“That’s a pretty name” is what I thought when I first met her.
That was just over a year ago when she first joined The LGBT Center’s Trans Wellness program. A survivor and a storyteller, Tierramarie shared her life with us, and she encouraged others to share their lives with her.
Her life had not been easy. The scars she wore and the words she spoke were proof enough. But through it all, a great kindness shone through her soul, along with an energy to thrive in this world – the same energy that spun her around the room in dance, in laughter, and in smiles. She rejoiced in her life.
Tierramarie Lewis came to Cleveland, Ohio to build that life here. She brought the talent and drive that we so desperately need in our city and state. She was the “brain gain” that we always talk about – a young person with great drive and many dreams.
As a Clevelander, I want to see my neighbor’s dreams come true. Many of us do.
But, on June 12, 2021 – in the middle of Pride Month – an act of violence snuffed out Tierramarie’s dreams forever. I don’t know why.
From what we’ve heard, the authorities have an individual in custody. I hope that justice will be found, that whoever committed this hate-filled crime will never hurt anyone again. I hope that our legal system will uphold the innate value of trans lives – particularly the lives of Black trans women – and will show that hate crimes have no place in our state.
But, I also know that simply convicting and incarcerating a single person will do nothing to fix our broken systems, or to end this evil epidemic, or even to stop her killer from harming other trans people behind bars – just like Lea Rayson Daye last fall.
As LGBTQ+ people and allies, it is tempting to believe the narrative that we are moving continually forward toward a more just and equitable world. It is easy to see recent victories, like marriage equality and Title VII protections, as proof of this belief. But, this is not the case for all of us. Whereas many LGBTQ+ people – particularly those of us with racial, financial, and passing privileges – have largely assimilated and enjoyed acceptance in straight spaces, many other queer and trans people (particularly queer and trans people of color) are suffering dire isolation and violence.
We must learn through Tierramarie’s tragic loss to see the innumerable oppressions and injustices that exist at the intersections of transphobia, homophobia, racism, and misogyny.
What Tierramarie needed most was a safe place to call home. She tried hard to find that home. Unfortunately, no matter where she went, she could not find a place that protected her from the daily harassments, humiliations, and dangers that trans people face in shelters everywhere. Black trans women especially are routinely beaten, robbed, raped and murdered while seeking safe housing.
It was mostly likely to escape those dangers that Tierramarie ended up back on the streets. Back where she tried to escape from. And it was in those streets where she was murdered.
Sadly, these injustices are not limited to streets and homeless shelters. Such bigotry exists in our households, hospitals, churches, and schools. In our restaurants, courtrooms, jail cells, busses, worksites, offices, and boardrooms.
From stalkers on the sidewalks, to gas-lighting bosses, to demeaning questions at front desks, to uncomfortable stares, to police profiling. And yes, to the multimillion dollar hate groups that have hijacked our democracy through armies of attorneys and PR spin doctors to scapegoat, fear-monger, and demonize our most vulnerable neighbors.
The bigotry even extends beyond life. It extends to the broken reporting system between our first responders, the medical examiners, and our media that systemically mis-genders and dead-names our slain trans neighbors. Not only is this the final indignity, but such misreporting hides the true extent of anti-trans violence.
A year ago, I wrote an op-ed that identified Cleveland as an epicenter of the trans murder epidemic, based on publically available accounts of trans deaths. But those recorded slayings are only the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of trans murders are likely overlooked and ignored by a system designed to do so. The same is true for trans suicides, overdoses, and socially-determined diseases.
The lesson I see from Tierramarie’s murder is that Clevelanders have not ended our epidemic. Instead, we’ve allowed it to only worsen. But, it’s not just getting worse in Cleveland. Already, 2021 is poised to be the worst year on record for trans murders in America, even eclipsing the mass violence of 2020 – the previous worst year on record.
For LGBTQ+ people who have never been incarcerated or homeless, hungry or hunted, it may seem hard to comprehend how Tierramarie’s suffering and death – while terrible and tragic – also threatens the safety and security of the entire rainbow. But our collective history, from Stonewall onward, makes clear that our Power only grows when we hold together across all LGBTQ+ communities to oppose oppression. Indeed, it has so often been our most oppressed queer compatriots bearing the brunt of such battles.
But don’t just take my word for it. Look no farther than the coalition of hate groups that actively target trans people across our state and nation through lawsuits, legislative attacks, and misinformation campaigns. Can we naively believe that such groups – groups that have encoded homophobia, misogyny, and racism alongside transphobia into their DNA – will remain satisfied assailing the trans community exclusively?
A clearer window into reality may come from looking overseas where such hate groups have found their greatest successes. Across much of Eastern Europe today – including in previously democratized states like Poland, Hungary, and Georgia – a shadow of bigotry has descended, as the same hate groups that target trans people in the U.S. have worked alongside authoritarian nationalists to falsely blame queers, immigrants, and ethnic minorities (including Jewish and Roma people) for their countries’ post-Soviet challenges. As such, hate groups and would-be-dictators have rolled back democratic institutions, restricted women’s rights and reproductive freedoms, and established large scale “LGBTQ+ Free Zones” – vast regions where the identity, visibility, and safety of all LGBTQ+ people no longer publically exist.
Make no mistake, every American state that passes anti-trans sports bills and bathroom bills, that codifies and justifies transphobia in medicine and education law – all laws that target people like Tierramarie – are states one step closer to becoming full-scale “LGBTQ+ Free Zones” here at home.
Taken from this clear view, I can’t help but revision Martin Niemöller’s enduring post-war confessional First they came …, as the poem has often been reworked throughout the decades, into this warning for today:
“First they came for the Black trans women, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Black trans woman.
Then they came for all trans people, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trans person.
Then they came for the non-conforming, the unassimilated, the poor and the queers of color, and I did not speak out — because I was not any of those people, either.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This is why it is both morally and practically needed for all LGBTQ+ people, across all communities and shared histories, to oppose this crisis.
Ending the trans murder crisis means taking action wherever we can. It means hiring trans people, paying living wages, and deconstructing the micro-aggressions that drive us away from offices, workplaces, and boardrooms. It means preventing bullying in our classrooms and discrimination in our clinics, housing markets, and places of commerce.
Ending the trans murder crisis means legal equality – both in Ohio and across America – along with putting down the legions of hate groups that oppose such equality. But true legal equality won’t come through one or two bills. Not unless we also take responsibility for the tangle web of state-sanctioned oppressions that criminalize our neighbors who rely on sex work to survive, who struggle with substance dependency, who live with HIV, and who do not have a safe space to call home.
And yes, ending the trans murder crisis means abolishing our demented dependency on mass incarceration. How many trans people have been starved, beaten, raped, and killed in those cages? Far too many.
Ending the trans murder crisis means unraveling where hatred of identity, intimacy, race, and gender knot together, along with replacing an economy of exclusivity with an economy of opportunity. Ending the trans murder crisis means making a better world for everyone.
During Tierramarie’s 36-years in this world, she made it a better place. I wish we could have had another 36 years with her. That’s the least she deserved. But, we can’t give those years back. We can’t efface our collective failure.
We can simply commit ourselves to do better. To save our next trans neighbors in danger, and to honor the memory and legacy of those whom we’ve lost.
Tierramarie, I can’t see your face, your smile, your eyes any longer. But, I can still feel you around us, within us – just as we feel Brandi, Sky, Cemia, and so many others whom we’ve lost. Through the Power of your collective spirit, we walk forward toward a better day, together. 🔥
A version of this piece was originally published in Cleveland Scene and appears here with their permission.