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Michelle Tameka Washington Saw Life as an Adventure

She had big plans to mentor the next generation of Black Trans women

This story is part of Know Their Names, a collection of articles illuminating and celebrating the lives of Black Trans women.

“L“Life is a gift, I accept it. Life is an adventure, I dare it. Life is a mystery, I’m unfolding it. Life is a puzzle, I’m solving it. Life is a game, I’m playing it. Life can be a struggle, I’m facing it. Life is beauty, I praise it. Life is an opportunity, I took it. Life is my mission, I’m fulfilling it.”

Michelle Tameka Washington posted that quote on her Facebook timeline in early 2013. She was 34 years old at the time. Nobody can know for sure if that quote was a reminder of a New Year’s resolution or simply something that caught her eye. But it seems like the mantra she followed for most of her life.

Michelle Tameka went by many names. Online, she was Michelle Simone. In professional spaces, she went by Michelle. Some friends referred to her as Ms. Tyra Banks because of her beauty. But to her close friends and loved ones, she was just Tameka.

Michelle Tameka Washington. Photo via Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs/Facebook

Born and raised in Philadelphia, friends say Tameka was a regular girl next door who valued relationships with friends and family above all else. The eldest of three full siblings and a handful of half siblings, Tameka built families around her. She informally adopted those who needed guidance and was known to be a nurturing and caring individual.

“Tameka was all about coming together,” said Crystal Davis, her sister, at Tameka’s June 1 memorial service.

One of the ways Tameka connected with people was through humor. Friends say her ability to make folks laugh was one of her most distinct qualities.

“She loved being a prankster,” says Sharron L. Cooks, a friend who met Tameka when the two were teenagers. Sharron recalls a lifetime of laughs with Tameka, as could almost everyone else who shared personal stories about Tameka at her memorial service. In fact, laughter was heard far more frequently than crying during the service, as people shared stories about their life with their friend. Even if you didn’t know Tameka, an image was quickly painted in those services of a smart, strong-willed woman with a sharp tongue and quick wit. She was someone who knew how to have a good time, but at the end of the day, she also wanted those around her to be happy.

BBut there was more to Tameka than laughter. Like most people, she had her fair share of struggles and pain. It never appeared to stop her, though.

“[Tameka] was resilient,” says her friend Mikal Woods, who referred to Tameka as his “gay mother” while speaking at the memorial service. “She fell down many times, but she [always] got up.” What’s more, she was able to find a way to use her pain to help others. It was like she lived the mantra that nothing is a mistake as long as you learn something from it.

That’s how Amber Hikes sees things. The current chief equity and inclusion officer for the ACLU-New York City first met Tameka at the Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia in late 2018. At the time, Amber was the executive director there. Tameka reached out to Amber to see how she could be of service to the Trans community in Philly. From that point until her death in May 2019, Tameka worked with the Office of LGBT Affairs to learn how she could mentor young Trans women using her own life experiences as her guide.

“What was unique about Tameka is that she saw what we were doing and she already knew exactly how she wanted to plug in and what she had to contribute,” Amber says. “She was already a mother and an auntie to so many, and she wanted to extend that wisdom and expertise to the new generation of young Trans folks. She truly wanted to give back to her community and fill in the gaps that were missing.”

In her teens and twenties, however, Tameka “didn’t make her life about her gender identity. She just moved and navigated through life as the beautiful woman that she was,” Sharron says.

And that life was full of adventure and travel.

According to Sharron, Tameka always maintained a genuine love of learning and chasing new experiences. Though she called Philadelphia home, Tameka spent time living in San Diego, Las Vegas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the years. She was always motivated to learn new things and then share what she learned with her friends and family. Most recently, she was learning about and investing in cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin. She even started making YouTube videos about what she was learning about financial trends so she could share her knowledge and empower her friends and family.

Tameka was always sharing.

“[Tameka] would give [someone] the shirt off her back and walk home if need be,” said her friend Mikal. “I never saw her turn her back on nobody.” Even animals felt Tameka’s loving heart. An animal lover since childhood, Tameka had different pets, including birds she would “rescue” from the pet store. She would take the birds home and let them fly freely around the house. Eventually, she’d release them back into the world, because she said birds didn’t belong in cages.

“Tameka was a safe harbor for so many folks. That was her unique gift. She was going to find a way to bring up your spirits, to remind you that your darkest days aren’t your only days.”

On May 19, Tameka was gunned down on a North Philadelphia street. She was 40 years old. While some of the details about Tameka’s death are still unknown, both Amber and Sharron believe Tameka’s identity had little to do with the shooting. Just days after her death, a man named Troy Bailey was arrested for her murder. He eventually confessed to the killing, claiming the shooting was over a gun sale gone wrong.

“[Tameka] was a safe harbor for so many folks,” Amber says. “She was the person you could call to support you on your process. That was her unique gift. She was going to find a way to bring up your spirits, to remind you that your darkest days aren’t your only days.”

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Lori L Tharps

Lori L Tharps

Lori L. Tharps is a journalist and award-winning author who writes about the intersection of race and pop culture. She blogs at MyAmericanMeltingpot.com

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