For trans women of color facing 'epidemic' of violence, each day is a fight for survival: 'I'm an endangered species… but I cannot stop living'
Muhlaysia Booker was brutally beaten and then found shot dead a few weeks later.
This is an updated, encore presentation of a "Nightline" report in honor of today's Transgender Day of Remembrance
Those who knew Muhlaysia Booker say she's the type of person who can instantly brighten your day.
“She’s very infectious,” said Jessica Anderson, one of Booker’s best friends. “I don’t care if you’re in the worst mood…she’s most definitely going to bring you out of that.”
Booker, 22, an out and proud trans woman from Dallas, has been a beacon for other trans women who admire her.
“I have been trans all these years but I mostly lived in my house… She made me want to get out and live, and just be visible,” said Jazmine Deamon, another one of Booker’s friends and her self-appointed “Auntie.”
But Booker's visibility made her a target. In April, Booker was involved in a fender bender that escalated into a horrifying assault at an apartment complex where a crowd cheered her assailants on.
“The whole apartment complex was outside… and nobody helped her. It actually gives me the chills,” said Deamon at the site of where her friend was brutally beaten.
Transgender woman brutally attacked on video last month fatally shot in Dallas
Bystanders captured video of the encounter, which showed a man in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and white pants as he ran up to Booker and threw her down. Several other men joined in on the assault, stomping and kicking Booker as she struggled on the ground. Eventually, a group of women intervened.
Booker, who sustained a concussion and a fractured wrist in the gruesome beating, told police that the men yelled homophobic and transphobic slurs at her.
After the beating, Booker asked for Deamon.
“I get her and I put her in my bed. I took all her clothes off. They were full of blood,” Deamon said. “I just start praying over her… She pulled me by my shirt and she tells me, ‘Auntie, I told you they hate us… Our own people hate us. They want us dead.’”
“This happens on the daily,” Deamon continued. “It breaks my heart. It’s reality. It’s reality. As a black trans woman, it makes me feel scared. I feel alone. I feel ashamed. I feel abandoned. I feel hopeless.”
A video of Booker’s brutal beating drew national attention when it circulated online.
The incident was flagged as a possible hate crime, and police arrested 29-year-old Edward Thomas two days later on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was found guilty of assault in October.
It wasn’t the first time Booker said she had been attacked. This time, however, she chose to speak out. Her friend Jessica Anderson helped her get ready for an April press conference after the attack.
“This was the first time I ever seen my best friend look at herself and just be like, ‘I look really, really pretty. Like, I look like a girl,’” Anderson said. “She said, ‘I look like a girl.’ And she was really, really, really beautiful that day.”
At the press conference, Booker told reporters she felt lucky to be alive and that it was time to seek justice.
"This has been a rough week for myself, the transgender community and also the city of Dallas," she said. "This time, I can stand before you…whereas in other scenarios, we are at a memorial."
But Booker never saw justice.
Just weeks after her press conference, Booker was shot to death. Police said she was found “lying face down” on a Dallas road early in the morning on May 18.
“I just really can't imagine somebody doing that to her,” Anderson said through tears.
On June 5, Dallas police arrested 34-year-old Kendrell Lyles for murder in Booker's death. His trial is pending and he has not entered a plea.
Booker’s death added to the growing number of homicides involving people who identify as transgender. She is one of at least 22 transgender people -- 19 of them trans women of color -- who have been killed in 2019 alone, according to a statement from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.
At least 26 transgender people were killed in the U.S. in 2018, with black transgender women targeted the most, the group said.
Just last month, the American Medical Association (AMA) described the violence against the transgender community as an “epidemic.”
Living in Dallas, Deamon said she feels like an “endangered species.”
“But I cannot stop living,” she added.
For trans people of color, life is a far cry from those like Caitlyn Jenner, who has made strides toward broadening awareness and acceptance for the trans community but enjoys a rarified acceptance.
Now, stories about violence against non-white trans people are becoming more visible, thanks to boundary-pushing shows like “Pose” and trans celebrities of color like Dominque Jackson, Indya Moore and Laverne Cox.
In Dallas, Amber Roman, an LGBTQ liaison and community engagement officer in the Dallas Police Department, is working to earn the local trans community’s trust.
“As a member of the LGBTQ community…it doesn’t feel like extra pressure. It feels like pride in the sense of responsibility to do right by my city and my community,” Roman told “Nightline.”
Roman works with her fellow officers to stop the misgendering of trans victims of crimes by training her colleagues to identify trans victims by the name and gender they live by.
Between 2017 and 2018, at least 74 percent of victims of anti-transgender violence were initially misgendered in initial police or media reports, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Any time a police department is missing their mark in the beginning with misgendering folks who are victims of a crime, it feels like a second -- probably a second injustice for them,” Roman said. “Using the proper gender pronouns is essential and vital for the investigation, for folks to come forward if they have any additional information.”
“Nightline” spent the past several months interviewing trans people across the country, many of whom shared similar stories of violence.
“It makes me feel… like I'm just some punching bag for the next angry guy who walks by me, because he didn't like that I was trans,” said Amber Nicole Herenandez, 23, of Lakewood, Colorado.
Mariah Rae, 24, of Washington, D.C., said when she heard about Booker’s death, her reaction was, “Honestly, am I next?”
For those in the trans community seeking love and support, Casa Ruby, an LGBTQ community center based in Washington, D.C., offers a haven. Many of the young people who come into the organization say they have been kicked out of their homes for being trans.
“When you're in this life, it's survival of the fittest,” said Rae, who lives at Casa Ruby. “When you’re in the shelter system is surviving. And a lot of times I've thought about it but it's so much of things that can go wrong.”
Another Casa Ruby resident Bianca Bonita Carter, a 22-year-old trans woman, who said she had been raped five times.
“I don't want to give any emotion to it, because if you don't give anything to it and then it won’t grow,” Carter said.
The shelter is named after Ruby Corado, an early activist for trans people.
“My job is to restore their dignity. My number one role here is to restore everything that has been taken away from them,” Corado said. “We wake up in a world that is not designed to support transgender people — to welcome us in school to give us a chance to get an education. Employers are not eager to hire us.”
Corado has a wall of photos she takes of all the trans women and girls who call Casa Ruby home. She does this because she knows that there’s a possibility they will be killed for being trans.
One of these girls was 23-year-old Zoe Spears, a trans woman who was found shot to death in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in June. She was killed less than a half-mile away from where her friend, 27-year-old Ashanti Carmon, who was also a trans woman, was gunned down three months prior. Corado said both had stayed at Casa Ruby.
“They are the last two girls who lost their lives this year,” Corado said. “We continue the work so no one else has to have the same life outcome.”
Amber Nicole Herenandez understands all too well what it feels like to be terrified for your life.
In April, Herenandez, a trans woman, said had been out drinking with friends at a bar in Denver. When they left the bar and were walking to her friend’s car, Hernandez feared enough for her safety that she recorded a video on her phone, in which she said, “If I get jumped and my friends car gets attacked, I just want everybody to know it’s because of these boys who are attacking us.”
Hernandez said she handed her phone to her friend and walked away. That’s when she said a man attacked her.
“Nobody stopped [to help],” she said.
She was beaten so badly that her jaw was fractured in three places and had to be wired shut for a month. She said she doesn’t remember the attack, but she remembered waking up and not being able to breathe.
“I had so much blood in my mouth and my throat -- all over,” she said. “This wasn't just some black eye. It wasn't some scrapes and bruises.”
Looking back on the video she recorded that night, Herenandez said she feels terrified.
“I hear the fear in my voice, just knowing that I knew something was coming,” she said. “It's scary to see myself in that situation. It's just something I never thought would happen.”
ABC News was with her for a check-up three months after the attack. With metal plates still holding her jaw together, Herenandez hoped that the injuries wouldn’t impact the progress of her transition and her desire to get facial feminization surgery in the future. During the appointment, her doctor at Denver Health gave her the news that the injuries shouldn’t impact her ability to get surgery in the future.
“At first, I felt sad, almost heartbroken that someone could take that away from me. You know not give me the ability to do what I feel like I need to do to feel like my whole self. But knowing now that they did not take that away from me. That I still have that opportunity. It’s just, it’s beautiful. I love it. I’m so excited," said Herenandez.
Months later, police have still not made an arrest in her case.
Herenandez said her near-death experience has empowered her to speak out in honor of her fallen sisters, adding her voice to a chorus of other activists, including Monica Roberts.
For 13 years, Roberts’ blog "Trans Griot" has been part of her mission to correct every news article and police report that misgenders trans women.
“I saw nobody else taking on that responsibility. So it’s like the old saying, 'If you want a job done right, do it yourself,'” she said. “I wanted to role model what a story looked like to the media that respectfully covered trans folks.”
ABC News spent time with her and two other members of the group, Diamond Stylz and Dee Dee Watters.
“Being in an organization that is specifically for black trans people, it gives black trans folk a chance to be able to see other black trans people that are doing things that they can really relate to,” said Watters.
The women describe the vulnerabilities trans women of color face as a “matrix of domination.”
“We are under the different pressure of these ‘isms’ like racism, sexism, classism,” Diamond Stylz said. “For me, that unique level of racism, misogyny, all those things create a space where we’re more vulnerable.”
She added, “You can be discredited, you can be discarded, you can be actually executed without consequences.”
“At the end of the day, we are guaranteed one thing and that’s death. The reality is that when your trans, the question becomes will it be gifted to us meaning that we die or will it be taken from us which is maybe that we are going to be murdered,” Watters said.
All of these women now hoping that the tragic stories of their fallen sisters enter the mainstream consciousness, even after their lives have been cut short.
“These women had their lives taken from them,” Herenandez said. “And they no longer have a voice on this earth. But let's give that to them by saying their name saying what happened to them and speaking out about it.”
“Muhlaysia was somebody's sister,” Jazmine Deamon added. “Muhlaysia was somebody's daughter… Somebody's loved one. Muhlaysia Booker was human. She wanted to live like everybody else.”
ABC News' Lauren Effron and Karma Allen contributed to this report.
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