In a year of highs and heart-wrenching lows, transgender Texans have helped focus the country’s attention on the lives of trans women and men everywhere

Tammye Nash|  Managing Editor

David Taffet|  Senior News Writer

It was April 12, in an apartment complex parking lot in South Dallas. A 22-year-old black transgender woman named Muhlaysia Booker had been involved in a minor fender-bender in the parking lot outside her own apartment, bumping into another car as she was backing out to leave.

The other driver blocked Booker’s car, holding her at gunpoint and refusing to let her leave until she gave him money to pay for the damage to his car. As they argued, a crowd gathered, and someone pulled out a cell phone and began to videotape the confrontation. Someone allegedly offered a 29-year-old man named Edward Thomas $500 to beat up Booker, and the crowd closed in around, laughing and jeering and shouting transphobic and homophobic slurs as Thomas assaulted the young woman.

Then other men joined in, punching, kicking, stomping on Booker as she lay huddled on the ground. By the time several women stepped in to stop the attack and help Booker to safety, she had suffered a concussion, fractured wrists and numerous other injuries. Someone uploaded the video to social media. The video was stomach-churning and at the same time infuriating, and it focused national attention on the not just the attack on Booker, but on the insidious and often overlooked epidemic of violence that leaves dozens of American transgender women and men — hundreds, perhaps thousands worldwide — dead or injured every year.

Suddenly, Muhlaysia Booker’s face was in all the newspapers and on all the TV news programs in DFW and beyond. Everyone knew her name. The outrage began building. Rallies were held, and Booker became the poster girl for efforts to combat the anti-trans violence that had already claimed the lives of four transgender women of color since the start of the year. Leaders in every community in DFW were speaking out, condemning the violence.

Police arrested Edward Thomas and charged him with aggravated assault. Abounding Prosperity Inc. announced a plan of action that included providing Booker with legal counsel and other services she needed, including a GoFundMe page to help pay her expenses. The agency, serving primarily the South Dallas community impacted by HIV/AIDS, also found safe housing for Booker and another trans woman who lived at the same apartment complex where Booker was attacked.

For once, people were paying attention.

A month later, Muhlaysia Booker was dead, her name added to the ever-growing list of murdered transgender women.

Booker’s body was found early Sunday morning, May 19, lying in a street in East Dallas. She had been shot to death. An urgent frenzy of attention and activity erupted.

Dallas police held a press conference announcing that they believed Booker’s murder may be connected to a non-fatal knife attack on another trans woman in April (she has never been publicly identified) as well as with as many as three unsolved murders of trans women in Dallas dating back to July 2015, when Shade Schuler was found dead in a field near Parkland Memorial Hospital. The others include Armani Dante Morgan, who disappeared June 3, 2017 and whose remains were found a month later in a field near her home. Police initially classified her death as a drug overdose, but her family has always maintained that she was murdered, and police have since re-opened the investigation into her death. The third is Brittney White, who was found shot to death in her car in the parking lot of a South Dallas apartment complex in October 2018.

On May 28, hundreds of mourners packed the sanctuary at Cathedral of Hope for Booker’s funeral — her family, her friends, the LGBT community and even city and county leaders attended.

In the meantime, the national death toll had risen to seven. On June 1 — the same day that thousands gathered at Fair Park to celebrate the first day of Dallas Pride — that number became eight when Dallas police announced that the body of 26-year-old trans woman Chynal Lindsey had been found in White Rock Lake. Fears that a serial killer was stalking Dallas’ black trans women mushroomed.

Then on June 12, Dallas police announced the arrest of Kendrell Lavar Lyles, 34, for the murder of Muhlaysia Booker. Although he was initially considered a suspect in the deaths of Lindsey, Schuler and White and the April knife attack on the unnamed trans woman, on June 20, police announced they had arrested 22-year-old Ruben Alvarado and charged him with the murder of Chynal Lindsey. Police have not said whether Lyles remains a suspect in the other incidents.

Although the frenzy of attention seemed to die down at least a little after the arrests in June, it ramped back up again the next month when trans woman Tracy Single, 22, was murdered in Houston. Her boyfriend, Joshua Dominic Bourgeois, has been arrested for her death. The Sept. 20 murder of Itali Marlowe in Houston raised the Texas trans death toll to four for the year, the most of any state. Marlowe’s roommate, Raymond Donald Williams, has been charged in her death.

Around the country, 22 transgender people have been murdered this year. The majority of the victims have been black trans women, and most of them have been under the age of 30. But the violence can’t be counted in just deaths: In Dallas alone, we know of the knife attack on one trans woman and the assault on Booker in April. In early September, a Tampa, Fla., trans woman named Pauline DelMundo disappeared from DFW International Airport during a layover on her way to Cancun, and on Sept. 20, Daniela Calderon-Rivera was shot multiple times and left critically wounded in an attack in Northwest Dallas. Domingo Ramirez-Cayente was arrested and confessed to shooting Calderon-Rivera, but he was released on a $25,000 bail and is believed to have fled the country.

The community responds

This year, Dallas Voice has chosen to honor the four trans women murdered in Texas this year along with the two — Calderon-Rivera and the woman who survived the knife attack in April — who were injured in anti-trans violence by naming them as our LGBT Texans of the Year for 2019. But we are also including the Texas transgender activists who every day are fighting for their lives and the lives of their transgender sisters and brothers.

We know that as we name these activists, we will, inevitably, miss someone. So, let us say right here and now, without equivocation, that we honor ALL transgender Texans as our Texans of the Year. That includes the “old guard” — activists like Monica Roberts and Phyllis Randolph Frye of Houston, and Pam Curry, Kelli Anne Busey, Carter Brown and Shannon Walker of Dallas — as well as those who are newer to the activism scene — like Voice columnist Leslie McMurry, Krista De La Rosa, Ethan Avanzino and Jayla Wilkerson.

And there are so many others: Dee Dee Watters, Atlantis Narcisse, Ana Andrea Molina, Carmarion Anderson, Naomi Green, Frankie Gonzales Wolfe, Mieko Hicks and Robyn “Pocahontas” Crowe with the Transfusion podcast, Jaysa Jones, Diamond Stylz, Mia Mix and See with the Marsha’s Plate podcast, Mia Ryan, Landon Richie, Dylan Forbis, TreShaun Pate, Finn Jones ….

The list goes on.

All of these activists have been in the fight in one way or another. Some are well known, others work more quietly in the background. But all are vital in the battle for not just the ability to live safely, but for equality as well.

Monica Roberts is a familiar face at the Texas Capitol, traveling there often for rallies and to testify on pending legislation affecting the transgender community. Although the deaths of the four transgender women in Texas — along with all the others worldwide — definitely cast a shadow over 2019, Roberts said there have been some bright points this year, too.

“Frankie Gonzales-Wolfe’s run for a San Antonio City Council seat” was a high point, she said, as was the fact that Texas House Bill 1513, “which would have added Texas trans people to our state’s hate crimes bill,” actually got a hearing during the 2019 legislative session.

Another big victory came with the defeat of Senate Bill 17, which would have allowed individuals — including health care professionals — to discriminate based on their own “sincerely-held” religious beliefs and still be able to have state-regulated professional licenses issued and renewed.

Personally, Roberts said, one of the brightest moments of the year came when she and Dee Dee Watters, Atlantis Narcisse and Ana Andrea Molina were named honorary grand marshals of Houston Pride in June.

Jayla Wilkerson, an attorney with the city of Dallas, describes herself as a “relatively privileged member of the transgender community,” and she became an activist to use that privilege  to help those in the community who don’t have the same advantages. As a white trans woman, she said, “it is heart wrenching to think about the experiences of black transgender women in my own home city and to recognize how very little I can do to improve the situation.”

But she doesn’t let that keep her from trying. In fact, one of the highlights of the year for Wilkerson was the Pride is a Protest March she organized for June 2. It began at Dallas City Hall and ended at Fair Park, just in time for participants to join the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.

“Dallas Pride moved the parade to Fair Park, a huge closet from my perspective. I did a lot of work related to speaking out and speaking up about how the trans community is still in dire need of social support and understanding from the broader cis/straight community, along the same lines of the sentiments that led to the … first Pride parades,” she said. Trans people, she continued, “are still suffering in many ways not experienced for decades by affluent gay white men. I had a lot of support and a great turnout [for the march], and I felt like I really made a difference for visibility.

“Not everyone agreed with me, and some very badly misunderstood my purpose,” Wilkerson added. “It was never a protest against the other Pride celebration. It was about visibility for a still-marginalized community. But it sparked some very important conversations and thoughts.”

That march was also a high point of the year for transgender man Ethan Avanzino. “The support from allies and the community was amazing to see,” he said of the Pride is a Protest event. “It seems that each and every year we become more visible and build more bridges, gain more connections and get more support.”

But perhaps even more gratifying for Avanzino is the progress being made on the nonprofit organization he is cofounding with his partner, David Whitehead. Safe To Be, designed to provide an actual village for transgender residents outside Eureka Springs, Ark., has received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and Avanzino and Whitehead have purchased 20-plus acres of land that they will be donating to Safe To Be for the village.

“I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for us!” he declared.

For Leslie McMurray, the murders of trans people and the fact that Edward Thomas was convicted only of a misdemeanor in connection with the April assault on Muhlaysia Booker were undoubtedly low points in 2019.

So was her experience in Austin when she went to testify in favor of HB 1513. Arlington Republican state Rep. Bill Zedler, she said, walked out of the room rather than listen to her testimony.

“Voting against the bill was one thing,” she said. “But not even listening when someone was talking about people’s lives was unconscionable.”

But there have been bright points, too. McMurray, who works for Resource Center, led a training on transgender healthcare at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. A large number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals attended, and she said she has never seen such a positive attitude about providing the best possible care to trans patients.

She had a similar experience when she was invited by the Dallas Stars organization to speak on trans issues. She arrived to find human resources managers from about a dozen hockey teams all interested in learning about best practices in working with transitioning employees and the trans community overall.

The Rev. Carmarion Anderson, a former Dallasite who now works as the Human Rights Campaign’s state director in Alabama, was there at the rallies following the April attack on Muhlaysia Booker to stand by the young woman’s side. The national attention sparked by that attack and, later, by the murders of Booker and Chynal Lindsey triggered the Dallas trans community, she said.

“We knew her,” she said of Booker. “The community felt the impact. It happened in our backyard.” The attack on Booker and her subsequent murder woke people up to the fact that no one should have to live with such violence. It had an effect on the Dallas police, too, she added, noting that the community “held them to a high accountability, and they worked tirelessly. Then here comes another death.” Police took both Booker’s and Lindsey’s deaths personally and worked feverishly to solve them.

Anderson said that she hopes the attention generated by that the attack on Booker and then her murder, coupled with other anti-trans violence locally and nationally, will continue beyond this year, and that it will help the community at large gain a better understanding of trans women and men.

Transgender people, she said, are just like any other human beings — with one big difference: Every morning as they get ready to start their day, they have to prepare for the discrimination they will almost inevitably face.

Even though transgender people are “hard workers, smart, educated and degreed,” they also face a very high unemployment rate because of anti-trans discrimination in the workplace. Still, she said, once you’ve been rejected by an employer because of who you are, when you do get hired, you work harder and are more loyal than other employees.

Anderson points to Dallas trans woman Naomi Green as one of the up-and-coming leaders in the trans community. Green, though, just describes herself as a black trans woman and, while she herself is not HIV-positive, an HIV advocate.

Because of the bigotry and the violence targeting the community, Green said, “we’re always looking over our shoulder, being aware of looks and vibes from people around us.” Still, she added, trans people have to do what they have to do to try and survive, even when that puts them at risk.

From Green’s perspective, media coverage of Muhlaysia Booker’s murder was in many ways more humanizing than coverage of most of the murders of other trans women of color. The stories about Booker connected the public to the victim.

“For once, people saw a person instead of a ‘transgender,’” Green said, “which gave people a glimpse into what we deal. We’re people.”

And that is at the heart of the matter.

“We are a lot more like you than not,” McMurray said to the cisgender world. “I get up in the morning, let the dogs out. Then I get dressed. I kiss my wife, and I leave for work.”

For Avanzino, the key is for the non-trans people to see their commonalities with trans people rather than their differences. “The struggles and fights almost mirror each other,” he said. “It took allies to help make bigger strides for the gay community, and now the trans community needs LGBQ-plus and straight folks to be our allies.

“Listen to trans voices. Show up at trans events. Hire transgender people. Speak up when you see transphobic posts/memes/stories on social media.

“This is a movement,” Avanzino said. “We need people, trans folk and allies alike, to join us in solidarity. We are a beautiful, persevering and resilient community. No law, no bill, no ban, no removal of protection is ever going to change that.”