends.
When her friend was killed, her private activism went public, as she became the media's favorite spokesperson for Washington's transgender Latinas. The notoriety transformed her cell phone into an unofficial hotline.
"In the last two weeks, I've gotten four calls. One girl called because her roommate had been gone for 10 days. We still don't know what happened. People just disappear.
"Then last weekend, my roommate called — her teeth had been knocked out. Another friend of mine left school and went to a party. When she was on her way home, another attack.
"Another friend of mine was in Adams-Morgan, a very nice neighborhood, and got jumped while waiting in line for a restaurant. They kicked the hell out of him, sent him to the hospital. Why?"
Sometimes, Bracamonte can't help feeling like she's found too many friends. "Last week, I broke. It becomes very painful. When you see it every day, when you see it all the time, you think, 'What do I do? What do I do?'"
To fend off that feeling of helplessness, Bracamonte is making plans. Somehow, someway, she's determined to open a house for her homeless sisters, complete with a thrift store and a restaurant where they can earn their keep. "They can come and work and pay for their own little room. They can have a shower. That's my dream."
But lately it's mostly been nightmares.
"This is a human rights issue," Bracamonte says. "This is an issue that is affecting humans. It doesn't matter how people feel about others; they are human beings. But many of our young people are not being treated like humans.
"It doesn't just take place here," she says, her voice so soft it's hard to make out over the insistent chirping of her phone. "It's everywhere. It's the whole nation. But nobody wants to hear it."
Bracamonte has been fighting off tears, but she loses the battle when she thinks about what today's voicemail messages might say.
"What happened to Bella, it's going to happen again," she says. "I guess I need to just face it."
Michelle Bramblett, Tamara Cobb, Angela Freeman, Karmetriya Jackson and Joe Roy contributed to this story.