Transgender Activists Seek Peace, Closure in Wake of Murders

Beginning in July and continuing through the fall, transgender activists sounded an alarming message: the District was becoming a dangerous place for members of their community.

Early in the morning of July 20, 23-year-old LaShay McLean was fatally shot on the 6100 block of Dix Street. Less than two months later, on Sept. 10, Gaurav Gopalan was beaten to death just a few blocks from his home in Columbia Heights. At the time he was killed, Gopalan, 35, was dressed as a woman. It was a side of himself that friends said he was just beginning to embrace and explore.

Other violent acts against transgender people raised concerns and prompted calls from activists for better police responsiveness. DC’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton reputed the attacks on transgender victims and called Gopalan’s murder “a thundering call to action.”

Said Norton:

This brutal crime is an unbearable truth that Gaurav’s death calls us to confront at last. To fail to engage the fact of the violence that took him from his partner, his friends, his family, and this city is to condone it. I call on the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to designate as a special priority bringing Gaurav’s killer to justice to show the city and the world that these recent hate crimes, which tarnish the reputation of a great, progressive city, will not be tolerated.

But as 2011 comes to a close, Gopalan’s murder remains unsolved. As does McLean’s. And, trans activists and advocates say, the factors that likely played into this year’s violence remain.

I think, culturally, we still have a long way to go to tell the stories of members of the transgender community and deal with how we as a community accept folks’ humanity, who they are,” said Jeffrey Richardson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Gay and Lesbian Affairs.

This summer wasn’t the first time that the trans community has faced tragedy; a similar flurry of shock, outrage and media attention occurred just shy of two and a half years ago.

On the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009, 21-year-old Tyli’a “NaNa Boo” Mack was stabbed in broad daylight in the 200 block of Q Street, not far from the offices of Transgender Health Empowerment (THE), a support center for D.C.’s trans population. Mack had been accompanying a friend to the center when the two women were attacked.

The bold crime stunned the city. Hundreds of friends and officials showed up for vigils and Mack’s funeral.

Mack’s neighbor, Becca Walawender, remembered the outpouring of emotion and support.

Her funeral was just amazing,” she said. “There were so many people there. It was an amazing cross-section of the community. Every seat was filled.”

But just as suddenly as the firestorm struck, it disappeared.

Walawender left town for a vacation in Rehoboth Beach right after Mack’s funeral. When she returned two weeks later, she felt that Mack’s murder had largely been forgotten.

It seemed done even then,” she said.

There has yet to be an arrest in the case, even though there were likely witnesses to the crime: Mack was killed near a housing project, on a major street, in the middle of the day.

It just doesn’t make sense that nobody saw that,” Walawender said.

Mack’s death is just one of several murders of transgender people over the past decade which remain unsolved.

Over the last 10 years, this city has not done well with solving murders, especially murders of trans people,” said Earline Budd, a founder of THE.

In addition to the murders of Mack, Mclean and Gopalan, unsolved cases include the bludgeoning death of Tyra Henderson in 2000, the 2002 drive-by shooting of Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas and the shooting of Elexuis Woodland in 2005.

However, Budd said, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier recently made a commitment to bring some of those cold cases up for review.

While the passage of time might be a hinderance in other murder investigations, Budd said it might be a benefit to solving the cold cases of transgender homicide victims. With the passage of time, more witnesses might be willing to come forward, she said.

I hope they will have some success in maybe bringing some closure [to these cases],” she said.

MPD did not return requests for comment for this story.

The murders of Mclean and Gopalan weren’t the only violence directed at the trans community this year. Robberies and assaults on transgender women were reported throughout the city, and in August an MPD police officer was arrested on suspicion of firing a gun at three transgender women, wounding them. The officer was off duty at the time of the shooting. He is being held without bond while the Grand Jury investigates the case.

Budd said many more crimes against transgender people in DC have gone unreported.

In testimony before a City Council committee looking into hate crimes and police response this November, the D.C. Trans Coalition listed more than 20 crimes against the transgender community between July and the end of October. These included robberies, threats and armed assaults.

One of the crimes on the list was an arson report: On Sept. 16, nearly two months after Lashai Mclean’s death, someone set fire to the memorial that had been erected in her memory at 62nd and Dix Street.

Richardson, of the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs, said fighting transphobia needs to become a city-wide effort.

He and Budd say programs like THE’s Wanda Alston House, which provides housing for homeless transgender youth, and DC’s Project Empowerment, a new program that provides job training services to transgender participants, are steps in the right direction.

Personally, I think the devaluing of a person because they are transgender is often what leads to a loss of a life and what leads to silence surrounding the crime,” he said. “We’ve really got to start to have this conversation… to start to deal with this transphobia and homophobia, because at the heart of it that’s often what it comes down to.”

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