Underreported Trans Women Deaths Are the Secret No One’s Talking About
Experts say it’s an epidemic. And yet violence against Black Trans women still goes unreported or underinvestigated.
This story is part of Know Their Names, a collection of articles illuminating and celebrating the lives of Black Trans women.
The first time Candice Elease Pinky was shot was in the first few minutes of 2018. She had just finished a New Year’s Eve photo shoot at a hotel in Houston when she was shot in the face in what she assumed was an attempted robbery.
When the police arrived, they asked Candice’s then-boyfriend for her name. The bullet had seared Candice’s tongue and dislodged several teeth, and she was holding her mouth, trying to stop the bleeding. Her boyfriend gave them the name on her driver’s license.
“They was like, ‘No, not your name, her name,’” Candice, 25, says. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, that is her name. Marquise Henry.’”
Candice says that while the officers had initially appeared concerned, their attitude then changed.
“Once they found out I was Transsexual, it’s like they didn’t care anymore,” she says. “They said, ‘Well, he can go now, but he’s gonna have to walk downstairs and get on a stretcher himself because the stretcher can’t make it upstairs to the third floor.’”
The second time Candice was shot was this year, on January 24, was at a gas station on Richmond Avenue in West Houston. Video footage shows her running to escape the gunman. When she turns and puts her hand up to stop him, he shoots, striking her four times, shattering the bones in her left hand.
The shooting received media attention — Candice was again misgendered in some news reports — and she was afraid the man who shot her would try to find her. After several months of moving from one friend’s house to another, she decided she was going to move to Dallas to live with her friend Muhlaysia Booker.
“My bus ticket had actually been purchased, and when it was time to go out there, [Muhlaysia] was found murdered. So, you know, I’m now, I’m just…,” Candice’s voice trails off, as she can’t find the words. She sighs. “I’m numb to it all right now. I try not to think about it too much.”
The killings of Trans women has been declared an epidemic by the American Medical Association, and that is based just on the number of known homicides — currently 21 this year. Advocates say the number of actual killings is much higher, as is the number of actual versus recorded attacks, and the victims are overwhelmingly Black. Of the 21 recorded deaths this year, 19 were Black Trans women. The average American has about a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered, according to data from the FBI. For young Black Trans women, the odds are, according to an investigation by Mic, about one in 2,600.
So, why Black Trans women? What is it that puts them at so much more risk for violence than anyone else? And why do so many of these killings and attacks go unreported?
Black Trans women must deal with the same issues most Black women face — institutional racism and sexism — along with a host of other traumas. They face higher rates of intimate partner violence from men who feel shame about being attracted to them — a result of what Black Trans women say is widespread Transphobia in the Black community — and are often rejected by their families, the very people who are supposed to love them the most. With family abandonment comes homelessness — 51% of Black Trans women have been homeless, according to data from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). That and job discrimination force many Black Trans women into survival sex work.
In the NCTE’s U.S. Transgender Survey, 67% percent of Black respondents said they would feel uncomfortable asking police for help. When Black Trans women are killed, media and police often misidentify and misgender them, which means their deaths are often not recorded as anti-Trans violence.
“All this context leads Black Trans women into spaces that make them more susceptible to violence, and these fatal manifestations of misogynoir and Transphobia come to really horrific ends,” says Eliel Cruz, director of communications at the New York City Anti-Violence Project.
When they are attacked, many Black Trans women don’t feel safe going to the police because they say the police don’t take crimes against them seriously. In the NCTE’s U.S. Transgender Survey, 67% percent of Black respondents said they would feel uncomfortable asking police for help. When Black Trans women are killed, media and police often misidentify and misgender them, which means their deaths are often not recorded as anti-Trans violence.
“Some reporting issues come up with identification of the body. It’s not unusual to see a murder report of a man in a dress,” says Gillian Branstetter, an NCTE spokesperson. “It often takes local community, friends, and social media to correct the record.”
On July 30, the body of 55-year-old Bubba Walker was found in the ruins of a house in Charlotte, North Carolina, that had burned to the ground. It was an insurance adjuster, not police or firefighters, who discovered her body a day after the fire.
In response to a query about Bubba, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) sent an email that referred to her by her deadname — the term many Trans people use for the name they were given at birth and no longer use — and stated, “His family has been notified of his death.” Detectives have a cause of death from the medical examiner’s office and are conducting a “death investigation,” but despite some news reports that state otherwise, they have not classified Bubba’s death a homicide. Still, Bubba’s friends and others in the Trans community believe she was murdered.
“She was from a generation when being Trans was a lot more hard and a lot more scary. She was just so knowledgeable about things, and she was just a teacher to the community.”
Clarabelle Catlin met Bubba at a Trans Day of Remembrance event in November 2018. She considered Bubba a mother, who shared everything from fashion to safety tips with her.
“She was from a generation when being Trans was a lot more hard and a lot more scary,” says Clarabelle, 20. “She was just so knowledgeable about things, and she was just a teacher to the community.”
Clarabelle and Bubba also bonded over shared challenges. Clarabelle says that being Trans forced them both to the margins — “I’ve done some risky things before to survive. I mean, a lot of Trans people have,” she says — and that they were trying to help each other find stable housing.
According to the CMPD, Bubba had been reported missing, having last been seen on July 26. Her remains were not identified until about a month after they were discovered, but when Clarabelle first saw news reports, she didn’t realize it was Bubba.
“They used her birth name. We don’t really talk about birth name and stuff,” Clarabelle says.
“There’s no urgency in figuring out what happened in her case. I knew I couldn’t get my hopes up, because with most of these Trans women of color, cases go unsolved or are forgotten about.”
Later media reports identified Bubba as a Trans woman and included photos, which is how Clarabelle discovered that her friend was dead.
“With all the other Trans murders and friends I’ve lost and a lot of trauma I’ve been through, it was really heartbreaking,” Clarabelle says. “It kind of took a little light out of me.”
Clarabelle says Bubba was not known to frequent the area where her body was found and doesn’t believe Bubba would have gone into the house, which was empty and under renovation, alone. She says she has called the CMPD to get an update on the investigation but hasn’t received any information. She doesn’t feel it’s a priority for the department.
“There’s no urgency in figuring out what happened in her case. I knew I couldn’t get my hopes up, because with most of these Trans women of color, cases go unsolved or are forgotten about,” Clarabelle says.
A Charlotte-based Trans advocacy group has asked Clarabelle to speak about Bubba at a Trans Day of Remembrance event on November 20. Clarabelle misses her friend but doesn’t want to speak.
“There’s a lot of trauma around that day,” she says. “I’ve been to too many vigils, and it’s death, death, death, death, death, death, death, death, all my life. I just can’t do it again.”
Clarabelle has lost several Trans friends to murder and suicide and says she has been assaulted several times since she came out when she was 16. She’s in a group chat with other Trans women where they let each other know where they’re going. They keep the location services on their phones turned on so they can track each other. But while Clarabelle is cautious, she tries not to live in fear. She is an advocate and has planned conversation circles for young Trans women of color and uses social media to highlight the murders of Black Trans women and other issues affecting the community.
“I learned to not show my fear, because if I show my fear, it makes me even more of a target,” she says. “So, I have to put on that fierce face and go out into the world. That’s kind of what I’ve learned about being a Trans girl. You have to put on that brave face every single day, and don’t let anyone see you cry. You have to be fearless.”
On September 30, Clarabelle shared a post about Elisha Chanel Stanley, a Black Trans woman who was found dead in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, hotel room on September 16. As in Bubba’s case, people in the Trans community believe Elisha was murdered.
Ciora Thomas, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Trans advocacy group SisTers PGH, wrote on Facebook, “Elisha Stanley was killed last week in Pittsburgh and her funeral was last Thursday. She was living in DC. Family still living in Pittsburgh where she was just visiting. No news coverage and allegedly Pittsburgh Police aren’t investigating this at this time.”
A spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Police Department said they are waiting on the medical examiner’s office to determine the cause of death.
On another social media thread about Elisha’s death, one person asked why police hadn’t been investigating. Another replied, “Because she checks all the boxes of people police don’t give a fuck about.”
Advocates say this mistrust many Trans people have of the police is warranted. A 2019 NCTE report on police department policies states that Trans people are disproportionately affected by bias and abuse by police and within the criminal justice system. It also showed that none of the police departments surveyed required officers to “respectfully record the name currently being used by the individual that is separate from the spaces used for legal names or aliases in Department forms.” This means that in following up on investigations, Trans women who do not have the means to get new forms of identification must deal with the trauma not just of reliving the attacks but also of using the deadnames under which they are listed.
Candice says that despite having called the Houston Police Department (HPD) to get updates regarding the January 2019 shooting, she hasn’t been given any information and has given up.
“I’m leaving it alone. No one is contacting me. The guy isn’t arrested. Obviously the police haven’t done anything about it,” she says.
In response to a query from ZORA, HPD spokesperson John Cannon said, “This is an ongoing investigation, and its investigator and victim believe that she was not targeted based on her Transgender identity.” He confirmed the January 1, 2018, shooting but could not provide details about Candice’s interaction with the officers who responded and said if Candice feels she was mistreated, she has the right to file an internal affairs complaint against the officers.
Based on information Candice has received from others in the Trans community, she believes the gunman in the January 24 shooting was looking for a friend of hers, who is also a Black Trans woman, and that he mistook her for the friend. She’s concerned because she says that friend has been missing for several weeks. None of her social media profiles have been recently updated, and Candice says her friend’s cousin says her family has not heard from her.
After Muhlaysia’s murder, Candice moved to Louisiana, then Houston, then Austin. “I actually moved to Austin to try to get a job, get in a stable state of mind, because in Houston, I really didn’t have a good state of mind, because the guy wasn’t caught,” she says.
In mid-October, Candice returned to Houston. On her second day there, she says she received threatening phone calls from people who claimed they were connected with the man who shot her. She called the police and says she was taken to the hospital for 24-hour mental health observation because they said she was suffering from paranoia.
While Candice says of the shootings and subsequent trauma, “The situation I had already been put in, it would basically make anyone paranoid,” she maintains that she did, in fact, receive menacing phone calls.
“She wanted me to embrace my scars and embrace my beauty.”
Candice has been applying for jobs but can’t work as a hairstylist, as she was doing before she was shot, because she hasn’t fully regained use of her left arm. She says she’s been staying with friends and doesn’t currently have permanent housing.
Candice’s body is peppered with scars from where bullets and fragments pierced her skin. She also has a long scar from the first shooting that wraps around the right side of her neck. She used to cry when she looked at herself in the mirror, because she no longer felt beautiful, but Candice did a photo shoot a few months ago with a photographer who wanted to focus just on her scars.
“She wanted me to embrace my scars and embrace my beauty,” Candice says.
While Candice says she is more cautious than she was before the attacks, she has not let them deter her from living.
“People in the Trans community that I know, they don’t go outside during the daytime. They don’t go in the stores in the daytime. They don’t do too much when the sun is out. I live my life like I’m a normal woman,” she says.
Still, it’s a bittersweet determination, based on the understanding of the risks she faces for simply being.
“I’ve been through a lot, between family, fighting mental, physical, and emotional battles,” she says. “But I’m just gonna live my life to the fullest, because you never know when you’re gonna be taken off this earth.”