Mercedes Successful was found shot to death in the back parking lot of a Big Lots and Tractor Supply Co. in Haines City May 15. She was 32 years old. Successful identified as a transgender woman.
Successful was a performer and a native of Kingston, Jamaica. She moved to Haines City by way of New York. She represented Jamaica in the 2014 Gay Caribbean USA pageant, shown on the pageant’s Facebook page wearing a Jamaican flag dress and high-heeled black boots.
“She was quite something to behold,” Darcel Stevens, a well-known drag performer in Central Florida, says about Successful.
Stevens knew Successful through working drag events together. Her work ethic showed through the initiative she took to sew her own clothes and craft her own accessories, he says.
Stevens also remembers Successful showing utmost respect to her fellow performers.
“She was always one to walk in and immediately say hello and ask how you were doing,” Stevens says. “She never seemed to be caught up in any sort of ruckus or discourse.”
He recounts Successful’s drag routine as being very particular to her. The music she played was Caribbean-inspired, and she would often do very physically demanding stunts such as headstands.
“She was unique,” Stevens says. “She was a plus-size girl but she had no qualms about who she was. She stood out immediately.”
Successful had been undergoing hormone replacement therapy for just over a month at the time of her death. Stevens says Successful and a close friend were actively transitioning together and coming to terms with what it meant to be transgender.
The Haines City Police Department was on the scene the day Successful’s body was found. They investigated the crime, they said it was a homicide. A statement was released by the HCPD which refused to identify Successful as transgender, calling her by her birth name and using male pronouns. The local media followed suit, saying in their reports that Successful could not have been transgender because she wasn’t dressed as a woman when the police found her body.
The report stated Successful was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
IGNORANCE BEGOT VIOLENCE
Successful is one of 19 trans murders, mostly trans women of color, that have been reported in the U.S. in 2016 so far. When Watermark first reported Successful’s death in May, she was one of 12.
“In the last year, a transgender person was murdered somewhere in the world every three days,” says Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s Transgender Inclusion Director. “Violence for the transgender community is no stranger.”
2015 was the deadliest year for transgender people in the U.S. with 23 reported murders. Now, 2016’s death rate is up to 19 and it isn’t even September yet. Why the dramatic increase over the last few years?
“It’s been a collision of the community stepping out of the shadows and becoming more visible compounded by the community experiencing a great deal of discrimination and bigotry,” says Duncan.
Much like the LGB community experienced a rise of exposure in pop culture in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the trans community is experiencing a saturation in society with celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Jazz Jennings stepping into the spotlight. But with exposure comes the pushback.
“Seeing [that] the transgender community in society is being elevated above the understanding of the transgender journey,” Duncan says.
Education is key – not just knowing the proper terms and pronouns to use, but also knowing what life can be like and what risks are out there when a person decides to come out as transgender.
“The community has been experiencing this cycle of violence. It usually is very patterned in that a transgender person falls off the grid,” Duncan says. “It starts with someone who is discriminated against at work, or their quality of life is impacted. They lose their job, they become homeless, they get desperate, they resort to sex work or something that puts them in the path of violence or into a hurtful situation. So as a transgender person, it’s always on your mind. The more the violence is out there, the more you think about the situations you’re in, even something as simple as using the restroom, it’s a suppressive thought process that never leaves you.”
As a transgender person comes face-to-face with a violent situation, it can be compounded by the fear that they could experience more discrimination by reporting it.
Micaela Geyer, a trans woman and blogger who writes for the website The Transgender Truth, thought after a domestic dispute that going to the police would be the best course of action.
“I declared myself transgender on a 911 call,” recalls Geyer. “The officers that actually arrived on the scene consistently misgendered me, even after I told them and I was presenting myself as female. This instance occurred roughly three months ago.”
Geyer experienced further discrimination when she was at the Orlando Police Department for the same issue and an officer refused to let her into the woman’s restroom.
“I was told by the officer on duty that I was to use the men’s room because my gender is male, and I informed her that my sex is male but my gender is female, but I was denied access into the female restroom,” Geyer says.
Geyer has filed grievances with the OPD for both altercations.
The issues that members of the transgender community face can feel like too much to deal with at times, which is why support groups are a highly sought after way of getting help and understanding. Metro Wellness and Community Centers in St. Petersburg and Tampa offer several different types of support groups: Male to female, female to male, trans parents and trans significant others are just a few that are offered.
Tristan Byrnes is a licensed mental health counselor and Lucas Aiden Wehle is the Youth and Transgender Program Coordinator for Metro. Both of them oversee the trans support groups through Metro in the Tampa Bay area.
“There are two topics that we spend a lot of time on in group and they are bathroom issues, because that makes people nervous; and then anytime there is a death or murder we have issues of fear and concern come back up,” Byrnes says.
Attendance at the trans groups has gone up over the last two years , and while there is an array of topics they speak about, one that comes up, especially within the male to female groups, is safety.
“Not to undermine trans male’s internal fears, because they are just as real and valid as anyone’s. However, the misogyny in our culture is intense, and that’s why it is so much harder for trans women,” Wehle says. “It’s tough enough to be a cisgender woman in this world, let alone a trans woman. But you put transphobia and racism on top of misogyny and it’s real. You can actually feel it sometimes in group, the fear.”
The community is mobilizing and is identifying what needs to be done to end this increase in trans murders, beginning with the gaps in the cycle of violence, says Duncan.
“National organizations, local organizations and as a community, we are not doing enough,” she says. “It is obviously not stemming the tide. We believe education and awareness is a good first step; the more people are educated the more they understand the falsehoods of the rhetoric against the transgender community that is coming from hate groups like the Liberty Counsel.”
One step Equality Florida has taken is forming TransAction Florida, a statewide transgender inclusion initiative with three broad objectives: To educate Florida’s major employers on effective transgender inclusion protocol, to advocate for the trans community in a broader and more structured way, and to be an integral part of all public policy that involves transgender rights. Duncan and Byrnes are both members of TransAction.
One of the biggest issues to deal with when trying to bring justice for these victims is making sure the police investigations can move smoothly and expediently. This is difficult to do when investigators and local media misgender the victim.
In July 2015, the body of India Clarke was found at a community center in Tampa. She had suffered blunt-force trauma to her upper body, according to the police report. Local media and the investigators on the case continued to address India by her birth name and by male pronouns. Clarke’s friends all knew her as female. Such negligence holds up an investigation and can cause leads to run cold.
Because of the handling of Clarke’s case, Metro Wellness offered transgender sensitivity training to local police stations across the Tampa Bay area.
“[After Clarke’s murder]Metro went into the St. Pete Police Department twice with trans specific training,” Wehle says. “We haven’t gone into Tampa yet but hopefully soon. St. Pete completely changed their policies when it came to how their officers handle a trans person, what they can do and what they cannot do.”
The training continued down the I-4 corridor and across the state with the help of Equality Florida’s TransAction.
“We had 120 people show up to our training at OPD; from TSA, first responders, fire department officials, etc.,” Duncan says. “Now we have not only done law enforcement training in Tampa Bay and Central Florida, but we have done media training. We have gone up and done training in Jacksonville around Human Rights Ordinances, so the more the media knows, the more they can call out when they see that someone is getting it wrong. We’ve seen a lot of improvements since then but the battle continues.”
Since Metro and TransAction began training and education in Florida, the Department of Justice has also developed a training guide specific to transgender issues with law enforcement.
“This is huge but the issue is the DOJ and TransAction can’t force police departments to use it,” Byrnes says. “TransAction has begun reaching out to local police departments letting them know that there is this training out there and we can help get it set up, but we cannot go in there specifically unless they reach out to us. We can poke them a bit and say that this is available for them to use. Some of them have told us no, we got this and we can just say ok, and just keep having those conversations.”
THERE IS NO “I” IN “LGBT”
Violence against the transgender community is on the rise, most notably because of attacks from the religious and conservative right, but a small and vocal outcry is coming from within the equality movement that looks to separate trans issues from other LGB concerns which, without the support, will directly affect the safety of trans people.
“We are hearing, because of all of these discriminatory bills and laws, like HB2 in North Carolina, being proposed that often times boil down to the bathroom issue, that the LGB part of the community wants to jettison the T,” Duncan says. “They say that our issues are different entirely, our issue is gender identity and their issue is sexual orientation. I hear some arguments that the fight for transgender equality is holding back non-discrimination laws for the rest of the community, and what we all need to do is stand with each other and support each other through a time of change.”
Wehle says if the transgender fight for equality is going to succeed then we all need to stand as one.
“We need numbers,” he says. “It’s disheartening when the LGB doesn’t know anything about the T in its own community. They won’t use the proper pronouns or won’t educate themselves on gender issues, and I have heard some very negative things said about the trans community from the LGB community.
“I’m not a gay man, but I was there supporting and voting for same-sex marriage,” Wehle says. “After that, where were my LGB and straight allied brothers and sisters when I needed my rights fought for? Where were they for HB583, Florida’s trans bathroom bill, when I needed the right to use the bathroom. It felt like no one was backing us up. So you need those numbers to fight, and it feels a bit one-sided sometimes.”
The LGB community is definitely needed in the fight, but it becomes a bit of a struggle, Byrnes adds.
“We need to be able to voice our own fight, we need to be able to be the front line, or else people won’t think we are strong enough to defend ourselves. We don’t need people to speak for us, but we could absolutely use you to stand behind us as allies, to support us and to be there for us. But sometimes what happens is that in wanting to be an ally they say well here let me just fight this battle for you and that can’t happen,” Byrnes says.
Just as the LGB community made the push for acceptance, the transgender community is trying to make that next step as well.
“With increased visibility, all of these interactions and collisions with societal institutions, it’s going to occur, and we just have to work through them, and if we can work through them together all the better,” Duncan says.
Just as with any group in society that experiences disproportionately amounts of violence, the transgender community has a day that they honor those in the family they have lost to violence. The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) has occurred annually on Nov. 20 since 1999. It was started by transgender activist and columnist Gwendolyn Ann Smith to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender black woman murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. Events and memorials are held across the country.
Typically at the TDoR memorial the names of those who lost their lives to violence in the transgender community are read out loud. This year in cities throughout the U.S. people will hear the name Mercedes Successful read.
“It’s a very sad and scary fact that it seems to be getting progressively worse, and unfortunately that’s only what’s reported. It’s even worse than we know,” Wehle says. “I try to think that hopefully we won’t need TDoR one day but it seems like we are getting further away from that. I think this is one of those cases where things are going to get worse before they get better.”
While the numbers in transgender murders are increasing, so is the mobilization of trans advocates, at least in the Tampa Bay area, according to Byrnes.
“They are talking to me, talking to Lucas, talking to Metro, starting their own groups saying what we can do to help educate, because through education comes healing and understanding and that’s one thing that needs to happen to decrease these numbers,” he says. “That’s why TDoR is so important, and I hope one day it can become just a day to celebrate, because we won’t have anything to report.”
But there this humanity remains: this kindness, this respect.
The last post on Mercedes Successful’s Facebook page was a photo she uploaded of a young woman that she helped to get ready for a high school prom. “It was a pleasure to work with you and to make your dream become reality,” the caption reads. It was posted on May 15, the day of her death.