This past Thursday, I attended a rally for Islan Nettles in New York City. Well over 100 people were in attendance. If that doesn’t sound like a large gathering of protesters, consider first that it was a below-freezing twenty-eight degrees outside, and secondly that over 100 people showing up in the cold for a murdered black trans woman is far from meaningless.
Islan Nettles was attacked on August 17 of last year in Harlem. Her attacker is alleged to be 20-year-old Paris Wilson, who is believed to have catcalled Islan, then upon finding out she was trans, struck her in the face and continued beating her after she had fallen to the ground. She was found “unconscious…with a swollen shut eye and blood on her face.” Islan was hospitalized and died later the next week.
Wilson was initially charged with misdemeanor assault. When another man came forward to say he was responsible for the attack, but was too drunk to remember what exactly he did, prosecutors declined to bring Wilson before a grand jury. He remains free and the case is still open.
That isn’t enough for those who gathered at One Police Plaza on Thursday, and understandably so. As we stood there and listened to speaker after speaker—some who knew Islan personally and others who are leaders from organizations that work on trans rights—and heard the sobering statistics about suicide, homelessness and violence inflicted upon trans people, it is unconscionable that nearly six months after this horrific murder, the police and district attorney are no closer to a resolution than they were after it initially happened. As many who took the megaphone reminded us, had Islan looked more like Pamela Anderson, there would have been a much different societal and institutional response to her death.
But Islan was black. She was trans. She was a woman. (One of the speakers, perhaps inadvertently, misgendered Islan during their speech. I thought about that moment the next day while watching actress Laverne Cox’s keynote address at Creating Change 2014 and hearing her say, “When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.”) She had been homeless at one point in her life, though she had her own apartment at the time of her death. She was everything our culture has made clear it despises. Her existence threatened our ideas about the worth of lives outside of the “norm.” Her presence made someone so uncomfortable that they killed her. Whether that person was Wilson, the drunken man who can’t remember or someone else, the fact is, someone killed Islan. Her family deserves answers as to who.
Islan’s mother, Delores Nettles, was the last to speak at the rally. She reminded us all that Islan arrived to the hospital missing part of her brain. She still sees Wilson walking down the street in her neighborhood. There hasn’t been a night where she hasn’t cried herself to sleep. But she appreciated those who had shown up in support of her daughter.
When I arrived to the rally, one of Islan’s close friends was delivering an impassioned speech. She ended with something that would seem elementary, but given the circumstances was piercing and poignant: “Trans lives matter. Youth lives matter. Our lives matter. Her life matters.”
That’s as true today as it was standing in the cold while hoping the police heard her and the other hundred protesters. It will always be true. Now it’s a matter of the rest of the world accepting that truth.