Vigil for Slain Transwoman Islan Nettles Held in Harlem

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Wednesday Aug 28, 2013

New York's LGBT community and supporters came together in Harlem on the evening of Wednesday, August 28 for a vigil commemorating Islan Nettles, a transwoman beaten to death a block away from an NYPD police precinct.

"My baby can't come back, my baby can't go to school or to work like she wanted to, and it's not fair," said her mother Delores Nettles at the vigil at Jackie Robinson Park, a block from where her child was beaten.

The 21-year-old fashion design student was walking down Eighth Avenue near W. 147th Street on the evening of August 17 when a group of men began verbally assaulting her.

"They were called f****, they were called he-she's, she males, things of that nature," Deloris Nettles told ABC News.

Nettles was punched in the face, knocked to the ground and beaten until she lost consciousness. She was taken to Harlem Hospital with severe head trauma where she slipped into a coma and was pronounced brain dead. She died Thursday, August 22 after her mother took her off of life support.

"Yesterday was horrible, he moved, he took his last breath, he laid up like this and laid back down, and I listened to the heart until it stopped beating," said the victim's mother.

Police say one of the men who assaulted Nettles was 20-year-old Buffalo State University student Paris Wilson, who they say punched her, knocked her down and wouldn't stop. Wilson was arrested on the scene and charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment. But that was before Nettles ultimately died.

Nettles' alleged assailant was freed on $2,000 bail last Friday. But after Nettles' death was officially ruled a murder, a spokesperson for the New York County District Attorney's Office said that while Wilson has not yet been arraigned on any murder charges, "charges will be updated pending further investigation."

That investigation could go on for some time. Wilson's next scheduled court date isn't until October 4. But Nettles mother is calling for justice now.

"He didn’t deserve this. I just want them to get justice for him," Dominique Nettles said. "I think [Wilson] should rot. I think he should get life, because he took a life."

Nettles organized Thursday’s vigil with the help of several New York City LGBT organizations, including Harlem Pride, Gay Men of African Descent and NYC Black Pride. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and several City Councilmen were also involved. Some of the city’s mayoral candidates, including Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner, and Bill de Blasio were in attendance.

Also present at the vigil was artist and trans activist Justin Vivian Bond, who said "I felt it was important to go to the vigil for Islan Nettles to bear witness to the life of this trans woman who I didn’t know. It seems these killings happen all too often and are then quickly brushed aside and forgotten."

Remarking on Nettles’ mother’s use of masculine pronouns when referring to her daughter, Bond added "I found it to be very upsetting that her identity and the reason she was killed was basically erased by her family -who refused to acknowledge and/or respect her gender identity. That fact made me even more proud that so many members of the trans community stepped up to say, ’We know who you were, Islan. Your life and your struggles mattered to us.’"

The site of the violence, near a police station, highlights a startling increase in crimes against the LBGT, and what some view as a historic lack of police sympathy for crimes against the community.

The NYPD’s most recent report on the issue notes that anti-gay hate crimes have nearly doubled since this time last year here in New York City, from 13 to 22. Among them is the May 17 murder of 32-year-old gay man Mark Carson, who was shot to death in the streets of New York after being called "faggot" and "queer" by his assailant.

Police mistrust and misunderstanding and apathy toward the transgender and people of color have hampered efforts to document anti-LGBT incidents of violence in the past. And transgender individuals are more often the victims of hate violence.

The New York City Anti-Violence Project notes that 72 percent of anti-LGBT murders in America affected people of color and 53 percent of those were transgender women. Transpeople are murdered at a rate almost 50 percent higher than gays and lesbians. Islan Nettles mother is demanding justice from Wilson and those who took her child from her.

"This person beat my baby with his bare hands to death and I don’t feel that person should walk the streets because my baby can’t walk," said Delores Nettles. "He couldn’t even tell me he loved me; I will never hear that again."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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