Tuesday, Aug. 19 was not a good day for Ruby Bracamonte. Her close friend of ten years, Bella Evangelista, a 25-year-old transgender woman, had been shot dead on a Northwest Washington, D.C., street early the previous Saturday morning. In local news reports, Evangelista, a popular performer in D.C. drag shows, was inaccurately described as “a man who dressed as a woman.” National media had ignored the killing. But the week was to get much worse.
Bracamonte organized a vigil for her dead friend. One hundred people marched to the site of her murder, where candles, flowers, stuffed animals and signs – one saying “Transgenders Unite!” and others calling for an end to violence – were assembled as a memorial to the Latina performer. On Wednesday, Aug. 20, the memorial was found destroyed.
That night, an African-American transgender woman, Punani Walker, 25, was shot and critically wounded in Northwest D.C. And by Thursday morning, police had found the body of another Black transgender woman, Emonie Spaulding, also 25, in Southeast D.C. She had been beaten and shot to death.
Ruby Bracamonte and other transgender activists held an emergency press conference that day at La Clinica del Pueblo, a local Latino community health clinic with which Bracamonte is affiliated.
“We are being killed,” Bracamonte told those assembled. “Our lives are being taken away, for the simple fact of who we are.”
Although transgender activists and police agree that the incidents are probably not related to each other, the murders have struck fear in the heart of transgenders living in D.C.
“Before, even if you dealt with ridicule, it was a worthwhile price to pay to be visible,” Bracamonte says. “We were trying to be open, outspoken, present in the community. Now people feel like that is compromised.”
Antoine Jacobs, 22, was arrested immediately after Evangelista’s death and charged with first degree murder while armed. Police have said that Jacobs paid Evangelista for oral sex and then felt he had been deceived after learning that she was a transsexual. Responding to this charge of deception – a common narrative following such murders – Bracamonte points out, “It is easy to say, ‘They should have told.’ In reality, we do. Most transgenders are very open and honest about who they are. In most [murder] cases, we find out that everybody knew. Bella lived in the neighborhood where she was killed. She was not in the closet.”
Still, Earline Budd, founder of Transgender Health Empowerment, a group affiliated with a local AIDS organization serving the Black community, says that she has talked to several teenagers who have been shot at, run down by cars or assaulted after not telling dates they were transgender.
“I’m 45 now, but when I was younger, I was shot at,” she says. “I’ve been through it myself.” Budd explains that when she was doing sex work in her early 20s she started regularly clarifying her gender identity for clients. “They’d ask, ‘You’re a guy?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m a woman, but I’m a transgender woman.’”
Budd sees her advice not as a justification for blaming the victim but as a safety measure, an attempt to do “what can we do, in today’s world, to be safe,” she says. “I don’t want the young people to experience that.” Implied in her words, however, is an understanding that transgender women should not have to explain themselves at every turn, and that so many should not have to be on the streets to begin with.
“Because of the stigma, and getting beaten up, many don’t finish high school,” Budd says. “We need some type of institution where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students can feel comfortable and get an education.” She explains that transgenders are also discriminated against in housing, employment and healthcare.
Hate Crime Laws & Community Response
On August 26, Antwan D. Lewis, 22, was arrested for the murder of Emonie Spaulding after turning himself in. Punani Walker, who was shot in the chest and leg during a robbery, is now expected to fully recover. “We thought she wasn’t going to make it,” Earline Budd says. Walker gave a full description of her attackers, who are now suspects in several recent robberies of transgender women.
Budd and other activists spoke with the mother of Antoine Jacobs, Evangelista’s alleged killer, after his arraignment August 18. “She’s suffering because of what he did,” Budd says. Since the murder has been classified as a hate crime, if Jacobs is convicted, he would be subject to a sentence one-and-a-half times greater than for a non-bias related crime.
Some activists have mixed feelings about hate crimes legislation, however.
Lizbeth Melendez of LLEGO, the national Latino/a lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender organization, told Metro Watch, a local news radio show on DC’s Pacifica station WPFW, “Education will go so much further. [People of color] are the largest segment of the prison population. Why do we continue to put people in prison instead of being preventive?”
“Fifteen separate incidents – beatings, robberies, vandalism – have been reported to the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the police in the past two weeks,” Bracamonte says.
She herself has continued to face harassment – even on the way to her murdered friend’s vigil.
“There were a hundred people walking to the site of her murder,” she says. “A lot of people were out, and they were yelling at us: ‘Faggots, queers!’ We are always fighting to show people that we’re happy to be who we are and that we don’t want to hide.”