NEWARK — An intermittent breeze offers some relief from the punishing July heat as a small group of people follow a paved path down from a noisy, multilane road lined with trees. At the bottom of a hill is a peaceful, grassy area that overlooks the Passaic River in Newark, New Jersey, where couples lie in the shade while kids skateboard and seagulls swoop toward the water. Friends and family members of 22-year-old Tatiana Hall gather around a long, curved wooden bench in an alcove and immediately turn on upbeat dance remixes.
People continue to file in holding purple balloons — Hall’s favorite color. Next month would have been her 23rd birthday, and the decorations look as if they could have been stored away in a garage for a surprise party. Some are whimsically adorned with butterflies and flowers; others are more sober. “I Miss You,” one reads.
“All day I’ve been feeling sick because I feel her,” said attendee Nyella Love, who knew Hall for five or six years prior to her death. “I feel her in the way of something else. I know she was hurt, and I know she was scared when she was taken from us. I feel it. I see it. She didn’t deserve it. She didn’t deserve nothing of it.”
Hall’s body was found on June 29, but details of her death have been scarce enough that community members have been left to fill in the empty spaces, like a crossword puzzle without an answer key in the following day’s paper. Initial reports that circulated on social media suggested that she died in Irvington, an incorporated township on the outskirts of Newark where she lived in the final months of her life. However, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed to BuzzFeed LGBTQ that her place of death was Philadelphia. An exact location was not provided, but family members say she was discovered abandoned on the street.
A brief summary of the coroner’s report provided to BuzzFeed LGBTQ by medical examiners — which is just four bullet points in length — is more notable for what it doesn’t say than the little insight it offers as to how Hall lived or how she died. The summary refers to Hall, a Black transgender woman, by her discarded birth name, even though family members say that Hall told them she legally updated her name and gender marker. Listing the cause as “drug intoxication,” the report concludes that her death was “accidental.”
But those who knew her and who will continue to carry on her memory believe that Hall’s death was no accident. Sparks, a longtime friend and one of the nearly two dozen people who turned out to her July 9 vigil, described the turn of events as “foul play.”
“Someone needs to be found and in jail,” said Sparks, who asked to be referred to mononymously in this story. “This needs to be taken care of. It needs to be handled accordingly. This should not be another case to be unsolved, unheard of, and unthought of. When stories like this come up, they tend to just get washed away, but it’s like a whistle. It’s clear. Something is very, very wrong.”
"A Perfect Storm"
Hall’s case shines a light on a system that routinely fails Black trans women, who are rarely afforded the fine luxury of justice in life or in death, say advocates and activists.
She is one of 23 transgender people who are believed to have died as a result of violence in 2020 so far, a majority of whom have been women of color. That toll has escalated to near-unprecedented levels with six months left in the year, and its ferocious velocity shows no signs of slowing. Since Hall’s body was discovered last month, four more trans women of color have been killed: Merci Mack, Shaki Peters, Bree Black, and Marilyn Cazares.
Coverage of their deaths often obscures that many of the victims are young people in the beginning of their lives, with hopes and desires left unrealized. Twelve of those killed this year were in their twenties, including 27-year-old Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, who was dismembered and left in a Philadelphia river the same month that Hall’s body was discovered. Two of the victims, Yampi Méndez Arocho and Brayla Stone, were teenagers at the time of their deaths. None were over 40.
Friends and family members say that Hall was a devout fashionista who dreamed of opening her own boutique or clothing line someday. Mariah Hope, a close relative who said Hall was like a “sister” to her, affectionately called her a “diva.” “She loved to dress,” said Hope, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym. “She loved to keep her hair and her nails done. She had the prettiest smile, and she just liked to have fun.”
Many who knew her added that it’s been difficult to cope with losing someone described as a “sweetheart” who had “no ill will toward anyone.” “To know her is to love her, and if you didn’t know her, that’s a sad thing,” Sparks said. “It’s a really sad thing.”
The pace of atrocities in 2020 is so rapid that even the most dedicated LGBTQ+ advocates have struggled to keep up. When BuzzFeed LGBTQ spoke to Gina Duncan, director of Equality Florida’s Transgender Equality program, her personal tally of trans killings was missing several names — as Mack, Peters, and Black died within just days of each other over the Independence Day holiday. Tuning out the news or taking a mental health break is an exercise in putting grief on layaway; it means knowing there will be bodies to count upon return.
“I recently saw a post from a friend of mine, a fellow advocate doing this work,” Duncan said. “She's a transgender woman in South Florida. She said, ‘I am frustrated. I am tired. I have run out of ideas to address these murders.’ That's very much a feeling of advocates across the country.”
“We hold vigils, we say their names, and we call out that Black trans lives matter, yet these murders — year after year — do not slow down,” Duncan continued.
That prevailing feeling of helplessness is a learned reaction to the multitude of sorrows the trans community have been forced to bear every year, a weight that is incalculable and ever-growing. The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency was the most violent on record for the trans community: An estimated 29 transgender people were killed in 2017 as hate crimes increased for the third consecutive year. The next two years saw roughly identical levels of anti-trans violence, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recording 26 and 27 such deaths in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
While these numbers seem to follow a grimly expected pattern, this year stands to be different, but not in a way that will be cause for celebration. By this time last year, just 13 transgender people had been killed. Should 2020 keep at a similar pace, the year will end with 47 trans individuals being killed, a figure that is 62% higher than the previous record.
The reasons why a community that already suffers a higher rate of hate crimes than any other marginalized group is being targeted with such dramatically elevated levels of violence in 2020 is subject to speculation. Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for HRC’s Transgender Justice Initiative, cited the pandemic as an aggravating factor in anti-trans violence. Even before COVID-19, transgender people were twice as likely as the average person to be unemployed, and Cooper said many individuals are “out of work” and “have fewer places to go than they would have” if many parts of the country weren’t on lockdown.
To add to these economic stressors, Duncan said there are increased rates of homelessness “due to incompatible situations of living at home” during quarantine, and most shelters that serve transgender people “are at capacity.” “It’s a perfect storm,” she said. “This pandemic is exposing the ugly underbelly of our country that is directly impacting violence against Black trans women.”
One under-examined aspect of what Duncan called a “cycle of desperation and survival” is that many of the transgender women killed each year were murdered by men they had been involved with prior to their deaths. Tracy Single, who was found in a Houston parking lot in July 2019, was allegedly slain by her boyfriend, who was later charged for the 22-year-old’s murder. In May, Selena Reyes-Hernandez was shot multiple times by an intimate partner after the 37-year-old revealed that she was transgender, according to police. Some trans homicide victims, as Duncan noted, may have engaged in survival sex work and been killed by clients.
The preponderance of violence trans women face in their romantic and sexual lives bears out in the data: A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 54% of trans people have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner. A recent survey of 36 major cities from the New York Times cited domestic violence as a leading cause for the 21.8% increase in murder rates this year. That report doesn’t spotlight anti-trans violence, but it’s hard to read those soaring numbers and not think of women like Single and Reyes-Hernandez.
For Cooper, knowing that these victims were killed by people they knew is “the scariest part.” “If you as a Black trans person, particularly a Black trans woman, can't trust people that you know, then who can you trust?” she asked.
“A Whole ‘Nother Realm”
Like it does for many of the women whose names have become hashtags in 2020 and years past, the answer to what happened to Tatiana Hall depends upon who is asked. The Philadelphia Police Department has yet to rule her death a homicide, citing the presence of drugs in her system at the time of her death. Those closest to her say that explanation is unsatisfactory, a sentence without punctuation. “Who was she with?” Mariah Hope, Hall’s relative, said she wanted to know. “Who was the last person who saw her? How did she get where they found her?”
Those who knew Hall suggest a more complicated story than a back-alley overdose. Prior to her death, family members say she had been seeing a 38-year-old bald man of color. They didn’t know his name, had never met him, and had no idea how to contact him. Other than these scattered details, Hope only knew that he lived in Philadelphia, which she said explains why Hall was out of state at the time of her death.
“That’s the only person she knew out there,” Hope said. “She wouldn’t just be walking the street. I believe that’s who she was with — or someone he knows. If something did happen to her as far as somebody drugging her or doing something to her, we don’t know who this is, and he could do it to someone else.”
The hypothetical scenario that Hope described bears unwitting yet distinct similarities to the allegations against Ed Buck, a longtime Democratic Party donor in Southern California. Buck was arrested in September 2019 after two young Black men died of fatal overdoses in his West Hollywood apartment. More than 10 men are alleged to have been preyed upon by Buck, who is reported to have forcibly injected them with drugs while they were sleeping; the majority of his alleged victims experienced homelessness and addiction. It took two years of activists calling for an investigation before Buck was arrested and federally charged.
But there is one key difference between the charges Buck is facing and what those who knew her believe may have happened to Hall: They say she didn’t use drugs, outside of some avocational enjoyment of marijuana. “She wouldn’t take something that could harm her,” Sparks said. “This is a whole ‘nother realm, and it wasn’t her realm. This isn’t her.” This characterization was confirmed by several attendees of Hall’s vigil.
When presented with this information, the Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment. BuzzFeed LGBTQ also inquired as to why, if personal drug use was the sole explanation for Hall’s demise, she would commute an hour and a half to Philadelphia to overdose when such substances would have been readily available in her immediate area. Nearby Newark, which has been the site of several high-profile drug busts in recent years, has been cited as having the highest rates of substance abuse in New Jersey.
A spokesperson for law enforcement did not respond to these questions.
Although police have told family members they are looking into a suspect, many are concerned that Hall’s death will become yet another name in the void. Homicides generally boast among the highest clearance rates among violent crimes, with the Federal Bureau of Investigations reporting that 61.6% of murder offenses end in an arrest, but research provided to BuzzFeed LGBTQ by HRC suggests such rates are far lower when the victim is trans. Since 2016, arrests have been made in just 47% of cases.
Even that figure is deceptively high, as advocates maintain that far fewer of these cases will result in prosecution or the alleged offender facing any jail time. Of trans homicides recorded in 2019, BuzzFeed LGBTQ could only locate one case in which the assailant was sentenced: 19-year-old Devon Robinson, who will serve life without parole for killing Paris Cameron, 20, after opening fire on a party in east Detroit. Twenty-year-old Timothy Blancher and 21-year-old Alunte Davis, both of whom were Black, gay men, were also murdered in the attack. Robinson shot the victims after engaging in oral sex acts with several party guests, prosecutors said. He was worried his family would find out, according to prosecutors.
Duncan has witnessed personally how little care is bestowed upon the fate of transgender victims. Florida, her home state, made national headlines in 2018 when it became the national epicenter of trans violence. Five transgender women were killed that year: three in Jacksonville, one in Orlando, and one in Sarasota. Only one of the alleged perpetrators was caught, and none of the deaths were labeled hate crimes.
“In many cases, there is a lack of energy due to the socioeconomic, the racial profile, and sometimes the occupational profile of the murder victim,” she said, noting that each of the women, like Hall, was initially misgendered and deadnamed in police reporting. “There’s very much an undertone of othering and a lack of humanity based on the fact that these may be Black trans women who due to socioeconomic status and due to having been discriminated against resort to sex work. It puts them in a category where law enforcement does not deem their murder to be a priority.”
The Philadelphia Police Department has asked that anyone with information about Hall come forward to assist police in investigating her case, but few of those who gathered to mourn Hall had spoken to authorities. Many were fiercely protective of her memory, concerned that she would be exploited by officials who initially ignored her death altogether. When BuzzFeed LGBTQ initially reached out on July 1, the department had no record of Hall whatsoever. Her death had to be confirmed by the coroner.
Cooper said these frustrations only lead to further mistrust of police, which may prevent credible sources from coming forward and could even discourage women like Hall seeking out help from law enforcement prior to their deaths. “We're doing our best to survive and hopefully to get ahead,” Cooper said. “We are being killed, murdered, slaughtered, and chopped up just for doing that.”
“My Guardian Angel”
A vigil that began with the weightless pulse of cotton-candy Top 40 music ends in more austere fashion. Balloons are released into the sky as darkness settles over the Passaic, and the gathering feels more sparse without their buoyant presence — a sudden vacancy that acts as an unspoken reminder of what they have collectively lost. Over the phone, Hope will say that it’s nearly impossible to describe what was taken from her. She still calls Tatiana Hall every day, forgetting that Hall can’t come to the phone right now.
“I'm randomly crying,” she said. “I have two children so I’m trying to keep myself together, but me and Tatiana were very close. I cried so much yesterday that I almost had an asthma attack. This is just unbelievable. We didn’t expect this.”
Like many who knew her, Hope is taking time to become acquainted with the phantom limb of a life lived without Hall by her side. She has lost the desire to see other people or be near them. But one day when she is able to tend to her wounds, Hope said she wants to start a scholarship fund for Black trans women so they know “that they have a voice” and that there are others out there who want “to help in any way to get them opportunities.” She hopes the scholarship will both carry on Hall’s legacy and also show that she wasn’t rejected by her community and forced out into the street. She was deeply loved every single day of her life.
Although Hall was accepted and embraced by her family, 29-year-old Katrina Parker said she took Hall under her wing as a teenager, ceremonially adopting her as a “trans daughter.” “She became my bundle of joy,” Parker said. She guided Hall in her nascent womanhood, protecting and uplifting her as she explored what it meant to be a woman in a world that makes little space for girls like them. Hall would quickly become Parker’s “mini me,” looking up to her second mother as a sign the life she wanted to lead was possible.
“She knew that I would never let nobody hurt her,” Parker said. “That’s why she was content with me. She was in a safe place with me. Nobody could hurt her with me. It was always that way.”
Their earthly ties have been severed by a society which treats trans women as expendable, but Parker still feels connected to Hall and is resolute in seeking answers about her death. “We need to get justice,” she said. “The person who did it needs to be in jail so she can be happy and have peace. I want her to feel like her family did what was needed for her, that we didn’t just let it be another unknown mystery.”
The moonlight bounced off formless clouds on the night of Hall's vigil, and Parker described Hall as watching over her loved ones from above.
“She’s my guardian angel now.” ●