Death of Black Trans Women Shakes Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Community

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Angelina Nordstrom describes local trans activist and organizer Elise Malary as “angelic” and “quietly fierce, yet bright and vibrant.”

“I actually met her when we were both starting the transition,” Nordstrom said. “We both started the journey in the same months, and over the years our sisterhood has evolved and become much closer. She has been one of my best friends.

On March 19, after Malary had been missing for more than a week, Evanston police recovered her body from Lake Michigan. In the days leading up to her recovery, groups of friends and supporters formed to distribute flyers or seek her out themselves. Evanston Police said no foul play was suspected in Malary’s death, but no cause has been released.

Many who loved Malary described her as a soft-spoken yet powerful and courageous advocate for her fellow LGBTQ+ people. Malary was a board member of the Chicago Therapy Collective and worked with organizations such as Equality Illinois and AIDS Foundation Chicago. Malary also briefly worked for the Chicago Reader in 2019 in our sales department.

“What I saw of her was someone who felt all that pressure and anxiety from society, to work hard to be accepted, but who was able to thrive in the face of all of that,” says Patti Flynn, who was close to Malary. “[She] was able to stand up and stand up for other black trans women. And I’m honored to have seen her grow into that woman over the years of our friendship.

Flynn served as Director of Sales for the Reader from 2018 to 2020 and was the person who brought Malary onto the Reader.

Elise Malary worked at Reader in 2019. Credit: Patti Flynn

The news of Malary’s death sent shockwaves through the trans community. After identifying his body, hundreds attended an Andersonville vigil in his honor. His sister, Fabiana Malary, organized a gofundme to raise funds for funeral expenses.

Malary was a well-known and fiercely admired activist in the local queer community, and her death also prompted a heartfelt response from officials, including Attorney General Kwame Raoul. At the time of her death, Malary was employed in the civil rights unit of the AG’s office.

“Elise was a valued member of our Civil Rights Office who, as a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ community, was passionate about her work,” Raoul said in a statement after Malary’s discovery. “Her kindness and infectious smile will be missed by those who worked with her. The Attorney General’s Office has lost a member of our family, and as an office, we are heartbroken. »

Alderman Maria Hadden paid tribute to Malary on social media and State Representative Kelly Cassidy, who represents the area where Malary lived in the Illinois House of Representatives, spoke passionately of her as a rebuke to the transphobic rhetoric of another lawmaker, State Rep. Thomas R. Morrison, who represents Palatine and Inverness.

“Elise was a shining example of what we want people to do and be in our community. She was dedicated to uplifting the people she lived and worked with every day,” Cassidy said. “She is one of too many black trans women whose life means nothing to the man on the other side of this room.”

The same day Malary’s body was located, Chicago police found the battered body of another black trans woman, Tatiana Labelle, in a Chatham dumpster.

“Right now it’s just unbearable pain because of the way they treated her and ignored her body and trashed her like she was trash,” says Shameika Thomas, the sister by Labelle. “Like she doesn’t have a family or people who love her.”

But that couldn’t be further from the truth, says Thomas.

“She was definitely loved and she always knew she could call me,” she says. “So she definitely had people looking after her. And I really want justice and I won’t let go of the police or anything.

An undated photo of Tatiana Labelle. Credit: Courtesy of the de Labelle family

Like Malary, Labelle had been missing for several days when her body was found. Thomas says Labelle was unemployed and living with a friend at the time of his death.

Although Malary’s search has been widely covered by local media, reports of Labelle’s death have been mixed and reflect how class and community ties can influence missing persons cases.

Although local outlets accurately reported that Labelle was female, many used her dead name, the only one provided by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. ProPublica reported that such gender errors and misrepresentations can hamper the search for answers in cases like Labelle’s and add insult to injury for their loved ones.

Block club reported last year on claims by trans activists that the Chicago Police Department and other city officials misinterpreted victims of violent crimes.

The deaths occurred weeks after the Reader exclusively reported that the CPD’s liaison office with the LGBTQ+ community was facing an internal crisis and allegations that it was a public relations ploy for the city.

The trans people interviewed by the Reader shared feelings of numbness and deep grief that not one, but two black trans women were found dead in the city on the same day. The deaths also bring the epidemic of violence perpetrated against trans people, and especially trans women of color, closer to home once again.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least six trans people, most of whom were black and brown trans women, were killed in the United States in 2022. The HRC also claims that 2021 was also the deadliest year on record for anti-trans violence, with at least 50 deaths; but experts say those numbers are grossly deflated largely because of the misrepresentation of victims’ gender identities and names, as happened in Labelle’s case.

“People don’t often see and talk about the struggle,” says Precious Brady-Davis, a black trans woman who is running for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Brady-Davis would be the first openly trans woman of color ever elected in Cook County.

“Even as a trans woman of color, I often don’t air the struggles that I face, the harassment that I face,” she says. “It affects mental health, the way I navigate in space, the ways I can show myself in the world.

Malary’s death is unclear, but trans people interviewed by the Reader say that regardless of the outcome, Malary’s death alongside Labelle reflects the difficult life that many black trans people have.

“It doesn’t matter if it was in someone else’s hands or his own hand, nothing is good,” Flynn says. “And both things go back to how trans people are portrayed in the media.”

Stephanie Skora, associate executive director of Brave Space Alliance, said the deaths represent “the sad reality of the situation we live in, where even in a place like Chicago, which prides itself on being inclusive, which prides itself on have good policies for our community, black trans women are always at risk.

“We’re just in a constant state of emergency for black trans lives in the city of Chicago, where members of our community are being murdered or losing their lives,” Skora says. “And we, as a community, must pick up the pieces ourselves, because the powers that be are either not equipped to serve us properly or have chosen not to serve us properly.”

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