Brayla Stone, a Black trans teen, was just 17 years old when she was found dead in a car in Little Rock, Ark., last month.
News of her murder — which took place at the end of LGBTQ Pride month and just after Black Trans Lives Matter marches spread hope in cities across the country, including in Brooklyn, which saw a crowd of thousands — was horrific and shocking, not just because of her youth, but because she was the 17th reported transgender person killed at that point for 2020. Since then, the number of reported murders of trans people, the majority Black, has already risen to 21 — nearly matching 2019’s yearlong total of 27, though it’s only July.
“I think we have to look at it as an epidemic,” Tori Cooper of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, tells Yahoo Life. Cooper, who is director of community engagement for the group’s Transgender Justice Initiative, explains that “over a seven-day period in June, eight transgender people were killed,” which, considering that only 0.7 percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 24 even identify as transgender, accounts for the “epidemic status.”
Three other Black transgender women have been reported murdered since that of the teen —Merci Mack, 22, shot to death in Dallas; Shaki Peters, 32, of Amite City, La.; and Bree Black, 27, found shot in Pompano Beach, Fla. In addition, Summer Taylor, a gender nonbinary 24-year-old antiracism protester was killed by a reckless driver in Seattle.
“We’re seeing a continuing pattern of Black trans women being murdered even earlier,” Cooper points out, referring to the young ages of all the victims. But Brayla has certainly been the youngest. “She was a teenager, a person who had the entire world ahead of her. And she had a support system,” she adds, noting that while her family may not have been supportive of her transition — local press used Brayla’s pretransition name, or “deadname,” in reporting her death, allegedly at the request of her family — she did have friends. “Even someone with all the potential she had still is a victim to crime. … We’re talking about her now not because of a great music video she made, but because she was murdered.”
Ruled a homicide by local police, the death of Brayla meant the end of a life that, by all accounts, was filled with music making, laughter and colorful wigs. The crime struck way too close to home for other trans youth in the Little Rock area, including Taylor Bolton, 18, who worked to organize a vigil for Brayla despite having been recently displaced by the closure of a local shelter for LGBTQ youth.
“I just had to take a deep breath and say, if something happened to me and my people were misgendering me, I would have wanted this, so I wanted to do it in her honor,” Taylor, who did not know Brayla personally, tells Yahoo Life, adding that the vigil had a supportive vibe, and brought Brayla’s cousins out to memorialize her. She says that living openly as a Black transgender teen is not easy. “We are not able to get jobs, we are misgendered, we have a target on our back — some feel we can’t go outside and be who we want to be without having things thrown at us,” she says. “It’s OK to be who you are, and [we] have just as much right as anyone else.”
The vigil was hosted by the Center for Artistic Revolution, an LGBTQ support organization in Little Rock and the longest-running such organization in the state. It also assisted, in tandem with local transgender organization inTRANSitive, in setting up, with community donations, the Brayla Stone Microgrants to assist Black trans girls in need. After the youth shelter closed, explains executive director José Gutiérrez, “We had to mobilize around getting housing for them. … They were all trans youth, getting displaced in the middle of a pandemic. So the little resources we do have in our state are failing our community, and it often falls on grassroots organizing to uplift the work that’s needed in the community. That’s where we fit in,” he tells Yahoo Life. “That’s the climate right now.”
It’s just part of why fighting for Black trans lives can so often feel like such an uphill battle — especially when gains in visibility, whether through activism or pop culture, can sometimes inadvertently lead to a spike in anti-trans violence.
“At this point, when we’re talking really about unprecedented trans visibility, trans people are being murdered disproportionately, still,” notes Laverne Cox in the new documentary Disclosure, about trans representation in Hollywood. Adds writer Tiq Milan in the film, “That’s the paradox of our representation, is the more we are seen, the more we are violated.”
Brayla was young to have yet had much exposure in life, but has been getting some posthumously, thanks to online efforts by many calling for justice — including a Change.org petition started by a young activist that has found more than half a million signatures. “I want to thank you guys so much for the massive support behind this petition,” wrote petition organizer Kadyn Loring in an update on the investigation from earlier this month, echoing local news reports about the capital murder arrest of 18-year-old Trevonne Miller.
“The coroner has refused to release information about Brayla’s autopsy,” she wrote. “It is said that information will be released when the investigation is over. Sherwood police claim that so far they have ‘no indication’ of a hate crime. The article I used for this information still used Brayla’s birth name, as well as her family members and family friends. We will continue to fight for Brayla, we want justice.” (The Sherwood Police Department did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for more information on the case.)
Several social media accounts have been created to support the cause of finding justice for Brayla, both on Instagram and Facebook, while prominent supporters, including actress Angelica Ross and activist Ashlee Marie Preston, have been using their social media platforms to draw attention to the murders.
“Brayla Stone was a child. A child, just beginning to live her life. A child of trans experience. A young Black girl who had hopes and dreams, plans and community,” Cooper had said in an HRC statement immediately following news of her death “As a nation, we failed Brayla — as we have failed every transgender or gender nonconforming person killed in a country that embraces violence and upholds transphobia, racism, homophobia.”
Also issuing a statement was the National Black Justice Coalition, in which executive director David Johns said, “Brayla Stone was 17 years young when someone murdered her because we live in a society where it is not yet explicit that when we say BlackLivesMatter we mean all Black lives, which includes Black trans women and girls.”
In a 2019 report about transgender violence in America, HRC detailed the contributing and motivating factors that lead to this violence, calling it, through its statement, “a toxic mix of transphobia, racism and misogyny.” The organization also noted, in its statement about Brayla, that Arkansas is one of only a small handful of states without statewide hate crime laws, and that the state does not explicitly protect transgender and gender-nonconforming people in employment, housing, education and in public spaces.
Regarding transgender women of color in general is this frequently cited, shocking statistic (its exact source not apparent): that her average life expectancy is just 35 years old, something activists including Preston refer to with some frequency — and something not hard to believe when looking at the ages of the most recent reports of deaths.
A chilling point worth noting, says Cooper, is that “many of the Black trans women who were murdered, this year in particular, had some sort of relationship with the killer. That speaks volumes,” she says, adding, if these women can’t trust the people they know and are in relationships with, “then who can we trust?”
An important part of creating change when it comes to keeping trans people safe from harm, Cooper explains, is for media to begin sharing “a fuller picture” of transgender lives. Because usually, she says, “you have victims and you have celebrities, and there are so few stories of us everyday folks that don’t get out in the public. It’s important to lift up even the boring stories. Trans people are not just black and white — not in terms of skin, but in terms of a colorful picture of what we are in the community … the fuchsia, orange and burnt sienna.”
Also important to remember is that not all brutalized transgender people wind up killed — but it doesn’t mean they haven’t been abused. “It’s important for us to continue to fight on behalf of those who have been victimized,” Cooper says. “It’s important for us to continue the fight.”
Also important for transgender people looking for hope in these trying times, she says, is “to make sure people find some kind of joy in every day. Right now the world is not a joyful place, but whatever it is that brings a little joy in your life,” she says, “it’s important to seek it out every single day.”
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