Transgender woman's murder underscores problem of partner violence plaguing community, advocates say

PHOTO: Family and friends held a vigil for Tracy Williams, a transgender woman who was murdered in Houston this summer. PlayDee Dee Watters
WATCH Spotlight on violence against transgender people

Tracy Williams, a 22-year-old transgender woman from Houston, had a creative mind and was always smiling and dancing. People who knew her said she had a star quality and seemed destined to become a performer.

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But like a number of other transgender women, Williams appears to have fallen victim to violence at the hands of an intimate partner -- an issue that while not particular to the transgender community, has had a profound effect on it.

Williams, who was homeless, was found stabbed to death in a Houston parking lot on July 30. But her body sat in the morgue for about 10 days, until the police department reached out to Houston's LGBTQ community for help in identifying her, according to community advocates who organized a campaign to identify her. Community leaders held a town hall on Aug. 11 to assist in spreading the word and positively identified Williams within 72 hours.

The Houston Police Department did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment on why it waited to reach out.

PHOTO: Family and friends held a vigil for Tracy Williams, a transgender woman who was murdered in Houston this summer. Dee Dee Watters
Family and friends held a vigil for Tracy Williams, a transgender woman who was murdered in Houston this summer.

"She was really creative, outgoing and fun. She had a really big personality," Courtney Sellers, executive director of the Montrose Grace Place youth center. which Williams visited twice a week. "The kids and everybody that volunteered there really liked her a lot, so it's been a really big loss."

Police charged her boyfriend, 25-year-old Joshua Bourgeois, with her murder in late August. It's unclear what may have led him to allegedly kill the young woman, but her friends said she tried to break up with him just before her death.

Bourgeois was being held on a $195,000 bond on charges of murder and burglary as of Wednesday. He is scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 29. His court-appointed attorney, Feroz Farook Merchant, did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

The story has shaken the LGBTQ community in Houston.

Dee Dee Watters, one of the LGBTQ community leaders who helped to identify Williams, said the case is a frightening reminder of her own vulnerability and that of others. She's also a black transgender woman, and her biggest fear is that she'll someday suffer a similar fate.

"It just reminds me that not only do we have a society that comes against us to hate us, we also have -- many times -- our loved ones and the people that are close to us when we transition who do the same things," Watters, who serves as madam chair of the advocacy group Black Trans Women Inc., told ABC News. "The people that we actually open ourselves up to and try to be as vulnerable as humanly possible with are the ones out here murdering. It brings you to a place where you're always concerned about dating."

Domestic violence affects people of all backgrounds and genders, but research indicates that transgender people are at much higher risk for violence from intimate partners.

A 2015 study by UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law found that between 31% and 50% of transgender people have experienced dating violence at some point in their lives, compared to between 28% and 33% of the general population.

PHOTO: Joshua Dominic Bourgeois in a police booking photo. Houston Police Department
Joshua Dominic Bourgeois in a police booking photo.

The violence can often have deadly results. At least 16 transgender people, including Williams, have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The group tracked 29 killings in 2018, the most it had ever recorded in a year.

Transgender community advocates said about half these cases may have been related to intimate partner violence.

Since 2013 HRC has tracked at least 145 transgender deaths due to fatal violence, with most victims being black transgender women. But the organization said the violence is hard to track due to misgendering (incorrectly applying gender labels) and transphobia.

The actual number of killings could be much higher, according to HRC's 2018 report on Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America.

"Some victims' deaths may go unreported, while others may not be identified as transgender in the media, often because authorities, journalists and/or family members refuse to acknowledge their gender identity," the report said. "Across the United States, anti-transgender stigma and systemic discrimination heighten the vulnerability of transgender people from an early age."

"For transgender women of color, who comprise the vast majority of victims, these challenges are further exacerbated by and intertwined with racism and sexism," it added.

Loree Cook-Daniels, the policy and program director at FORGE, a Milwaukee-based transgender advocacy group, said about half the transgender murders over the past few years have been carried out by partners or dates. Nationwide, the Department of Justice says a partner is the killer in about 40% of women's homicides and about 7% of homicides of men.

"When I've looked at the stories informally, it looks to me like about half of them are intimate partner violence," Cook-Daniels told ABC News. "Now, that may be long-term boyfriends or it may be dates. But it looks like people who knew the trans woman as opposed to street-based violence."

Cook-Daniels, who identifies as non-binary, said there isn't a lot of federal data on transgender deaths, but her organization has been tracking the cases independently.

PHOTO: 11009 Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas. Google Maps Street View
11009 Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas.

The FBI does track hate crimes against transgender and other LGBTQ groups. It delineates the percentage of sexual orientation bias crimes against transgender and other LGBTQ groups. It was not clear if the bureau tracked transgender homicide victims. The FBI did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment.

Williams' murder points to a larger trend within the transgender community, particularly for trans women of color: They're more likely to experience homelessness, which makes them prime targets for violence, Cook-Daniels said.

"Trans women of color have the combination of being discriminated against because of race and gender identity, and oftentimes, they end up leaving high school without a diploma," she said. "They're hard to employ anywhere, so they're often on the street, trying to make a living through the underground economy. And that just opens us up to lots of risks."

Monica Roberts, a Houston-area transgender rights advocate, called Williams' murder a reminder of the work that needs to be done when it comes to gender equality.

She's been following anti-transgender violence for more than two decades through her blog, TransGriot, and said she's seen numerous cases of intimate partner violence targeting transgender women.

"Sadly, it is common because the men who love trans women are demonized and have their masculinity question by dating us," Roberts said. "There are some guys who cannot take it and they will do anything up to and including murder to protect their reputation."

She said many deaths involve "excessive levels of violence" that should be classified as hate crimes. Roberts pointed to fatal domestic violence cases like the one involving 33-year-old Yazmin Payne, a transgender woman who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend in the Los Angeles apartment they shared in 2015. Ezekiel Jamal Dear was found guilty of stabbing her multiple times and setting the apartment on fire.

He was acquitted of the more serious charge of murder and found guilty of one count each of voluntary manslaughter and unlawfully causing a fire. He was sentenced to 12 years in state prison in October 2017, angering transgender rights advocates who had called for much harsher penalties. According to the California Department of Corrections website, he is eligible for parole in March 2025.

"It's that excessive level of violence that really needs to be in that hate crime realm. But in many states, like in my home state of Texas, unfortunately, gender identity is not in our state hate crimes law," Roberts told ABC News. "They feel like they can get away with committing violence against a trans woman because we're not covered in many states' hate crimes laws."

Advocates say transgender survivors of intimate partner violence face many barriers when to seeking help, including problems related to finding housing and mental health services.

"I think it's worse for trans people and, to some degree, LGBT people, because when we're young, we're often told that we'll be alone the rest of our lives," Loree Cook-Daniels said. "So there's a there's a sense of 'I gotta find somebody because it's going to be really hard. And then once I've found somebody, I better hold on to them.' So, even if the relationship turns violent, people may stay in the relationship because they'd rather be with a violent partner then no partner at all."

She said the death of Williams, and so many other slain trans women, is further proof that America needs to do more to show that transgender lives matter.

Roberts echoed her sentiment.

"We have the Republican Party demonizing the trans community along with the Roman Catholic Church and conservative pastors," Roberts said. "When you throw that negativity out in the atmosphere and demonize a group, it's not long before people absorb it and start aiming violence at those groups."