On the last day of her life, Zoraida Reyes had a choice: take the bus or walk to meet her blind date. Her favored method of getting around, a bright yellow bicycle that friends called the banana boat, had been stolen, and she’d never learned to drive. So she set out on foot on June 10, 2014, a mild, overcast day in southern California, from her rented bedroom in a modest ranch-style home in Santa Ana, having arranged to meet a man she met on badoo.com, the social networking site.
Only it wasn’t really a date. Reyes, a 28-year-old transgender woman, planned to connect with the man because he’d agreed to pay her $10 for oral sex. Tall and slender with wavy black hair and chiseled cheekbones, she had the legs of a model and a prominent Adam’s apple, of which she was especially self-conscious. Paid sex helped her get by. Reyes, a prominent local LGBTQ activist, had worked at fast-food restaurants until getting hurt on the job at a Jack In the Box, but she hoped to return to her studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. On most Tuesday nights, she attended meetings for transgender Latina women at the LGBT Center Orange County.
Her friends described her as funny, exuberant and fond of singing and dancing, even if she couldn’t carry a tune particularly well. But she was also dangerously naïve, they said. “She accepted anyone, regardless,” said Sandra Martinez, a coworker at Jack In the Box –- even insensitive customers whoasked, Are you a guy? “She was so nice.”
Reyes got into the back seat of Randy Lee Parkerson’s silver Honda, which he’d parked on a residential street in Santa Ana. Parkerson, 40, was having his own troubles. He’d just lost his job as a “team leader” at Target and went on a methamphetamine bender, smoking so much of the drug it kept him awake for six continuous days. Parkerson, who did not consider himself bisexual, told police that when high, he preferred male partners. He and Reyes, he claimed, went from oral to anal sex and she asked to have her airway restricted. While he choked her, he told police, wrapping his right arm around her neck and holding her hair with his left hand, Reyes would “grab his hand or she would make some noises, which would cause him to stop, but then Zoraida would say, ‘No, no, keep going, go, go.’”
When it was over 10 minutes later, Parkerson claimed, he noticed blood around Reyes’s nose and realized she was dead. He stuffed her body into the trunk of his car and drove around for a day, smoking more meth, before dumping her in an empty lot behind a Dairy Queen in Anaheim. Police found the body the next day. After being arrested four months later, Parkerson confessed, admitting that he killed her but telling police it was an accident — thus invoking the Preppie Killer defense, named after New York murderer Robert Chambers, who claimed he didn’t intend to strangle 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during rough sex in Central Park in 1986.
Reyes’s mother doesn’t believe it. “Since she’s not here to defend herself he could be saying it was an accident,” said Macrena Reyes. “I don’t think it was an accident.”
Parkerson is set to be tried for murder in March. Prosecutors have not charged him with a hate crime, although many of Reyes’s supporters assumed when they learned what happened that her slaying was motivated by bias. “You hear a transgender Latina’s body is found dumped in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, the first thing you think is, this woman was murdered and it was a hate crime,” said Laura Kanter, a director at the LGBT Center OC. “What else could you think, right?”
The site where Reyes's body was dumped.
Reyes’s homicide was one of at least 12 transgender slayings in 2014, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), which tracks hate crimes against LGBTQ and HIV-infected individuals. Most of the transgender victims were women of color. In 2015 the number rose to 22, including 19 victims of color, the highest figure since the group began recording these killings in 1989.
It’s an alarming increase given that there are only an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. All during a banner year for the cause.
The celebrated transformation of Caitlyn Jenner has accelerated cultural acceptance of transgender individuals, coming as it did after positive portrayals of characters in film, TV and on Broadway. But while hits such as “Kinky Boots,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “The Danish Girl” (just nominated for two Oscars) have explored the difficulties facing transgender women, they remain subject to disproportionate violence, including assaults and homicides, advocates and academics say.
Making matters worse, they say, is that many transgender victims fear such crimes won’t be investigated or prosecuted as vigorously as those involving other types of victims, in part because of disparaging attitudes among some law-enforcement officers. Police have been known to exacerbate the problem by perpetrating abuse themselves. Those who’ve been assaulted are often too afraid to report having been attacked, which means that underreporting — by them as well as among police — remains pervasive.
Advocates call the situation a crisis. “The world is a dangerous place for us,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a former policy advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We’re trying to make it better, and hopefully, God willing, it will get better. But it’s not getting better fast enough.”
Advocates worry that the violence has not generated the media attention it deserves, with one contributing factor being insufficient official data. There are no statistics, for example, to confirm that transgender victims are less likely to get justice than others, though experts claim law-enforcement prejudice makes subpar treatment all but certain.
The FBI, spurred by the Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009, which made it a felony to attack someone because of their actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, didn’t begin tracking such assaults until 2013 and has yet to compile reliable data. That year 31 of the 5,922 hate crimes involved gender-identity bias, about half of one percent, the bureau concluded. Among incidents involving one form of bias in 2014, there were 109 offenses involving gender identity, 69 of which were anti-transgender, the FBI said.
The numbers could be attributed to lackadaisical reporting by local police departments, which forward their data to the FBI on a voluntary basis. Numerous agencies have either not sent their figures to the FBI or reported zero hate crimes, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization. On announcing its 2014 stats, the FBI noted in a press release that while 15,494 law-enforcement agencies contributed to the bureau’s hate-crime report, “only 1,666 agencies reported hate crimes within their jurisdiction(s).”
This despite a spate of headline-making murders, several of them spurred by anger related to the gender identity of the victims.
On Oct. 15, Zella Ziona, 21, a transgender woman in Maryland, was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Rico LeBlond, 20, after Ziona “began acting flamboyantly towards LeBlond and greatly embarrassed LeBlond in front of his peers,” according to arrest documents obtained by a CBS news affiliate in Washington, D.C.
Nine days earlier, Keisha Jenkins, 22, an artist and student at Temple University, was surrounded and beaten by a group of five or six men, one of whom shot her twice in the back. Police have said the slaying, which occurred in a desolate area of Philadelphia known for transgender prostitution, was not a hate crime. Homicide Capt. James Clark insisted that the motive was strictly robbery and that the assailants killed Jenkins after she fought back. But the one suspect cops arrested, Pedro Redding, an ex-con with a long rap sheet, had targeted other transgender women in that area for robbery before.
The killing outraged Nellie Fitzpatrick, the Philadelphia mayor’s liaison to the gay community, who in news reports called Jenkins’s death “a tremendous and tragic loss for the entire city, our LGBT community, and, more specifically, our trans community. This type of wicked, inhumane violence just has no place here. We can’t take any more. It’s just too much.”
Widespread distrust of law-enforcement has hindered efforts to prevent more bloodshed.
In 2008 Memphis police beat Duanna Johnson, a transgender woman, while in their custody, an incident captured on videotape. The main perpetrator pled guilty to a federal civil rights charge for excessive force. Nine months after the beating Johnson was murdered. The case was never solved.
Other scandals include Brooke Fantelli suing the Bureau of Land Management in federal court in 2012 after rangers tased and arrested her. She claimed they became hostile only after noticing that the gender on her ID was male. The Boston Police Department settled a lawsuit two years ago with a transgender woman who alleged she was abused at a station house by cops who arrested her for using the women’s restroom in a homeless shelter.
The concern those cases spurred is backed by academic research. A survey done in 2011 by researchers of transgender equality, called the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, found 29 percent of the 6,450 survey participants reported having experienced harassment or disrespect when interacting with police, and 6 percent said they had been physically assaulted. The report also found that almost half felt uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
“You hear a transgender Latina’s body is found dumped in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, the first thing you think is, this woman was murdered and it was a hate crime. What else could you think, right?”
Academics and advocates say that transgender crime victims frequently don’t alert authorities because they fear secondary victimization or worry that police won’t believe them, help them or take their cases seriously, among other concerns.
“The moral of the story is that trans people are hesitant to voluntarily interact with law enforcement even when they are victims of crime because of either prior experience or knowing of others who’ve had prior experiences where they were not treated as they should be by the police,” said Rebecca Stotzer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Hawaii and an authority on violence against transgender victims.
“The value of limiting your interactions with law enforcement is greater than the value you get out of actually having the crime reported and something done about it.”
In a review of research published in 2014 that examined 33 existing studies on interactions between police and transgender people, Stotzer found that a high percentage of respondents experienced arrest, incarceration, unjustified stops, disrespect, poor case handling, abuse and violence from within the criminal justice system. The most common problem was verbal harassment.
Mistreatment by police is adding to the risks for a group already subject to an unusual degree of cruelty.
A report released in June by the NCAVP found that in 2014, transgender women and transgender minorities were nearly twice as likely to experience physical or sexual violence as lesbian, gay or bisexual people and were about six times more likely to encounter police violence.
Stotzer says victims typically are brutalized early and often in their lives. An analysis she did in 2009 of violence against transgender victims found that between 25 and 50 percent of various study respondents reported being physically attacked because of their gender identity. About 15 percent said they had been raped or sexually assaulted and more than 80 percent were abused verbally. The NTDS report made similar findings: 26 percent of respondents had been physically assaulted because of bias against their gender identity and 10 percent were sexually assaulted. Additionally, 41 percent had tried to kill themselves.
Being marginalized increases their vulnerability, experts agree. Joblessness, depression, suicide and drug use are often part of the transgender experience, along with diminished access to housing and health care and discrimination in employment and education.
“High percentages of transgender people report multiple victimization from multiple sources,” said Stotzer. “We really need to admit the pervasiveness of this issue for transgender people.”