Jussie Smollett Scandal Aside, Chicago Is Reeling From Anti-LGBTQ Violence

"The LGBTQ community need to give as much of a damn about these dead [trans] women as we did about getting married."

Lead photo: Activists in Chicago rally for transgender protections.

Seven—that’s the number of transgender people that have been slain in the Chicago area in just four years.

While Jussie Smollett stares down felony charges for allegedly staging an anti-LGBTQ and racist hate crime in Chicago last month, LGBTQ advocates in the city are reeling from very real deadly violence that has plagued the Windy City in recent months.

Two transgender people were murdered in Chicago last year, as well as a third non-binary trans person, all of them transfeminine people of color.

Last month, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office announced charges in the murder of Dejanay Stanton. If Stanton’s case is closed, it will be the first time in 20 years a transgender murder in Chicago has been solved. The last was in 1999, when transgender woman Barretta Williams was shot to death.

This week, LGBTQ activists are asking why so many trans murders remain unsolved while police have so thoroughly picked apart Smollett’s case.

Channyn Lynne Parker, a Chicago-based transgender advocate, has been calling on police to add resources to investigating transgender homicides.

“Chicago PD was so quick to dismantle Jussie Smollett’s account, and they put so much energy and so much manpower and so much fanfare into this,” says Parker. “Yet there’s so many unsolved murders that happen in the trans community.”

In August, Dejanay Stanton, a trans woman who long dreamed of escaping the adversity facing black LGBTQ people in the hyper-segreated city, was shot in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. She died later at the hospital. In October, 31-year-old Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier, another black trans woman, was stabbed to death and left outside an abandoned building on Chicago’s West Side. Police misgendered her in death.

Shawna LaFlare, a beloved fixture in Chicago’s ball scene, was shot to death at home. LaFlare, say friends, presented as non-binary transgender. LaFlare’s death was not reported as a transgender homicide due to their gender non-conformity and subsequently was not noted by LGBTQ advocacy organizations that total transgender homicides annually.

The slayings come on the heels of four others in recent years. In 2015, Keyshia Blige died in a car crash after she was shot while driving in a suburb outside of Chicago. The following year, T.T. Saffore was found with her throat slit on the city’s West Side. Keke Collier, a 24-year-old trans woman, was gunned down in the Englewood neighborhood in 2017. In all three cases, police misgendered the victims.

Center on Halsted, Chicago’s LGBTQ center that operates the city’s Anti-Violence Project, was so inundated with media inquiries about the Smollett case over the week, that staffers were unable to provide even basic information about their programs or hate crime data.

In a statement released to media outlets Thursday, the organization noted it, too, was grappling with transgender homicides and it would be “doubling down on our efforts towards supporting and advocating for these individuals, including raising attention on the stories that get lost or go without mention.”

LaSaia Wade, founder of the South Side’s LGBTQ Center Brave Space Alliance, says community organizers have been working overtime to help transgender people process the violence and find ways to that grief into action.

“This past year, I would say the community is up in arms,” says Wade. “How do we keep people busy in the midst of understanding that we have killers in Chicago that are killing trans women, and that they haven’t been caught?”

Scott Olson/Getty
Demonstrators protest for transgender rights in Chicago.

Stanton’s case is the only that has resulted in an arrest. Chicago’s murder solve rate is generally low while its homicide rate is among the highest in the country annually. In 2017, the murder clearance rate was just 17.5%, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago Police Department, which has jurisdiction over six of seven homicides, declined to comment for this story. In response questions about the department’s prioritization of Smollett’s case over transgender homicides, Public Information Officer Jose Jara stated, “We are unable to answer your questions from our office.”

Jara suggested NewNowNext submit Freedom of Information Act requests. A follow-up inquiry about the department’s commitment to investigating transgender homicides went unanswered.

According to FBI data, Illinois saw 14 hate crimes related to sexual orientation and one related to gender identity in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. The previous year, 21 sexual orientation hate crimes were reported in the state, and three others were attributed to gender identity.

The Chicago area also accounts for a staggering 7% of the all the nation’s transgender homicides over the last four years. That’s according to data compiled by the HRC, in addition to LaFlare’s murder, which went unreported in official totals last year.

Scott Olson/Getty
Demonstrators protest for transgender rights in Chicago.

Lesbian State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, whose district encompasses the North Side neighborhoods of the Chicago, questions if the lack of unsolved murders is truly about police investigative power or a lack of priority placed on transgender lives.

“It is a question of giving a damn,” Cassidy tells NewNowNext. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Cassidy was among LGBTQ lawmakers on the frontlines to pass marriage equality in Illinois in 2013. Today, the focus has shifted to improving quality of life for transgender people. In 2017, the state passed a law that allows transgender people to update the gender markers on their birth certificates without undergoing gender-confirming surgery.

But, Cassidy concedes, such laws only go so far in improving lives for those most marginalized in the transgender community, particularly transgender people of color facing high rates of violence.

“The things I can do here feel minimal,” adds Cassidy. “Are we addressing the questions of safety? Are we addressing the questions of accessing and opportunity? There is not a singular answer to that… We as members of the LGBTQ community need to give as much of a damn about these dead women as we did about getting married.”

For Parker, the juxtaposition between the Smollett investigation and the unsolved trans homicides has led to a sense of hopelessness.

“The community feels numb, and when I say numb I don’t mean numb as in non-reactive but numb in the sense that it figures that no one cares, and this isn’t going to stop,” says Parker.

Wade is calling for reforms. She wants to see a new LGBTQ council with transgender leadership to hold state and city officials accountable and bring justice to victims. But justice is hard for many to even conceptualize anymore, says Parker.

“If god forbid, something should happen to me as a trans woman, I hope you exhaust every resource,” Parker continues. “I hope you wear your proverbial pin down in an effort to bring some kind of justice to me. That is something that no one should have to think about and no should have to say.”

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.