It’s been 50 years since the LGBT equality movement started in Philadelphia. So Billy Penn decided to look at the transgender experience in the city today, from data to personal stories to health challenges and anti-discrimination policies. This is Trans Philly.
Veronica Allen drives a half an hour every day to the Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Victoria, Texas to visit her child. She wears a T-shirt that has “RIP London” stripped across the top, and Allen places pink flowers at the grave when the old ones start to wither. Pink was her daughter’s favorite color.
Londyn Kiki Chanel, a 21-year-old living in Philadelphia, was stabbed in an abandoned house in North Philly in May. She became the eighth transgender woman of color to be killed this year, and by that point, there had been at least 17 homicides of LGBT people across the nation.
“I understand that people fight,” Allen said. “I don’t understand why they just gotta take people’s lives. It doesn’t make any sense. I just want to understand.”
Raheam Felton, 31, a boyfriend of one of Chanel’s friends in Philly, was arrested and charged with her murder. The Office of the District Attorney is releasing little information about what exactly happened in the early morning hours of May 18 before Chanel was found bleeding on the sidewalk after being stabbed repeatedly. Felton faces charges of murder and possession of an instrument of crime.
The killing of Chanel in North Philly was the second homicide of a transgender woman of color in the city in just a few years — in summer 2013, Diamond Williams was brutally murdered in the Strawberry Mansion area of the city. Some advocates are concerned violence against transgender individuals, especially trans women of color, is a growing problem.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s most recent report shows LGBT homicides in 2013 were among the highest numbers ever recorded, and the overwhelming majority of homicide victims were of racial minorities. More than 70 percent of the LGBT victims were transgender women, and 67 percent of homicide victims were transgender women of color.
Deja Alvarez, an advocate and transgender woman living in Philly, said transgender people face everyday violence and discrimination that goes largely unreported for a variety of reasons, whether it’s fear of retribution or of police.
“The biggest problem is individuals that walk down the street,” Alvarez, who has become a de-facto first-call for transgender victims of violence, said. “I took a call from one girl not long ago who was attacked in a subway station. A guy slammed her head into the wall. On July 4, a group of guys saw a group of trans women walking down the street. They started calling them faggots, threatening them with a gun. And this type of thing happens almost daily.”
Especially to transgender women who often report being misunderstood.
When she was 4 years old and still being called “Marcus,” Londyn Chanel put both legs in a pair of shorts and pretended it was a skirt. Veronica Allen always knew she would be different. Growing up in Texas was rough for Chanel — she had a father who was in prison and a mother who was on drugs for most of her life, being in and out of jail herself. Chanel was no stranger to the Child Protective Services life, and she largely grew up on her own.
The two moved to New Jersey a few years back with a man with whom Allen shared a relationship, but Chanel was drawn to Philadelphia and wanted to live in the city. After a trip with her job to LOVE Park, Chanel came home and told her mother, “I’m moving to Philadelphia.” Allen says she quickly fell in love with it.
Chanel came out as transgender, Allen moved back to Texas and the two became estranged for some time. But Chanel stayed in Philly, bouncing from couch to couch and staying at homeless shelters while trying to make a life here.
The two reconnected earlier this year, and Chanel had made the promise that she would come home to Texas, but she wanted to do one thing first — officially change her name. She started going through the process and wanted to stay in Philadelphia to see it through.
But those plans were cut short. Allen received a phone call from Chanel’s cell at 5:30 a.m. on May 18 and it wasn’t her daughter on the other line. It was a man, who said simply “Ma’am, I’m sorry. Marcus is dead.”
The mother sat on the corner of her bed for more than four hours. She didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know where to go. Nothing was clicking. She eventually made it to Philly for two memorial services. Londyn Chanel was later buried in Texas, wearing some of her favorite things: Earrings, Chuck Taylor sneakers, lip gloss and a pink shirt.
Not long after the killing, Felton was arrested, charged and denied bail. He admitted to stabbing Chanel in a third-floor bedroom of an abandoned house and, with the help of another person, dragging her body outside to try to resuscitate her, to no avail.
The Office of the District Attorney assigned a special prosecutor to the case who is not investigating the incident as a hate crime, but rather as a domestic dispute that went sour.
“This is not something that we’re taking lightly,” DA spokesman Cameron Kline said. “And there is a very special amount of scrutiny that goes into cases that deal with transgender citizens, and it’s something the DA has continued to focus on.”
Felton is scheduled to be formally arraigned next week, and he’s currently being held in county prison at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg.
Meanwhile, Allen hopes she can channel her daughter’s love into everyday life and help other parents with transgender children. She’ll tell them what she wished someone would have told her.
“Through Londyn’s love and generosity, I just ask that it comes through me,” she said. “That I can help these kids and parents, and say ‘your child is different. It’s OK. Don’t push them away. This is the time they need us the most.’”