A wave of violence engulfs transgender people across the U.S., 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."
21 Months, 27 Murders
With its abundance of support groups and readily available hormone and steroid treatments, Washington has long been a destination of choice for transgender people on the East Coast.
Now, with the past year's spree of killings and the constant drumbeat of assaults that has accompanied it, the city has also become a microcosm of what life — and death — is often like for transgender people in cities across the U.S.
While the past year's murders and assaults are "unrelated" in the law-enforcement sense of the term, most of the incidents do have at least one thing in common: "transphobia," which Jessica Xavier calls "the most powerful hatred on the planet."
"We are regarded by most as disposable people," she says.
Though the government compiles no statistics on anti-transgender hate crimes or murders, the unofficial numbers appear to back up her assertion.
While the FBI reported a total of 11 U.S. murders motivated by racial, religious, or sexual-orientation bias in 2002, the Intelligence Report has documented 14 murders of transgender people in the U.S. in that one year. (Our findings were based on news accounts, police reports and information on www.rememberingourdead.org.) By the end of September 2003, according to news and police reports, at least 13 more transgender people had been slain.
In some cases, the details remain too murky to say for certain whether these murders were hate-motivated. But all 27 have at least one of the telltale signs of a hate crime — especially the sort of extreme brutality, or "overkill," that was all too evident in the bullet-torn bodies of Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis.
"The overkill is certainly an indicator that hate was present," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has written several books about hate crimes and murder.
"When you see excessively brutal crimes, and you know the victim is gay or black or Latino or transgender, you have to suspect that hate was a motive. There's a sense of outrage in these crimes that someone different is breathing or existing."
One reason it's so tough to prove that anti-transgender murders are hate crimes is that so few are ever solved. Of the 27 murders in 2002 and the first nine months of 2003, arrests had been made in only 7 — fewer than one-third — at press time. The general "clearance rate" for murders is almost twice as high, around 60%.
"The police are very slow in solving murders committed against marginalized Americans, whether they're black, Latino, gay, prostitutes or transgender," Levin says.
"When more than one of those characteristics is present in a victim" — usually the case in anti-transgender murders — "they really don't act quickly. They're much more likely to form a task force and offer a reward when the victim is a straight, middle-class college student."
When it comes to hate crimes that stop short of murder — assaults, harassment — it's virtually impossible to gauge the extent of the problem. The reason is simple: the victims of anti-transgender hate crimes almost never report them.
One national group that keeps statistics on anti-transgender hate crimes, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, reports a consistent rise of reported incidents since 1999. In 2002, the NCAVP found that an average of 20 transgender people were victimized by a hate crime every month.
Some find that number far too conservative. "I get 10 to 15 calls about assaults every month just here in D.C.," says Earline Budd, who runs a grassroots group called Transgender Health Empowerment.
Out and At-Risk
What has made transgender people such popular targets? "It's partly because we're coming out into the daylight," says Toni Collins, who works with Earline Budd at Transgender Health Empowerment.
Jack Levin, the criminologist, agrees. "There are more transgender people who are coming out, willing to expose themselves to the possibility of victimization," he says.
"It reminds me of the period beginning in the '80s when gay and lesbian Americans began to come out in larger numbers. They exposed themselves to the risk of being victims of homophobic offenders. The same thing is happening with transgendered people now. They are encountering much the same violence, for much the same reasons."
In the case of transgender victims, the violence often has a pattern. "So many of these crimes are discovery crimes: 'We thought you were X, but you were actually Y, so we killed you,'" says Lisa Mottet of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Transgender Civil Rights Project.
In the notorious cases of Gwen Araujo, the 17-year-old beaten and strangled last year in California, and Brandon Teena, whose brutal murder inspired the movie Boys Don't Cry, the "discovery" was made by friends. More often, it's a sex partner.
"For someone who is confused about his sexual identity, or kind of shaky in the sex department," Levin says, "it may seem like a personal attack on his virility, on his sense of machismo, to find himself with a transgender woman."
Budd, like many transgender activists, believes the "discovery crime" motivation is often bogus. Most transgender people are up front with potential sex partners about their identities and anatomies, she says — and even in cases where they're not, "how can you say that's an excuse for killing somebody or beating them up?"
Bella Evangelista's murderer, Antoine Jacobs, is reportedly considering a "panic defense" when he goes to court.
According to Sgt. Brett Parson, head of Washington's GLLU police unit, Jacobs told police he and Evangelista "were engaging in sex for hire, he liked it, the act was completed, they parted ways, and some of his friends said, 'Hey, man, that's a dude,' and he returned and shot her."
Budd suspects that Jacobs simply got embarrassed when his friends found out he'd been with Evangelista, who was well known as a transgender woman in the neighborhood where Jacobs lived.
"This was all to show off for the guys," she says. "He came back and confronted her, and when she turned around to walk away, he pulled out a gun and shot her and just continued to shoot her. In the back. And that's a panic defense? Come on now."
Beyond fear and machismo, activists point to two bigger factors that help stoke the violence. One is the dearth of anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws that mention gender identity (as opposed to sexual orientation, a category that does not apply to transgender people).
Though four states and nine municipalities have added transgender people to their statutes so far in 2003, only 24% of the U.S. population is currently covered.
Then there's the forgotten factor. "Look at the victims," says Mottet. "Because they are transgender, they have to be in places that are extremely dangerous to begin with. Even if they're assaulted or killed for reasons other than hate, they still wouldn't have been targeted if they weren't transgender, because they'd be able to stay in school, have family support, and hold down jobs.
"Society pushes people into the streets in order to survive, and they're not allowed to survive there. That's a societal hate crime."
Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista's or Emonie Spaulding's often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it's a form of blaming the victim.
"The implication is that it's your fault for being beaten or killed," says Jessica Xavier. "But a lack of privilege means you don't have a choice." Or as Mottet puts it, "Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living."
"The classic profile," says Mara Kiesling, "is a 13-year-old who's thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She's kicked out of school for wearing girls' clothes. She can't get a job because her says 'Andre' but she looks like a girl.
"What's going to happen? Most likely, she'll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable — living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival."
On the Streets
Earline Budd and Toni Collins can tell you all about matters of transgender survival. The co-founders of D.C's Transgender Health Empowerment both landed on the streets in their teens. Both ultimately struggled their way to better lives, partly because they got their diplomas.
But with their activism, they maintain a tight bond with the "girls" in the streets today. Collins, a tall elegant woman who's about to mark her 20th anniversary as an information-systems manager for a D.C. firm, recently spoke to transgender teenagers in SMYAL, the support group Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis belonged to.
"Out of the 20 in the group, all between 15 and 18 years old, only two were currently in school. One had a job. That left 17 of those 20 with no intention of going back to school. They dropped out because they were harassed."
Sooner or later, most of these teens will wind up on 5th and K. This triangle-shaped, open-air downtown corner, a few blocks from the city's silvery new convention center, has in recent years become Washington's best-known transgender "stroll" — a place to advertise their wares for potential clients.
"A lot of the girls who frequent 5th and K are homeless," says Budd. "That's one of the reasons they prostitute — along with substance abuse. But it's always a matter of survival. The fact that they're estranged from their families is the starting point."
Prostitution is dangerous enough when you're several blocks down K Street, in the separate area where straight hookers find clients. But 5th and K tends to attract the sketchiest kinds of customers.
"The straight female prostitutes are turning dates for $100 a whop," says Collins. "Guys know they can go over to 5th and K and get a transgender to give them what they want for little if anything. These girls are desperate, and they don't have pimps to keep them from getting beaten and make sure they get paid OK — or even get paid at all. Sometimes they'll give you $20, get what they want, then beat you and take the $20 back."
Budd and Collins have no end of horror stories from their time on the streets. Budd has especially vivid memories of a gang in the 1980s whose idea of fun was "to catch you, beat you, snatch your wig and knock you out." Now, she says, it's even worse.
"5th and K is just rampant for assaults. I think guys feel like, 'Man, I'm going to go out and beat me up a faggot tonight, one of them ones dressed in women's clothes.'" As in most major urban areas, such hate criminals know exactly where to find their victims.
Budd believes the Washington police's GLLU, recently given an award by Transgender Health Empowerment, may have begun to make a dent in the violence.
"They make a lot of drive-throughs in that area, and it's probably decreased the amount of crimes that happen right there." But not necessarily the crimes that happen when "girls" are picked up and driven away.
Even with the GLLU putting a kinder face on the police force, activists and cops agree that almost none of the violence that happens to transgender women on the stroll — or elsewhere — is ever reported.
Why? The main reason is that Washington — like San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia, New York and every other big city with a large transgender population — has a history of police abuse that everybody in its transgender community can recite, chapter and verse.
"Cops?" Collins says. "You don't even want to get me started on that."
'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.