Most murders of transgender women in Chicago go unsolved: 'I can’t let go without answers' (2024)

It has been two years since Tatiana Labelle was beaten to death and dumped in a garbage bin in Chatham.

No arrests have been made, and her family says they have gotten no real updates from police.

Labelle is one of at least 14 transgender and gender-nonconforming people slain in Chicago since 2016, according to data compiled by the Sun-Times.

Ten of those cases remain unsolved.

The wait for justice has been all-consuming, her family said.

“It’s just something I can’t shake,” Labelle’s sister Shameika Thomas told the Sun-Times. “I can’t let go without answers.”

Most law enforcement agencies do not track transgender homicides, but researchers have recorded over 300 transgender people murdered nationwide between 2010 and 2021. The national clearance rate was just over 50%, but police in Chicago cleared only 14%, they found.

“There’s no follow-up,” trans activist Zahara Bassett said. “I know a few people who have been murdered, and no one knows what happened still to this day.

“These are people’s children and family members,” she added. “As a community, we have to move forward, but how do their families move forward?”

While the Chicago Police Department would not discuss specifics of the cases and clearance rates, the department stated it is “committed to seeking justice for all homicide victims, including transgender victims.”

‘So heartbroken’

Thomas said she stopped hearing from her sister Labelle in March 2022. It was out of the ordinary because the two were very close.

So Thomas drove from her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Chicago to file a missing persons report.

Just days later, news broke that a transgender woman had been found murdered on the South Side. Thomas said she knew it was Labelle.

“I was so heartbroken,” Thomas said. “I fell apart. For someone to beat her and throw her in the garbage, like trash, like she didn’t have no family or nobody that loved her.”

Thomas said detectives were initially responsive but then stopped answering her calls. She complained that Chicago police “don’t care” about victims who are transgender.

“They feel like when (victims) are transgender or out on the street, they feel like nobody really cares about them,” Thomas said. “But they also have families.”

Most murders of transgender women in Chicago go unsolved: 'I can’t let go without answers' (1)

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Sun-Times used interviews, news clips and information from LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations to identify at least 14 trans and gender-nonconforming people killed in Chicago since 2016.

They were all Black or Latinx and were all killed in neighborhoods on the South and West sides. In all but one case, the victims were trans women.

Charges were filed in four of the murders.

One victim was killed while engaging in sex work — still a means of survival for some trans people shut out of other employment. Another was murdered after a teen came home with her and learned she was transgender.

In the two other cases, a romantic partner was charged with the murder, which was the case in nearly 40% of trans homicides nationwide last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

‘Number is alarming’

Bassett, the transgender rights activist, said she knew some of these victims and is still caught off guard by the violence against the trans community.

“Just hearing that number is alarming,” Bassett said. “It’s a forever cycle of trying to heal, continuously trying to move forward with no answers.”

Bassett is the founder and CEO of Life is Work, a West Side-based nonprofit organization offering housing assistance, workforce development, HIV testing and other services to trans people of color.

Bassett said her organization is doing what it can to keep trans people safe, specifically through secure housing and employment, but they also need more results from police.

“We’re not paid to investigate, we’re paid to support and erase any barriers that people may be going through … trying to be advocates for them and uplifting their voices,” Bassett said. “But it’s the police’s job to investigate these murders.”

Like Labelle’s family, Bassett said she’s seen firsthand a lack of urgency from police when it comes to investigating the murders of Black trans victims.

“The problem that I have with the Chicago Police Department is that they prioritize what they want to prioritize,” Bassett said. “I’ve seen that on numerous occasions; we all see it.

“If an officer gets shot, all hands are on deck,” she said. “Why are not the same priorities given when a Black life is taken? When a Black trans woman is murdered? Why all hands are not on deck?”

When asked about the low clearance rate for murders of transgender people, Chicago police said information and evidence “can often take time to piece together.”

The police department encouraged relatives to turn to their family liaison officers, who focus on “providing updates on the status of the investigations.”

Most murders of transgender women in Chicago go unsolved: 'I can’t let go without answers' (2)

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In spring 2022, the Brave Space Alliance and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, along with other leaders in the LGBTQ+ community, released a report card on trans rights and found the mayor’s office was failing to protect trans people.

Chicago has since elected a new mayor, but Bassett said she could not point to any tangible actions taken by the new administration to address violence against trans people.

“I think we’re just a part of an election or ballot conversation to get people into office, and then we die off,” Bassett said. “It’s just performative, all this lip service and performing. I’m more ‘less talk, more action.’”

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office told the Sun-Times it is “dedicated” to addressing these unsolved cases and “broader safety concerns,” facing the transgender community.

The mayor’s office said it plans to hold meetings to identify opportunities for collaboration with organizations focused on supporting LGBTQ+ Chicagoans.

Clear pattern of ‘overkill’

For the last five years, associate professor Brendan Lantz and his research team at Florida State University have been adding to a database of transgender homicides that includes demographics and case outcomes.

“We recognize that one of the most important things to do, if we’re going to really have serious conversations about this, is we have to define the problem well,” Lantz said. “To better define the problem, we need better data.”

The team has recorded 305 murders of trans people nationwide from 2010 to 2021.

The data collected has reinforced what many knew to be true, Lantz said. The majority of victims were young Black or Latinx transgender women, and there was a clear pattern of “overkill.”

“I think (this) points to the processes of dehumanization that are involved in transgender homicide, where more force is used in a lot of these cases than is necessary to kill somebody,” Lantz said. “I think that shows the transphobia and other forms of bias that are just ingrained in this kind of violence.”

Just a day before Labelle’s beaten body was found in 2022, another transgender woman was found dead on an Evanston beach. Elise Malary, a pillar of Chicago’s trans community, died from drowning, but to this day, it has not been determined whether her death was an accident or a homicide.

Police said in 2022 they would continue investigating leads, but two years later no updates have been provided.

Most murders of transgender women in Chicago go unsolved: 'I can’t let go without answers' (3)

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Malary was a founding member of the Chicago Therapy Collective, an Andersonville based nonprofit aimed at alleviating health disparities in the LGBTQ+ community. During her time with the organization Malary also led initiatives to address employment discrimination against trans people.

Since her death, members of the organization have worked to ensure Malary’s memory lives on in the North Side neighborhood.

This spring, a section of Catalpa Avenue near Clark Street received the honorary designation of “Elise Malary Way,” and plans are underway for a pedestrian plaza near the intersection that would also be named in her honor.

Fellow members feel the responsibility to continue Malary’s legacy through their work, according to Albe Gutierrez of Chicago Therapy Collective.

“One way that the community at large is coping with this loss is continuing to do this work that our siblings have started as a way to preserve their legacy,” Gutierrez said, “and doing our best to ensure that this violence that we’ve all lived through, that we’re surviving, is diminished by the work that we’re doing.”

Gutierrez said the Chicago Therapy Collective does what it can to protect trans people.

“We do our best to support campaigns or objectives that are not directly linked to police work, but other areas of safety that are more within our control, such as employment, such as mental health,“ Gutierrez said.

“Keeping people safe and providing critical resources for everyone means that everyone benefits,” said Gutierrez.

Most murders of transgender women in Chicago go unsolved: 'I can’t let go without answers' (2024)

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