In the past five months, four transgender women of color and an African-American gay man – possibly tied to the same drag show touring circuit – have been murdered in Florida.
The murders are spreading fear through the LGBTQ community, with activists banding together to demand more action from state leaders and from law enforcement. They fear they are being targeted.
Four of the murders happened in Jacksonville, and the fifth took place in Orlando.
The Orlando murder on July 19 likely happened in the same 24-hour window as the Jacksonville murder of 30-year-old Jessie Sumlar, a gay hairdresser who did drag, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.
“We are asking the governor to get involved,” said Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s statewide director of transgender equality. “If four middle class white women were murdered in two major cities just a two-hour drive away, the capital would be on fire.”
Duncan said the governor has the power to activate stepped-up state criminal investigation resources and/ or call in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Orange County Sheriff’s office in Orlando is offering a $5,000 reward for information about the July 19 murder of 27-year-old Sasha Garden, who was discovered outside an apartment complex with trauma to her body and later died. (Information can be called into Crimeline at 800-423-8477.)
To people who are part of Florida’s gay, lesbian, transgender and drag communities, the murders of the three transgender women of color in Jacksonville – 36-year-old Celine Walker on Feb. 4, 38-year-old Antash’a English on June 1, and 24-year-old Cathalina James on June 24 – look very suspicious, along with the murders of Sumlar and Garden on July 19.
“All of the women who’ve been murdered performed on the same (drag show) circuit,” said Lakey Love, Transaction Training Coordinator for Equality Florida. She said that Sumlar, the gay man killed in Jacksonville on July 19, did hair styling for some performances and sometimes performed himself at the shows.
Antash’a English was a featured performer at a Jacksonville club, winning multiple titles in the trans pageantry circuit.
On Tuesday, LGBTQ activists planned a press conference before speaking before the Jacksonville City Council to demand action.
In Jacksonville, sheriff’s department spokesman Christian Hancock said “there’s no evidence to date” that links the murders of the three transgender women in Jacksonville. “Could that change? Absolutely.”
“There’s nothing to show the same individual or individuals committed the three murders,” he said. Hancock said his department has not linked the July 19 murders to the first three.
According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD,) transgender women are extremely vulnerable to violence.
“Victims of anti-transgender violence are overwhelmingly transgender women of color, who live at the dangerous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization which often lead to high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness,” a study by the group says. “While some homicides have not yet been identified as hate crimes due to lack of information about the perpetrators or motives, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports an alarming multi-year trend showing that transgender women experience a greater risk of death by hate violence than any other group.”
Seeking answers, members of Equality Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a local advocacy group called Jasmyn met with Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, said Duncan of Equality Florida. The LGBTQ advocates offered to provide “cultural competence” training and other resources to help officers in their investigative efforts.
“Progressive and 21st century policing involves having LGBTQ liaisons on the ground and in the community,” says Duncan.
The groups specifically are asking for such a liaison, as well as a town hall meeting and a commitment for local law enforcement to do cultural competency training. They also want the sheriff’s office to issue a statement and apology for improperly identifying the victims with the names on their I.D.’s, rather than the names they chose in the new lives they created for themselves – a practice the transgender community calls “deadnaming.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando made that error initially during the investigation of Garden’s July 19 murder, then issued an apology, noting that “the victim was transgender and was known as Sasha to her family and friends.”