This story was produced in collaboration with The Contently Foundation for Investigative Reporting. To learn more go to Contently.org.
On the last day of her life, Zoraida Reyes had a choice: take the bus or walk to meet her blind date. Her favored method of getting around, a bright yellow bicycle that friends called the banana boat, had been stolen, and she’d never learned to drive. So she set out on foot on June 10, 2014, a mild, overcast day in southern California, from her rented bedroom in a modest ranch-style home in Santa Ana, having arranged to meet a man she met on badoo.com, the social networking site.
Only it wasn’t really a date. Reyes, a 28-year-old transgender woman, planned to connect with the man because he’d agreed to pay her $10 for oral sex. Tall and slender with wavy black hair and chiseled cheekbones, she had the legs of a model and a prominent Adam’s apple, of which she was especially self-conscious. Paid sex helped her get by. Reyes, a prominent local LGBTQ activist, had worked at fast-food restaurants until getting hurt on the job at a Jack in the Box, but she hoped to return to her studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. On most Tuesday nights, she attended meetings for transgender Latina women at the LGBT Center Orange County.
Her friends described her as funny, exuberant and fond of singing and dancing, even if she couldn’t carry a tune particularly well. But she was also dangerously naïve, they said. “She accepted anyone, regardless,” said Sandra Martinez, a coworker at Jack in the Box –- even insensitive customers who asked, Are you a guy? “She was so nice.”
Reyes got into the back seat of Randy Lee Parkerson’s silver Honda, which he’d parked on a residential street in Santa Ana. Parkerson, 40, was having his own troubles. He’d just lost his job as a “team leader” at Target and went on a methamphetamine bender, smoking so much of the drug it kept him awake for six continuous days. Parkerson, who did not consider himself bisexual, told police that when high, he preferred male partners. He and Reyes, he claimed, went from oral to anal sex and she asked to have her airway restricted. While he choked her, he told police, wrapping his right arm around her neck and holding her hair with his left hand, Reyes would “grab his hand or she would make some noises, which would cause him to stop, but then Zoraida would say, ‘No, no, keep going, go, go.’”
When it was over 10 minutes later, Parkerson claimed, he noticed blood around Reyes’s nose and realized she was dead. He stuffed her body into the trunk of his car and drove around for a day, smoking more meth, before dumping her in an empty lot behind a Dairy Queen in Anaheim. Police found the body the next day. After being arrested four months later, Parkerson confessed, admitting that he killed her but telling police it was an accident — thus invoking the Preppie Killer defense, named after New York murderer Robert Chambers, who claimed he didn’t intend to strangle 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during rough sex in Central Park in 1986.
Reyes’s mother doesn’t believe it. “Since she’s not here to defend herself he could be saying it was an accident,” said Macrena Reyes. “I don’t think it was an accident.”
Parkerson is set to be tried for murder in March. Prosecutors have not charged him with a hate crime, although many of Reyes’s supporters assumed when they learned what happened that her slaying was motivated by bias. “You hear a transgender Latina’s body is found dumped in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, the first thing you think is, this woman was murdered and it was a hate crime,” said Laura Kanter, a director at the LGBT Center OC. “What else could you think, right?”
Reyes’s homicide was one of at least 12 transgender slayings in 2014, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), which tracks hate crimes against LGBTQ and HIV-infected individuals, most of whom were women of color. In 2015 the number rose to 22, including 19 victims of color, the highest figure since the group began recording these killings in 1989.
It’s an alarming increase for the estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. All during a banner year for the cause.
The celebrated transformation of Caitlyn Jenner has accelerated cultural acceptance of transgender individuals, coming as it did after positive portrayals of characters in film, TV and on Broadway. But while hits such as “Kinky Boots,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “The Danish Girl” (just nominated for two Oscars) have explored the difficulties facing transgender women, they remain subject to disproportionate violence, including assaults and homicides, advocates and academics say.
Making matters worse, they say, is that many people fear such crimes won’t be investigated or prosecuted as vigorously as those involving other victims, in part because of disparaging attitudes among some law-enforcement officers. Police have been known to exacerbate the problem by perpetrating abuse themselves. Assault victims are often too afraid to report having been attacked, which means that underreporting — by them as well as among police — remains pervasive.
Advocates call the situation a crisis. “The world is a dangerous place for us,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a former policy advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We’re trying to make it better, and hopefully, God willing, it will get better. But it’s not getting better fast enough.”
Many advocates worry that alarm about the violence has not gotten the attention it deserves, with one contributing factor being insufficient official data. There are no statistics, for example, to confirm that transgender victims are less likely to get justice than others, though experts claim law-enforcement prejudice makes subpar treatment all but certain.
The FBI, spurred by the Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009, which made it a felony to attack someone because of their actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, didn’t begin tracking such assaults until 2013 and has yet to compile reliable data. That year 31 of the 5,922 hate crimes involved gender-identity bias, about half of one percent, the bureau concluded. Among incidents involving one form of bias in 2014, there were 109 offenses involving gender identity, 69 of which were anti-transgender, the FBI said.
The numbers could be attributed to lackadaisical reporting by local police departments, which forward their data to the FBI on a voluntary basis. Numerous agencies have either not sent their figures to the FBI or reported zero hate crimes, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization. On announcing its 2014 stats, the FBI noted in a press release that while 15,494 law-enforcement agencies contributed to the bureau’s hate-crime report, “only 1,666 agencies reported hate crimes within their jurisdiction(s).”
This despite a spate of headline-making murders, several of them spurred by anger related to the gender identity of the victims.
On Oct. 15, Zella Ziona, 21, a transgender woman in Maryland, was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Rico LeBlond, 20, after Ziona "began acting flamboyantly towards LeBlond and greatly embarrassed LeBlond in front of his peers," according to arrest documents obtained by a CBS news affiliate in Washington, D.C.
Nine days earlier, Keisha Jenkins, 22, an artist and student at Temple University, was surrounded and beaten by a group of five or six men, one of whom shot her twice in the back. Police have said the slaying, which occurred in a desolate area of Philadelphia known for transgender prostitution, was not a hate crime. Homicide Capt. James Clark insisted that the motive was strictly robbery and that the assailants killed Jenkins after she fought back. But the one suspect cops arrested, Pedro Redding, an ex-con with a long rap sheet, had targeted other transgender women in that area for robbery before.
The killing outraged Nellie Fitzpatrick, the Philadelphia mayor’s liaison to the gay community, who in news reports called Jenkins’s death “a tremendous and tragic loss for the entire city, our LGBT community, and, more specifically, our trans community. This type of wicked, inhumane violence just has no place here. We can’t take any more. It’s just too much.”
Widespread distrust of law-enforcement has hindered efforts to prevent more bloodshed.
In 2008 Memphis police beat Duanna Johnson, a transgender woman, while in their custody, an incident captured on videotape. The main perpetrator pled guilty to a federal civil rights charge for excessive force. Nine months after the beating Johnson was murdered. The case was never solved.
Other scandals include Brooke Fantelli suing the Bureau of Land Management in federal court in 2012 after rangers tased and arrested her. She claimed they became hostile only after noticing that the gender on her ID was male. The Boston Police Department settled a lawsuit two years ago with a transgender woman who alleged she was abused at a station house by cops who arrested her for using the women’s restroom in a homeless shelter.
The concern those cases spurred is backed by academic research. A survey done in 2011 by researchers and advocates of transgender equality, called the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, found 29 percent of the 6,450 survey participants reported having experienced harassment or disrespect when interacting with police, and 6 percent said they had been physically assaulted. Almost half felt uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
Academics and advocates say that transgender crime victims frequently don’t alert authorities because they fear secondary victimization or worry that police won’t believe them, help them or take their cases seriously, among other concerns.
“The moral of the story is that trans people are hesitant to voluntarily interact with law enforcement even when they are victims of crime because of either prior experience or knowing of others who’ve had prior experiences where they were not treated as they should be by the police,” said Rebecca Stotzer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Hawaii and an authority on violence against transgender victims.
“The value of limiting your interactions with law enforcement is greater than the value you get out of actually having the crime reported and something done about it.”
In a review of research published in 2014 that examined 33 existing studies on interactions between police and transgender people, Stotzer found that a high percentage of respondents experienced arrest, incarceration, unjustified stops, disrespect, poor case handling, abuse and violence from within the criminal justice system. The most common problem was verbal harassment.
Mistreatment by police is adding to the risks for a group already subject to an unusual degree of cruelty.
A report released in June by the NCAVP found that in 2014, transgender women and transgender minorities were nearly twice as likely to experience physical or sexual violence as lesbian, gay or bisexual people and were about six times more likely to encounter police violence.
Stotzer says victims typically are brutalized early and often in their lives. An analysis she did in 2009 of violence against transgender victims found that between 25 and 50 percent of various study respondents reported being physically attacked because of their gender identity. About 15 percent said they had been raped or sexually assaulted and more than 80 percent were abused verbally. The NTDS report made similar findings: 26 percent of respondents had been physically assaulted because of bias against their gender identity and 10 percent were sexually assaulted. Additionally, 41 percent had tried to kill themselves.
Being marginalized increases their vulnerability, experts agree. Joblessness, depression, suicide and drug use are often part of the transgender experience, along with diminished access to housing and health care and discrimination in employment and education.
“High percentages of transgender people report multiple victimization from multiple sources,” said Stotzer. “We really need to admit the pervasiveness of this issue for transgender people.”
One point of contention is the relatively small percentage of felonies that are prosecuted as hate crimes. This matters because such a designation often allows courts to impose enhanced penalties on offenders.
Although 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws against transgender hate slayings, there have been just 11 prosecutions using those statutes and only two convictions, according to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. The first to be convicted, Allen Andrade, was found guilty of murdering 18-year-old Angie Zapata, in Greeley, Colorado, in 2008 after learning that she was biologically male. He beat Zapata with his fists and a fire extinguisher until he “killed it,” Andrade told police.
The other case is in limbo. In 2009 a jury found Dwight DeLee guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime for shooting transgender victim Lateisha Green outside a house party in Syracuse, New York, the year prior. But in 2013 an appeals court tossed out the conviction on a technicality, citing confusing jury instructions. Matthew Doran, the head of the homicide bureau of the Onondaga County District Attorney, said that his office is pursuing a new indictment of DeLee, who has been freed.
After Reyes was strangled, her supporters said they put pressure on police to solve the crime. They held vigils, posted updates on social media, encouraged newspaper and broadcast outlets to cover the case and repeatedly called police to check on the progress of their investigation. They believe these efforts helped lead to Parkerson’s arrest.
“We didn’t want this to be another unsolved trans murder,” said her friend, Javier Saucedo, 29.
Still, authorities are not calling Reyes’s murder a hate crime. Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s office, said that to charge a defendant with a hate crime “you have to prove that it was motivated by the intent to deprive somebody of personal liberty because of who they are.” She said they don’t have such evidence in this case.
Parkerson, who has pled not guilty, has a criminal history that includes several closed cases, including one for misdemeanor domestic battery. At the time of his arrest he was on probation following a conviction for driving under the influence and other offenses from 2009. He spoke briefly with this reporter at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, where he is being held on $1 million bail as his trial approaches.
“My lawyer said not to talk to anybody,” he said from behind a glass partition and through a telephone headset. “I can’t answer any questions. I’m sorry.” While in custody he wrote a letter of apology to Reyes’s family expressing his regret.
Her friends admit they don’t know if bias motivated Parkerson or not, but many assume she was attacked because of her gender identity.
“A lot of men and a lot of our society see trans women as disposable bodies that are not worth living,” said Jorge Gutierrez, 31, a close friend of Reyes’s and an LGBTQ advocate. “And so because of that violence it enables people to think that they can hurt and murder trans women without any repercussions or any accountability.”
And although there is no proof of a hate crime, Reyes’s murder feels like one to her supporters, Kanter said. “That, for me, is the thing we have to help police understand.”
“This case speaks to the violence that exists at a social level,” said Tony Viramontes, who works with Kanter at the LGBT Center OC.
Law-enforcement officials have been quick to refute accusations of transgender bias. Jeff Mundy, a detective sergeant in the Anaheim PD’s homicide unit, said his squad treats all victims the same.
“Who you are or what you do prior to becoming a homicide victim has no impact on the value that we’re going to give your case,” Mundy said. “Whether you’re a gang member or a nun or someone who’s transgender, you’re going to get the same quality investigation, regardless.”
But transgender officers told this reporter a different story. Though they’ve seen some recent progress, they’ve witnessed harsh discrimination, both in how police respond to members of the public and how they treat their own.
One, a former detective at a major metropolitan police department in California, said officers mistreated transgender crime victims many times during her 30 years on the job. The detective, who requested anonymity because her current employer would not authorize her to speak to the media, said colleagues abused her physically and verbally.
When she transitioned, most of her coworkers were supportive, she said. But there were detractors who were openly hostile, “vehement enemies,” she called them. She fears that were she to become a crime victim, responding officers might not treat her respectfully, possibly by joking about her gender identity, for example, or pointedly referring to her as he, an insult known as “mis-gendering.”
“These things don’t happen all the time, but they still do happen,” she said.
“I think in general the newer generations of officers that have come on have more life experience in dealing with people that are gay or lesbian or trans. They are more open, I think, and [have] less stigma in their eyes.”
Christine Garcia, 31, a traffic division patrol officer in a big city, said she once saw an officer from another jurisdiction rudely mis-gender a trans woman under arrest. Her colleagues occasionally make derogatory remarks about members of the community, said Garcia, who requested that her department not be identified because she was not authorized to speak on its behalf.
Even so, coming out as a transgender in July was easier than she thought it would be. She said her supervisor’s first words when she told him were, “What can I do to help you?” Her chief suggested that Garcia might be surprised by her coworkers’ reactions — and she was.
“I’m going from a male role to a female role in a masculine profession,” she said. “I’m kind of going backwards. That’s what I felt. I felt that most officers wouldn’t understand it or accept it.”
Garcia, who has been a cop for eight years, said she received hundreds of encouraging texts and emails after the department sent word to roughly 2,000 officers about her transition. Many voiced their support in person, she said.
But Mandi Hauwert, the first and only openly transgender officer at the San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, said she experiences derogatory comments on a daily basis. More often than not, she said, the slights come from colleagues, not inmates. Her main complaint is how often they mis-gender her.
“Usually the excuse is it takes time for them to adjust, even though it’s been three years,” said Hauwert, 35. “Or maybe it’s hard for them. There’s always an excuse or they don’t mean it. But they don’t have any clue as to how it affects me. They really don’t care.”
Such treatment has deeply affected her, she said. At times, she’s become suicidal.
“Every time they mis-gender you, they are discounting who you are as a person,” she said. “They are dismissing your identity.”
On the plus side, her employer, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has been supportive of Hauwert’s gender change and her many media appearances. They take her complaints about mistreatment seriously, she said.
Jordan Woods, a law professor at UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank on gender identity and sexual orientation issues, has studied interactions between police and transgender women, interviewing 220 low-income trans Latinas in Los Angeles County for a paper published in 2013. One of his discoveries was that “stereotypes of transgender people very much still shape their interactions with police,” he said. A common assumption is that they all are sex workers.
“Police interactions are a particular source of vulnerability for trans people,” he said, especially for immigrant, undocumented and transgender people of color. Among his participants, 82 percent reported negative interactions when stopped by law enforcement during the previous year and 57 percent said they were treated poorly or very poorly when reporting crimes.
“Yes, transgender people disproportionately suffer violence,” said Woods. “I think that police officers are also sources of that violence in many cases.”
Just as some police departments are now being forced to confront racism in their ranks, there’s a growing recognition of law enforcement having failed the transgender community. Robert Handy is doing his best to encourage enlightened thinking among cops.
Handy, chief of police in Huntington Beach, and Kanter started the Orange County LGBTQ Policing Partnership in March 2015, a collaboration involving 14 law enforcement agencies. Handy had worked with an LGBT liaison officer in Phoenix, where he served for 21 years.
“The biggest thing I think I’ve learned is how fearful they are of us and how much they don’t trust us,” he said. “Not just the transgender community. But how we’re viewed in the LGBT community is not real positive.
“Some of the stories and the perceptions that they have and where they come from, how they view things when the police are involved was eye-opening to me.”
Jarret Young, a 22-year police captain in Anaheim who attends the partnership’s monthly meetings, says misunderstandings come up because of a lack of knowledge on both sides. He stresses training for officers in basic issues such as how to properly address a transgender person — “How do you identify?” is preferable, he said, over “What are you?”
“I honestly don’t believe any of our officers willingly discriminate against anybody in that community,” he said. “But I can see maybe, by how they ask questions, maybe they can be initially perceived that way.”
Carrie Davis, the head of programs at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City, says cultural intolerance toward transgender people includes the stereotype that they are perverted or deviant –- as was once the prevailing assumption about homosexuality.
“With the police we try to work with them to unlearn that,” she said. “They’re human beings. I don’t want to pathologize the police because I see them as [being] as vulnerable to this kind of messaging as anyone else is.”
Davis and other advocacy groups worked with the New York Police Department and then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to revise the NYPD’s patrol guide in 2012. They came up with recommendations on how officers should refer to transgender individuals respectfully, using pronouns, names and honorifics a person requests even if they don’t match his or her government ID, and incarcerating transgender inmates with others of the same self-identified gender.
Police departments in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Washington D.C. have made similar policy changes.
Friends described Reyes, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as an adolescent, as kind to anyone in need, prone to pulling fruit or snacks from her bag and offering them to friends or strangers. The last few years of her life had been a struggle. Though she was receiving a small sum from worker’s compensation twice a month, there was not enough money for her to finish her undergraduate degree. She saved for a time by living in a cramped and cluttered house with her mother, three sisters and a toddler nephew.
Reyes also fought through disrespect from some of her work supervisors, one of whom insisted in 2009 that she wear a name tag with her male name.
“At that moment I was upset because I felt that I had to change who I am,” Reyes wrote of the incident in a binder of papers found after her death, “that I was being discriminated for being a transgender woman.” She considered challenging him on this but decided against it.
“I was desperate. I wanted to say something,” she wrote.
But at the time of her death, Reyes’s prospects seemed to be improving. Her mother said she was set to return to work soon, this time at El Pollo Loco, and she had recently moved into her own place. Friends said she had begun wearing more makeup and expressed an interest in breast augmentation surgery and other procedures.
Sex work, Saucedo suggested, might have appealed to Reyes as a way to secure favorable attention from men, something she craved. He and others noted that Reyes did not charge much and was not savvy about the trade. She never identified as a sex worker, Saucedo said.
“You’re constantly surviving,” said another close friend, Alexa Vasquez, 26, who is also transgender. “Your path is not clear. You kind of have to survive first and then dream later, you know?”
On her last night with Reyes, as they shared girl talk at Taco Bell, Vasquez warned her friend to take precautions, to be sure someone always knew where she was and to tell the men she met that she was transgender. But neither she nor other friends told Reyes to stop turning tricks.
“Knowing that your friend is doing sex work, for us, it’s just another day in our lives,” Vazquez said. “But realistically, seeing it from an outsider’s view, it is fucked up.”
Reyes’s favorite singer was Gloria Trevi and her favorite song was Trevi’s hit “Todos Me Miran” (“Everybody Is Looking at Me”). The video features a man who cries at the feet of an older male figure, then powders his face, dons a wig, slips into a dress and walks outside, strutting and grinning as passersby stare.
“And everybody is looking at me, at me, at me,” Trevi sings. “Because I know I’m pretty / Because everybody admires me…Because I do what few would have the courage to do.”
It could have been Reyes’s theme song, as it echoes her desire for acceptance and admiration. But in the end there was no triumph for Reyes. Instead, she was choked to death and discarded amid dried out palm trees on the edge of a fast-food parking lot.
“As long as girls like us keep on getting into cars with men, as long as we keep not having jobs, as long as we keep being poor, as long as we don’t have the resources to survive, we will keep on dying,” Vasquez said. “That’s just the reality.”
Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist who writes about human rights, women's rights and children's lives.