A video clip on the Facebook page of Zay Woodruff shows her cousin Elisha Walker (pictured), then 16, smiling and dancing with friends on the street on which their parents grew up. Even in the short and sometimes jumpy film, you can see that Walker is striking—with her high cheekbones and almond eyes, she looks like a model, and she moves with an unmistakable confidence. Walker and her friends appear no different than any other happy teenage girls in neighborhoods across America. For Walker, however, that joy would be short-lived.
Elisha Walker was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on September 26, 1994. She was raised in a military family, spending portions of her childhood in North Carolina. Her mother, Rhonda Alexander, worked as a nurse, and her father, Travis Walker, Sr., was a minister at a nondenominational church in Chesapeake, Virginia. Woodruff, Walker's favorite cousin, describes her as the life of the party. "Elisha always had jokes. There was never a dull moment when Elisha was around," Woodruff shares with ESSENCE. Like many 20-year-olds, Walker had dreams of becoming famous. Waffling between a career in music and film, she spent most days doing hair for her mother's friends and coworkers at a salon in Salisbury, North Carolina.
But Walker's life was not without challenges. Her assigned sex at birth was male, and in 2013, when she graduated from high school a semester early, Walker began identifying as transgender, wearing women's clothing and hair extensions. The change caused tension between Walker and her mom—Walker's truth was in direct conflict with Alexander's fear. At the time, Alexander struggled to accept Walker's identity, telling ESSENCE, "I told Elisha that he could not wear women's clothes so long as he lived in my home. One day Elisha came home with a bandanna over his face, and when I pulled it off he had these long eyelashes on. He told me, "I'm a girl." Walker was steadfast, and Alexander knew they had come to a crossroads. "He was going to his sister's house to be who he wanted to be, and I couldn't do anything but allow it at that point," she says. Walker moved out and lived with relatives while she saved up for her own apartment.
It's a scenario that is not unique to Walker—many transgender and other LGBT-identified individuals, youth in particular, undergo painful family rejection. One in five transgender people has experienced homelessness at some point because of discrimination and/or family rejection, according to a national survey. And Blacks make up the largest percentage of homeless transgender people at 13 percent.
Despite this, Walker found an apartment after a couple of months. But on November 1, 2014, her move-in date, she never made it there. Relatives reported her missing the following week, fearing that something had happened to her. It wasn't until August 13, 2015, that police discovered Walker's remains in a shallow grave near the home of Angel Arias, a 23-year-old man whom Walker's relatives describe as her ex-boyfriend. She was 20 years old. Arias was charged with first-degree murder in Walker's death and is currently awaiting trial. The cause of death was reportedly blunt force trauma.
Walker was one of four Black transgender women found murdered across the nation during a two-week span last summer. Her death—along with the killings of Shade Schuler, 22, of Dallas; Amber Monroe, 20, of Detroit; and Kandis Capri, 35, of Phoenix—rocked the trans community in what transgender rights activist and trans woman Cherno Biko says is "the deadliest year on record for trans women since activists began tracking them." A joint report from the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition revealed that of the 53 known transgender victims from 2013 to 2015, at least 39 were African-American and at least 46 were transgender women. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, six transgender and gender nonconforming persons have been killed so far in 2016 (as of press time).
But Biko cautions, "The reality is, we just don't know. Many of the deaths go unreported." The challenges of tracking deaths of transgender women include many being misgendered by law enforcement, news media or even their own families. "Sometimes they will say a man was found in women's clothes or use the wrong name, and you'll find out from the community that it was a trans woman," says Biko.
In the case of Papi Edwards, a 20-year-old killed in Louisville, Kentucky, relatives initially described Edwards as a gay man who dressed in drag. But video footage of a police interview shows that a witness who was present at the time of the shooting alleged that Edwards identified herself as a transgender woman. Eyewitnesses alleged that Henry Gleaves, 20, showed up at a hotel, encountered Edwards and shot her after she revealed she was transgender. (Gleaves was charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.) These nuances are not only significant as it relates to honoring the wishes of individual victims, but they can also mean the difference between investigating an incident as a murder or as a hate crime.
On November 17, 2015, Congress held the first-ever forum on violence against transgender people, launching a congressional task force dedicated to issues of transgender equality. Activists like Biko have declared a state of emergency for Black transgender women: Nearly 75 percent of trans victims were under age 35 at the time of their deaths. And according to the Movement Advancement Project, just 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws that include gender identity protection, which bans discrimination on the basis of gender identity. While addressing their deaths is paramount, confronting the employment discrimination, intimate partner violence, state violence and overcriminalization of trans women is also crucial.
The void left by Walker's death is excruciating for Alexander. She laments, "If I knew my time with Elisha would end on October 23, I would have had Elisha with me. I wish I hadn't asked him to leave home." Biko partners with community organizations that serve LGBTQ individuals to support families and friends of victims of violence. "What I was taught to do from a very early age, being raised in the Black church, is that when somebody dies you take food over to the house and you see if they're okay," Biko explains. "Sometimes the families don't have funds to pay for burial. We help them cover those costs; we help them write an obituary, to use the right language." For families like Walker's, formulating language around the identity of their loved one can be difficult. Alexander still refers to Elisha as her son, and uses the pronouns "he" and "his." "Elisha was transgender—and was pretty," Alexander says affirmatively. "I never knew anything about that when I was coming up though."
Biko implores Black cisgender women, or women whose experiences of their own gender are in accord with the sex they were assigned at birth, to "see that we're more alike than we are different." Violence against Black women cannot truly be eliminated without addressing violence against Black transgender women. It's a hard-learned lesson for Rhonda Alexander, who declares, "I'm going to embrace who Elisha was. If it takes telling the world about what happened to help people, I will do it, because no family should have to go through this."
Jordyne Blaise (@jordyneblaise) is a deputy Title IX coordinator at North Carolina State University.