As a Southeast Asian trans woman, I know firsthand that trans people in the U.S. bear the brunt of anti-LGBTQ violence in the community. I also know that it is worse for Black trans women, who make up 66% of the reported murder victims of homicide against trans and gender nonconforming people.
Last year, at least 38 trans people were killed, according to a report by HRC, who started tracking reports of fatal violence against trans people since 2015. This year doesn’t look good either, and we are only in February.
As I research one murder case of a dead trans person after another, I keep finding myself interrupted by a new one. The bodies pile up, and for the media, the collective reporting of deaths becomes robotic; it’s easy to forget that real people are being killed when they are dwindled into statistics and police reports.
I started this project out of my own personal fear; if my life were to be taken for me being trans, I would want people to associate my name with positive memories of me. I want to divorce the idea that being trans justifies violence, and calling it an “epidemic” doesn’t make it any less horrifying. By sharing the life these people lived prior to their deaths, I hope we collectively reignite their humanity.
Despite the brutality, I am less invested in the specifics of their exit and am more invested in the time they spent living. I want to know the songs that made them dance, what their catchphrases were, whose lives they touched, and what forms of hope they held onto. I want to know that they were real, so that in addition to grieving them, we know how to honor the lives they led.
Finding the victims’ loved ones has been grueling—even more so to speak with them while their grief is raw. The pauses in their sentences are long, and sometimes their voices shake. After every conversation, I only feel gratitude for their permission to let me listen to their pain as I come to understand just how much they care. In showing me why they care, I can show everyone why they should care, too.
With that said, I’d like to present the first installation of When You Were Here, a series commemorating trans people whose lives were taken. Rather than centering their murders, our stories incorporate memories from people who loved them to illuminate the times when they were alive—when they were here.
Jasmine Star Mack, 36
Her nickname was “Star,” because “she used to always tell our mother that she was going to be a star,” said her older sister Pamela Witherspoon.
According to Witherspoon, Mack had the same attitude and spirit since the age of three, wanting to make everybody laugh and feel seen. Always declaring how much she loved her family and wanting to “do right by them,” Star’s supply of love was unrationed and boundless. She loved her family unconditionally regardless of her personal circumstances.
As a homeless preteen, she and her friends from high school ran the streets, according to Earline Budd, Non-Medical Case Management Specialist at HIPS, who knew Star for almost 20 years as she was Star’s on-and-off case manager.
“She was always someone who was generally kind, she was compassionate and understanding. And she never asked much for herself,” Budd said.
Budd has had her fair share of witnessing homeless teens take their frustrations out on case managers and providers, and she mentioned Mack’s modesty as a rarity amongst the others; besides visiting Budd for the service she needed, she didn’t ask for much. When Budd would ask how Mack was doing otherwise, Mack would say, “I’m alive. I’m alive.”
Mack’s wealth of positivity continued to stun Witherspoon, who said their family was never close and believed Mack had every reason to rebel and push her loved ones away. “She still wore a smile like nothing was going on [in her life],” Pamela said. “She was just a happy person. I’ve never understood it.”
As a musician, Star liked the drums, but she loved to listen to and sing gospel music more. Her favorite song was “Through The Storms” by Yolanda Adams. As an actor, her favorite character to impersonate was Tyler Perry’s Madea. In high school, she had gotten into Duke Ellington School of the Arts for acting but never pursued it.
Kemaira, Pamela’s younger daughter, never felt a dull moment with her aunt Star, especially when it came to her jokes.
“[My sister and I] would have our hair freshly done, and she’d be like ‘Oooh, I want mine just like that!’,” Kemaira said, her voice trailing off into a cry. “Her energy was just like... You can never get that from nobody.”
For Keaira, Pamela’s older daughter, her favorite memories of her aunt were the times Keaira would do Mack’s hair out on the front porch. The two spent the whole day outside, taking breaks from doing hair by going on walks in the park and getting food. She joked that one of the reasons she got in trouble with the law for the first time was because of Mack.
As much as Keaira hopes she left an impression on Mack, she’s certain that Mack left an impression on her. In some ways, what Mack wanted for the family came true under different circumstances; losing Mack is what brought the family close together.
“Losing Star made me think of life differently,” Keaira said. “I hope I become a person like her, with the golden heart that she had.”
KC Johnson, 27
From lying in bed and listening to Linkin Park, to playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with friends, KC Johnson was easily entertained by the simple joys. She lived in Wilmington, NC with her partner Bulla Brodzinski. Johnson moved in with Brodzinski, who is also a trans woman, soon after they started dating last fall.
“She was really someone that I could open up to,” Brodzinski said. “[She was] someone that really pulled me out of a dark place I was in with my gender dysphoria. She would say little jokes and make me laugh. She helped me move forward.”
On one of the walls in their apartment is an all-red Billie Eilish poster. Johnson’s music taste leaned towards pop, but still eclectic. Brodzinski has memories of snuggling with her while watching Big Mouth, Major Payne, Paradise PD, and other comedies imprinted the couch in their living room. Her humor was silly, crass, and almost ironic.
“She liked a whole bunch of media and was just a good person to be around,” said Scottilynne Blank, a friend of Brodzinski’s who often hung out with the couple in the apartment. “She’d been through a lot, but [she was still present enough to] help my friend get her life a little more together. She looked after her friends and her partner.”
Despite the hardships her and her friends endured as trans people, Johnson tended to her inner circle by helping with apartment cleaning, a back rub or words of affirmation. She loved her chosen family and loved her brother and grandmother dearly, as well.
On Christmas Day last year, Brodzinski gifted Johnson the Acer Nitro 5, a gaming laptop she always wanted. Occasionally, the two spent time playing Minecraft together. Even in the small screen of a computer game, she remained seeking simple joys to pocket; a little universe for only her, Brodzinski and their friends.
Even though she worked at a pizza shop and grew sick of eating pizza, Johnson always made an exception for Cici’s Pizza—the buffalo chicken slice, specifically. Her job status overall was insecure, and it was through Brodzinski’s job that she was able to have health insurance, and therefore access to hormones.
“[Our relationship] meant a lot to me,” Brodzinski said. “It meant a lot to her, too. [One day, she said] ‘Hey, I love you. You know how much I’m worth and I [can’t begin to let you know] how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.’” Brodzinski gave Johnson a safe place when she didn’t have one.
On a bucket list of dates with Brodzinski, they planned on going to Jungle Rapids, a water park nearby. With Brodzinski, she wished to be hand in hand under the North Carolina sun, moving with the currents of the lazy river or jetting down the water slides. She also hoped for a romantic picnic date during sunset, watching the sun inch its way below the horizon.
“Anywhere,” Brodzinski said. “Anywhere nice.”