Robyn “Pocahontas” Crowe met Muhlaysia Booker about seven years ago while ordering food at a combination Taco Bell and KFC in Oak Cliff. Muhlaysia was 16 at the time. She took her order from the drive-thru window.
“I heard a voice on the intercom and I had clocked that it was a gay boy,” Pocahontas, 34, said. “‘Yes, welcome to Taco Bell, can I take your order please.’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me, can you repeat that?’”
Muhlaysia was not yet out as a transgender woman. Pocahontas, a black trans woman herself, was already a leader in the community. She’s a “gay mother,” which means she has taken several young members of the LGBT community under her wing, “protecting them, making sure they stay out of trouble.” Muhlaysia was about to join them.
“When I got up [to the window, Muhlaysia] was like, ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your order, what did you order?’ And I was like, ‘baby, I put in my order like three times, you still didn’t get it?’”
The two got to talking. Muhlaysia had heard of Pocahontas and was friends with some of her “gay children.” The two exchanged numbers. Muhlaysia soon joined the family as one of Pocahontas’ “grandbabies.”
“She was beautiful,” Pocahontas said. “She was a good friend. Anything I have ever done, she has always supported me. If she walked in the door right now and saw your head down, she would be like, ‘ma’am, are you okay?’ She was really a good person.”
On April 12, Muhlaysia, then 23, was assaulted in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Oak Cliff. A video of her beating was posted to social media by one of her attackers. It went viral. Dallas officials, including former Mayor Mike Rawlings and members of the Dallas Police Department, condemned the attacks and promised to keep Muhlaysia safe.
On May 18, she was murdered in East Dallas. And the national media descended on Dallas.
Vice News, CNN, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all ran stories about her murder. They talked to her friends, including Pocahontas. They filmed her funeral. They ran the video of her assault over and over. Then, Dallas police made an arrest. The journalists left. Things got quiet again. But black trans women in Dallas say little has changed.
“I’m still looking over my shoulder,” Pocahontas said.
Muhlaysia was one of three black trans women killed in Dallas in the last year. Brittany White, 29, died in October, and the body of Chynal Lindsey, 26, was found on June 5. Neither of those deaths received as much attention as Muhlaysia’s, even though Chynal was killed just three weeks later. This violence isn’t a new phenomenon. In Dallas and all over the U.S., trans women of color have a life expectancy of 35 years “primarily as a result of violence,” according to the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine. For every murder and assault that goes viral, there are several that don’t.
Despite this, Dallas consistently receives high marks for its friendliness toward the LGBT community. But the slew of media coverage that followed Muhlaysia’s death brought up a question that black trans women in the city already knew the answer to: to whom does that safety really apply?
Dallas’ gayborhood, Oak Lawn, is notoriously unfriendly to black trans women, Pocahantas and others contend. According to Pocahontas, she and her friends have been refused service at bars, harassed, thrown out of clubs, and pepper-sprayed.
“You would think that by it being called the LGBTQIA community, it would be welcoming,” Pocahontas said. “I don’t see a spot where I can just comfortably go in Dallas and just feel welcome and not have to deal with any discrimination.”
Living in the gayborhood in 2019 is more expensive than it was when Pocahontas first came out 20 years ago. In 2000, the median household income for Oak Lawn’s 75219 ZIP code was just $38,588. By 2017, that number rose to more than $63,000 while the city’s remained about $47,000. (In 2000, the city of Dallas’ median household income was about $37,470). The neighborhood is now about 75 percent white, while the city is about half white. The rising cost of living has forced black trans women to move to areas where their safety is not guaranteed. And police presence can often do more harm than good, according to Pocahontas, who says she’s been harassed by officers on multiple occasions.
“A police officer followed me all the way from the store to my house,” Pocahontas said. “And the officer, on the intercom, as I’m passing through the neighborhood said, ‘Sir, where are you going? Where are you going, sir?’ I’m like, ‘I live right here, this is my house.’”
At a town hall after Muhlaysia’s death, Dallas police pledged their support for the gay community. The department held a meeting at the Resource Center on Cedar Springs, a community center that seeks to provide services for the Dallas’ LGBTQ population. At the meeting, many white attendees praised the work the police were doing. When I brought up the meeting to Pocahontas, she said it “had nothing to do with us.”
“They got Cedar Springs on lock, but the girls that look like us are not on Cedar Springs because we don’t feel safe over there,” Pocahontas said. “We’re not welcome over there. This is a big community, the LGBT community. Why is it that white trans women can get up and praise [the police] while black trans women are dying?”
Rae Nelson, 28, moved to Dallas from Little Rock, Arkansas last August. In her hometown, she was a prominent activist. She transitioned in the spotlight, she says, and would often speak publicly and participate in interviews in which she advocated for trans rights. She moved to Dallas in pursuit of better opportunities, a higher paying job, and a more normal life. Working as a nurse and studying to be a therapist, she wanted her activism to take a back seat. But as she settled into her new home, there was something hard to ignore.
“It is unusually dangerous to exist as a black trans woman here,” Rae said. “The DFW area’s population is larger than that of San Francisco and Oakland, and if you look at the status of the girls there — and when I say girls I’m referring to black trans women — complete difference. Even though we can rival their size.”
Rae said dangers that trans women face come from many directions, but a large contributor is a lack of resources—healthcare, workforce training, counseling.
“When you’re at the intersection of being black, of being trans and being a woman, you’re at the lowest of the low. You’re at the intersection of intersection. And that’s why we say when black trans women are free, everybody’s free,” she says. “Safety for us looks like safe access to jobs, safe access to healthcare, safe access to the legal things that we need like gender marker changes, name changes, legal document changes.”
In the U.S. alone, 26 transgender women were killed in 2018 and 11 have been killed so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The deaths have overwhelmingly been comprised of black trans women. A survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality concluded that 51 percent of black trans women have experienced homelessness, compared to 30 percent of all trans survey respondents. It also found that 40 percent of black trans individuals were more likely not to have seen a health care provider in the last year due to cost and 20 percent were uninsured.
After Muhlaysia’s death, Rae sought out ways to get involved in Dallas on a smaller scale than Arkansas. Her mind was still focused on advocating for her community, but she wanted to let other women take the front seat. She attended a vigil for Muhlaysia. That’s where she met Niecee.
Niecee X, a 29-year-old who grew up in Oak Cliff, is an activist and founder of the Black Women’s Defense League.
“Dallas is a crazy place,” Niecee said. “To have grown up here and to see the hood that I’m from being called an ‘Arts District.’ Like, it ain’t no damn Arts District. But that’s how they’ve managed to gentrify it.”
Niecee, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, noted the dearth of resources available for black communities in Dallas, specifically for black trans women. They say it makes survival more dangerous.
“Everything is segregated in Dallas,” Niecee says. “Church is segregated, school is segregated, where we eat, what is available to eat is segregated. There are whole food deserts in South Dallas and in Oak Cliff that you can’t for three miles find an actual grocery store with a produce section. And I don’t think that’s by accident.”
Niecee has been an organizer since Hurricane Katrina, when they were a sophomore in high school. They grew up watching the news and loving politics. As Niecee grew older, they became inspired by grassroots organizing, like that of the Black Panthers. They started the Black Women’s Defense League in 2015. The organization works within black communities to empower women by providing self-defense classes and helping steer them to other resources.
“When you’re at the intersection of being black, of being trans and being a woman, you’re at the lowest of the low. You’re at the intersection of intersection. And that’s why we say when black trans women are free, everybody’s free.”Rae Nelson
After Muhlaysia’s assault, the Black Women’s Defense League went to the apartment complex where it happened to pass out information on the LGBTQ community. Niecee and co-organizers are helping victims of domestic violence get into therapy and are working to establish a shelter for homeless LGBTQ people in Dallas. Niecee noted that transphobia in white areas like Oak Lawn isn’t the only thing that makes life unsafe for black trans women. They spoke about the role black communities, and black men in particular, can play in oppressing black women.
“One can be oppressed and also oppress others,” they said. “Yes, there is a whole slew of oppression that’s around [black men]. You can be in an interaction with a police officer and die at the end of it. One in three black men go to jail at some point in their lifetime. There is a problem. But also because we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain privileges.”
The organization also works with kids, organizing summer and winter programs. Niecee is currently teaching at a summer camp, where one of their goals is to bring up gender identity with kids from a young age.
“I start off with, ‘Am I a he or a she or a what?’ They’re usually like ‘she, miss, ma’am,’ and I’m like ‘How do you know?’ and then they’re dumbfounded.”
Discrimination is deeply rooted, but these conversations can start anywhere, Niecee says. And they need to continue beyond the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like Muhlaysia’s murder.
Pocahontas, who was featured in the Vice News documentary following Muhlaysia’s death, criticized the way media outlets handled the tragedy. She was particularly frustrated by the abrupt end to the coverage after the case was closed.
Part of the eight-minute Vice feature followed Muhlaysia’s friends as they mourned her loss. But after the nine hours they spent filming, Pocahontas feels the documentary didn’t fully capture what she hoped it would.
“The day they recorded us, we had a celebration for Muhlaysia’s life at a club,” she said. “Everybody came out, it was a big party, everybody did shows. I wanted the world to see us celebrating her life. That this happened to us, but in the midst of everything, we’re celebrating. Our story was cut short.”
Rae, Niecee, and Pocahontas all say they wished their community was highlighted more outside of the tragedies.
“I don’t even think the media cares,” Pocahontas said. “I think they want what’s hot. Everyone wants to jump on the story. That’s why I’ve been declining a couple of interviews. They don’t really care about what’s happening.”
Niecee put it more bluntly.
“We’re worth more dead,” they said. “That’s really the implication.”
Speaking on television or at events can be scary for trans women who have watched members of their community die. Muhlaysia didn’t want the spotlight after she was assaulted. “She was afraid that what happened would happen,” Pocahontas said.
That fear can be compounded by a feeling of having nowhere to turn for safety.
“Who protects black trans women?” Rae said. “Because we can’t always turn to our own community of cis folks, whether that be cis men or cis women. But also I know some girls who want to run to the police. Well, understand that the police have participated in the criminalization of sex work, police participate in the murder of black and brown bodies all the time. I don’t trust the police to keep me safe and I don’t trust a black community to keep me safe.”
Muhlaysia eventually did speak up — she attended rallies in her support and posted to social media — and she lost her life not long after.
“This is Dallas, Texas, home of billionaires, millionaires, and not one person could keep her safe,” Niecee says. “I think Dallas is safe for the people that Dallas wants to keep safe. And there’s a clear subgroup of folks that Dallas isn’t interested in their health or well being. And you can tell by where the money is and where it goes and how it’s spent.”
Pocahontas, a key figure in her community who held Muhlaysia’s hand through everything, recognizes the danger of her own position now.
“I’m scared, but I know I’m doing this for the community,” she said. “I’m willing to die. I’m willing to die behind my community. If that’s what it takes.”
Sakshi Venkatraman is a D Magazine online editorial intern and a student at NYU.