NEW ORLEANS -- Among the dozens of unsolved murders in New Orleans this year are two cases involving transgender women.
Their killings, only two days apart in late February, galvanized the local LGBTQ community to demand more police protection and equal rights.
For most of us, the threat of violence usually doesn't determine which bathroom we use. It’s a different story for Jada Cardona. It’s a choice that sometimes is laden with concern.
"I'm not a fool, I know when things are dangerous, and I know my warning signs, but most of the time I use the feminine room, the feminine restroom," said Cardona.
Cardona is a 42-year-old transgender woman, but that may fail to capture it all. She said her identity is complex.
"When you say I'm a woman, I don't think I'm all the way a woman, I think I'm gender non-conformant, actually, gender non-binary,” said Cardona.
Some may have questions about what exactly that means.
“Gender non-conformant; you don't have a gender you're who you are as an individual,” said Teah Smith. “I look and I live as a woman. I know I'm a man, but at the end of the day, I don't feel like either one of them."
For many in the community, their journey has been tough.
"At the age of 18 I came out as a gay male,” said Jasmine Davis. “At the age of 21, I started my transition."
Before that transition, Davis was Marwin Davis, a self-admitted shy boy from Algiers.
"He doesn't exist anymore, but he is a part of me and I accept that," Davis.
Davis, Cardona, and Smith are members of Transitions Louisiana. It’s a group dedicated to raising awareness about transgender issues and concerns. Safety is perhaps the most pressing.
"I walk down the street and all of a sudden it can be violence,” said Cardona. “I live the life of disrespect is the norm."
“I'm concerned for my sisters, my brothers, for the City of New Orleans as a whole. I watch the news, it's not just our community that's dealing with this," said Davis.
Crime may be hitting several communities in New Orleans, but these women said there can be a different element of danger for them.
An assault on a transgender woman in New Orleans earlier this year was caught on cell phone video. While we don't know the circumstances of this attack, Smith said it's incidents like these that guide her daily decisions.
"I don't put myself in areas where I know that can happen. So, if I could distance myself or stay away from those types of things, I do," said Smith.
For Chyna Gibson and Ciara McEleveen, it's too late. Both transgender women were killed two days apart in late February. Gibson was found shot death at a shopping plaza in New Orleans East. McElveen was found near Columbus Street and North Claiborne in the 7th Ward. She had been stabbed and later died at a hospital. New Orleans Police said they don't believe the cases are related and they don't believe they were hate crimes. Their deaths put a spotlight on the violence transgender people say they often face silently.
“Being transgender has a very violent existence, and you always feel like you're looking through the battlefield,” Cardona said. “You always feel like something is going to happen next. It's always a like a prepare yourself where's the next bomb.”
Police have yet to solve these murders.
"I can't say those two murders were related to who they were, we don't have any reason to believe that that's what transpired,” said Sergeant Frank Robertson with the New Orleans Police Department. “But I do understand why trans women probably believe that because of their everyday persecutions or what they're going through in their own personal life."
Robertson said he understands what the LGBTQ community is going through because he's a part of it. When he first started as an officer, Robertson said he didn't want his personal life to be part of his work life.
"I even went as far as going on dates with women," said Robertson.
After Hurricane Katrina, Robertson said his life changed. Now, he said he’s more open.
"I can tell you this, I'm comfortable with who I am. I know who I am,” said Robertson.
His personal experience informs his role as the NOPD’S liaison to the LGBTQ community. It’s a position he said shows the police department cares for all people they're sworn to protect. During a vigil for Gibson, Robertson delivered a message of support.
"I am your family, the NOPD is your family," he told the crowd that night.
Robertson said Gibson’s death affected him personally.
"Chyna's death was really close because I knew her,” Roberston said. “We were all in the same circle of friends. I really felt the need that when Ciara, and also with Chyna, I really felt the urgency for my position to come out like I have never have before and continue to try and fight."
Even with that outreach, some transgender people said they have to remain cautious, even around police.
"We know that Frank is trying to do something,” said Cardona. “While I can appreciate what's going on, we have to acknowledge that those relationships have been strained. I myself have been a victim of police violence, and I never reported it.”
Following the two killings in New Orleans, Transitions Louisiana organized a town hall meeting where city leaders heard concerns from the trans community. One day later, a brick was thrown through a window at the church where the town hall took place. If the plan was to intimidate, Davis said it failed.
“All they could do was throw a brick through a window to make their impact,” said Davis. “It's not going to work it's just going to add fuel to the fire. It's just going to make us want to do this more."
One of the ways they believe they can make their presence felt is in the workforce. Job opportunities, though, can be scarce for transgender people.
"There have been times I've been to jobs and they listen to my voice over the telephone, and you know, asked me who I was, and I gave them my name and went there,” Smith said. “When I went like dressed the way that I feel comfortable, I worked the day, and next day…pink slip.”
Victories come one hire at a time. Cardona said she feels blessed just to be working. Cardona now works in HIV prevention with the Louisiana Health Department.
"I have a job, I make well more than what the normal transgender salary, which in the state of Louisiana which is about $13,000 a year, well below poverty level,” said Cardona. “Thank God somebody gave me a chance. Somebody sees more than just the sex. Somebody sees more than just what's on the surface."
Davis is in the same field but for a private company. Davis said she had to endure a long and tough road to get there, including some dark times in what she calls the “night life.”
“Yes, I can say that today, I can say that I had to sell my body,” she said. “We all have other choices most definitely, those were the choices I made. Being young, naïve, you know afraid, hungry, one will do what one has to do.”
Teah Smith said access to jobs can help prevent trans people from living and working at the fringes. All they want is a chance.
"We can do work, we can wash dishes, we can mop floors, we can do work,” Smith said. “We can handle business, it's not a problem, we can type we can do a lot of work, just give us an opportunity to show you what we can do and we'll show."
For so long, these women said they've lived in the shadows, but for a brief time this year, transgender rights and equality took center stage. Earlier this year, the National Basketball Association decided to move its All-Star Celebration away from Charlotte to New Orleans because of North Carolina's controversial bill that sought to regulate which bathroom transgender people could use. The NBA and the city did not hide their stance on the matter. During Allstar Weekend, a large sign reading “equality” was displayed on Benson Tower.
While Cardona celebrated that moment, she said that time has passed and the fight for true equality continues.
"It's come and it's gone. The equality sign is gone, so if we stop working on it today, we won't have it tomorrow," said Cardona.
While the NOPD has named persons of interest in the cases of Chyna Gibson and Ciara McElveen, investigators have yet to find any suspects in the killings.
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