DALLAS — Robyn Crowe has been an emotional wreck for more than a week. That’s when she found out that Muhlaysia Booker — her friend, her rock, effectively a family member — had been killed, her body found on a quiet street.
Booker, who was 23, is far from the first black transgender woman in Dallas to have her life cut short. Brittany White, 29, was shot to death in October 2018. Shade Schuler, just 22, was found dead in 2015 — she had been shot and left in a vacant field. And last May, 26-year-old Carla Patricia Flores-Pavón, a trans Latina woman, was strangled to death. In that case, police suspect a robbery and a man has been charged with her murder.
Crowe, who is transgender, said she can’t help but wonder — am I next?
“Is my life in jeopardy?” she asked. “Because this is not a game, someone’s life is gone.”
None of these killings of black trans women have been solved, none of the killers caught. Police announced there are similarities between Booker's and White’s killings and an April 13 stabbing that the victim — a black trans woman — survived.
For many black transgender women in this city, this attention from authorities and the larger community is coming far too late and after too high a human cost. Discrimination has made it hard for them to find employment, meaning many people “in the trans community who’s low income has done sex work because it’s survival work,” Nell Gaither, the president of Dallas’s Trans Pride Initiative, said.
Gentrification drove them out of the city’s leading LGBT neighborhood, and they now congregate on a strip south of the city farther away from the hot spots you’d find in a Dallas tourist guide. There are no state protections, and the Trump administration strips federal protections away from them, which enables people to treat them as “less than.” They say they have paid the price for years of social neglect.
But Booker’s death feels different. “This is the first time,” Crowe said, “they can’t tuck it up under the rug.”
That’s because a month before Booker died, she was brutally beaten in a video that went viral on social media. A group of men surrounded Booker, who was wearing a pink wig, and rained blow after blow and hurled anti-gay insults at her as she tried to escape. One man was arrested, charged with aggravated assault, and is now out on bond. It remains to be seen if the attack will be designated a hate crime.
Crowe remembers Booker — known to those close to her as LayLay, or just Lay — as a fiery presence in the community, someone who left her mark.
But there’s a lack of closure, not just for Booker but for all the black trans women whose killings have gone unsolved. “It’s hard to celebrate someone’s life,” Crowe said, “when you don’t know who took it from her.”
Dallas’s gayborhood, known as Oak Lawn, runs along Cedar Springs Road, on the north side of town. The airy strip is packed with cafés and bars flying rainbow flags. On the side of a tattoo shop is a big, colorful mural dedicated to the Stonewall riots. Activist Marsha P. Johnson is pictured, smiling and adorned with a flower crown, the colors of the transgender pride flag behind her, along with Sylvia Rivera.
It’s a beautiful tribute to figures regarded as elders and heroes, but it doesn’t make Crowe feel any more welcome in Oak Lawn. The truth is, she doesn’t feel safe here. Oak Lawn isn’t a haven for everyone who is LGBT, just certain people in the community. She associates it with police harassment and said she’s been treated poorly, and has been denied service, at the strip’s flagship gay bars for how she looks.
It used to be that Oak Lawn was a stroll where you could find queer and trans sex workers. But gentrification has pushed many of them out to less safe areas, such as Spring Avenue and Lagow Street in South Dallas. There’s only a 15-minute drive separating the two areas, but they’re different worlds. Dallas was a historically segregated city, but even decades after the official end of segregation, the city remains racially divided. South Dallas is predominantly black and low-income compared to the city’s wealthier north side. It’s also where you can find a high number of black LGBT homeowners — years ago, the neighborhood had the city’s first club for black gay men and its own annual pride celebration, known as Dallas Southern Pride or Dallas Black Pride.
“These assaults and murders, not just Muhlaysia Booker, but the ones the police have talked about looking back a bit, that could be a direct result of the police presence in Oak Lawn pushing people to more dangerous areas,” said Gaither from the Trans Pride Initiative, which helps trans people with housing, employment, and incarceration issues.
Spring Avenue and Lagow Street has become for trans people what Oak Lawn is for more privileged members of the LGBT community. The intersection is a natural place for the community to hang out, maybe sit on the grass by the bus stop and chat. It’s also known as the place to go to find black trans women. The people who hurt these women would have known that too.
“That area over there, you know exactly where you’re going, you know exactly what you’re getting,” Crowe said. “It’s an area that don’t have high patrol on the ground because a lot of the girls go in that area because they don’t have to worry about dealing with policemen.”
Dallas police didn’t respond to questions about several points raised in this article.
This is the area where police said White and the stabbing victim had been shortly before their attacks. Booker was found 3 miles away. Two of the women had gotten into a car with someone, while a third had let someone into their car. It’s unclear if they were engaged in sex work.
It’s not uncommon for trans women, especially women of color, to do sex work to make ends meet. That doesn’t mean they’re out every night — it could be something just done occasionally, or when a good opportunity arises.
“Employment here, especially for trans people of color, is pretty difficult, and it’s known to be so difficult that very few people even try,” Gaither said. “Often sex work is just thought of as something you just have to do if you’re trans.”
In the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 21% of black respondents said they’ve participated in sex work for income compared to 12% of respondents overall — most of those identifying as trans women. The survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a trans advocacy organization, also found 1 in 5 black trans people reported being unemployed.
This history of societal neglect — and the tensions between Oak Lawn in North Dallas and Spring and Lagow in South Dallas — was on display in a real and meaningful way during a May 23 town hall at the Resource Center, which caters to the LGBT community near Oak Lawn.
The meeting had been scheduled for months as part of an ongoing series to give the community access to the city’s police chief, U. Renee Hall, and the force’s LGBT liaison, Amber Roman.
Booker’s death, though, was just days before. People came looking for answers.
An obvious symbol of the divide, which wasn’t lost on those at the meeting, was the location: It was in North Dallas’s Cedar Springs neighborhood, instead of in South Dallas.
No one yelled, decorum was never broken, but there was a distinct tension in the room as people went to the microphone to question the police. Why has only one person been arrested for Booker’s assault when there are so many people seen in the video? Why hasn’t more information been released? Why do people in the community seem to know more than the cops?
Time and again the police’s answer was: The community needs to talk to us. You need to send us tips.
Mieko Hicks was a friend of Booker’s and cohosts Transfusion, a radio show for trans women. She came to ask what police learned about Booker’s cellphone.
Crowe said Booker’s phone had been turned off when her body was found, but loved ones kept calling. Finally, when Booker’s mother called, a man picked up. The voice told her, “Bitch, don’t call this phone no more.” Police at the meeting didn’t address this information and didn’t respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions.
Hicks and others also wanted to know why only one man had been arrested in Booker’s assault when there were others assaulting her in the video. In the video, the man who posted it can be seen talking to one of Booker’s assailants, and a verbal offer of $200 to beat Booker can be heard. If the community could get all this information from Facebook, why couldn’t police?
“His name is on his page,” said one person at the microphone.
“All right, great tip. Go ahead with the number please,” the force’s community affairs manager, Joli Angel Robinson, said before another officer read the tip line number aloud.
Hicks said it’s not that easy. Talking to the police is a good way to put a target on your back. “It seems like we know more than the police know and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said.
Distrust of the government in this community is high, as elected officials refuse to enact protections for transgender people — or revoke them.
While some Texas cities have local ordinances, there's no such thing as a hate crime against people at the state level. (There are federal hate crime laws, though the Justice Department said it doesn’t confirm the existence of specific investigations.) Discrimination against trans people in housing and employment remains legal. Also legal is the so-called trans panic defense in murder and assault cases, where the defendant can claim that learning someone is trans was so alarming as to render them temporarily insane. And the Trump administration is decimating shelter, health care, and incarceration protections for trans people on the federal level.
Booker’s beating was on April 12. “I look at that date, and there’s not a direct connection or anything, but that date is going to hang in my mind because that’s the same date that the military ban went into place from the Trump administration keeping trans people from serving in the military,” said Leslie McMurray, the Resource Center’s transgender education and advocacy coordinator.
She, and other trans women who talked to BuzzFeed News, has no doubt that the political climate directly fuels violence against trans people.
“If the message from the federal government is that transgender people are less than, that their lives aren’t as important, that they aren’t worthy to serve, then people say, ‘Oh, what’s the loss if there’s one less?’”
But at the community meeting, that distrust was aimed directly at police. Niecee X, who is nonbinary and is the founder of the Black Women’s Defense League, took to the microphone to say, “I’m enraged about Muhlaysia Booker’s death.”
“I’m enraged about all the rainbow-washing of the police department without tangible and feasible responses to the issues that people within our community face,” they told BuzzFeed News.
Kirk Myers, the CEO and founder of Abounding Prosperity, an organization in South Dallas that started as a place to address the needs of black queer men but now also serves trans folks and cis women, was also at the meeting.
After Booker’s assault, Abounding Prosperity got her into safe, temporary housing, as it does for many of its clients.
Booker, though, said Myers, was stubborn. She wasn’t going to remain cooped up in her safe house all day and let her assailants get the better of her.
And Carmarion D. Anderson, who serves as a sort of elder in the trans community, said she was acting as a spiritual adviser to Booker after her assault.
“A lot of times through situations like this, mourning is kind of hard because you have to first internalize it, because that actually could have been me and maybe I don’t want to think about that.”
The next town hall is scheduled for the fall, this time in South Dallas.
The road where Booker’s body was left, pushed out of a car, is isolated, quiet. On one side is a golf course, on the other, a grove of trees. There are no streetlights.
On a fence is a small memorial for Booker — a few balloons, a candle, some silk flowers.
A black tire mark runs down the road. Crowe wonders if it’s from the car of whoever killed her friend. She also wonders if the security camera down the street outside the entrance to a prep school captured the car. Can it record well at night? Do police have the tape? She doesn’t know. Police didn’t provide details to BuzzFeed News when asked.
Tears fell down Crowe’s face as she looked at the road, wondering where, exactly, Booker was found. At this point, it had been only four days since a friend woke her up and told her that Booker was dead. The wound was fresh.
“She was beautiful, she was fun, she had a lot of energy, she was loving, she was supportive,” Crowe said.
“She was a good friend, a good sister, a good grandbaby, someone you could call and just vent to,” she said. “Someone who would come over and just give you the shirt off her back. She was a really, really good person.”
Booker showed the world her tough exterior, especially in her “storytime” videos she’d post on Facebook, in which she’d talk about relationships, community drama, and whatever else was on her mind. But under that, Crowe said, was something else, something softer — the kind of person who, if she walked in the room and saw that you were feeling down, would do anything to cheer you up.
“When you’re in the trans world, you create a shield to make yourself feel protected,” Crowe said. “You have to be a trans woman to really understand it.”
Asked how she’s coping, Crowe said she’s never not coping. She’s coping with the loss of a beloved friend, knowing she could be next, and juggling her womanhood and her blackness with caring for a community while also caring for herself.
“You live every day not knowing when it’s your day to go,” she said.
“It’s hard, but I mean, what’s not hard living this life?” she said. “Even though we go through so much, the freedom of being able to be yourself is the award.”