Most Chicago Murders of Transgender Women Go Unsolved: ‘I Can’t Let This Go Without Answers’
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Most Chicago Murders of Transgender Women Go Unsolved: ‘I Can’t Let This Go Without Answers’

It’s been two years since Tatiana Labelle was beaten to death and thrown in a trash can in Chatham.

No arrests have been made and his family say they have received no concrete news from the police.

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

Ten of these cases remain unsolved.

The wait for justice has been very long, his family said.

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

Most law enforcement agencies don’t track transgender homicides, but researchers counted more than 300 transgender people murdered nationwide between 2010 and 2021. The national clearance rate was just over 50%, but Chicago police solved only 14%, they found.

“There was no follow-up,” said Zahara Bassett, a transgender activist. “I know a few people who were murdered, and no one knows what happened to this day.”

“These are the children and family members of these people,” she added. “As a community, we need to move forward, but how can their families move forward?”

Although the Chicago Police Department declined to discuss specifics of cases and clearance rates, the department said it is “committed to achieving justice for all homicide victims, including transgender victims.”

“So heartbroken”

Thomas said she stopped hearing from her sister Labelle in March 2022. This was unusual because the two were very close.

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

A few 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 devastated,” Thomas said. “I broke down. Someone beat her up and threw her in the trash, like she had no family or no one loved her.”

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

“They feel like when victims are transgender or on the streets, no one really cares about them,” Thomas said. “But they also have families.”

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Shameika Thomas holds photos of her 33-year-old sister, Tatiana Labelle, a Black transgender woman found beaten to death in Chicago in March 2022, at her family’s home in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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 Latino and all were killed in the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods. In all but one case, the victims were transgender women.

Charges have been laid in four of the murders.

One victim was killed while working as a prostitute, a means of survival for some transgender people barred from other jobs. Another was murdered after a teenager came home and learned she was transgender.

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

“The number is alarming”

Bassett, a transgender rights activist, said she knows some of the victims and is still surprised by the violence against the trans community.

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

Bassett is the founder and CEO of Life is Work, a West Side-based nonprofit that provides 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, including providing them with safe housing and employment, but she also needs more action from police.

“We’re not paid to investigate, we’re paid to support and remove barriers that people may have … trying to advocate for them and make their voices heard,” Bassett said. “But it’s the job of the police to investigate these murders.”

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

“The problem I see with the Chicago Police Department is they prioritize what they want,” Bassett said. “I’ve seen it time and time again; we all see it.”

“If a police officer is shot, it’s all hands on deck,” she said. “Why aren’t the same priorities given when a Black life is taken? When a Black transgender woman is murdered? Why isn’t it all hands on deck?”

Asked about the low rate of solving murders of transgender people, Chicago police said information and evidence “can often take time to gather.”

The police department encouraged families to reach out to their family liaison officers, who are focused on “providing updates on the status of investigations.”

Zahara Bassett, founder of the social services nonprofit Life Is Work, speaks about attacks on Black trans community members at a 2022 Chicago Reclaim Pride March rally at the AIDS Garden.

Zahara Bassett, founder of the social services nonprofit Life Is Work, speaks about attacks on Black trans community members at a 2022 Chicago Reclaim Pride March rally at the AIDS Garden.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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

Chicago has since elected a new mayor, but Bassett said she could not cite any concrete steps the new administration has taken to address violence against trans people.

“I think we just go into an election or a debate to get people into power, and then we die,” Bassett said. “It’s just a performance, all this talk and showmanship. I’m more of a ‘less talk, more action’ kind of guy.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office told the Sun-Times it is “committed” to addressing these unresolved cases and the “broader safety issues” facing the transgender community.

The mayor’s office said it plans to hold meetings to identify opportunities to collaborate with organizations focused on supporting Chicago’s LGBTQ+ residents.

A clear pattern of “overkill”

Over the past five years, associate professor Brendan Lantz and his research team at Florida State University have been expanding a database on transgender homicides that includes demographic data and case outcomes.

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

The team recorded 305 murders of trans people nationwide between 2010 and 2021.

The data collected confirmed what many knew, Lantz said. The majority of victims were young black or Latino transgender women, and there was a clear trend toward “exaggeration.”

“I think it highlights the process of dehumanization that is involved in transgender homicides, where in many cases more force is used than is necessary to kill someone,” Lantz said. “I think it shows the transphobia and other forms of prejudice that are just ingrained in this type of violence.”

Just a day before Labelle’s body was found in 2022, another transgender woman was found dead on an Evanston beach. Elise Malary, a pillar of Chicago’s trans community, drowned, but to this day it’s unclear whether her death was an accident or a homicide.

Police said in 2022 that they would continue to investigate these leads, but two years later no update has been provided.

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A wreath with a photo of Elise Malary in the center sits near a row of chairs where Elise’s family sits during an honorary street naming ceremony for Elise Malary at West Catalpa Avenue and North Clark Street in the Andersonville neighborhood, Friday, March 29, 2024.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Malary is a founding member of the Chicago Therapy Collective, an Andersonville-based nonprofit that aims to reduce health disparities in the LGBTQ+ community. During her tenure with the organization, Malary also led initiatives to combat employment discrimination against transgender people.

Since his death, members of the organization have worked to keep Malary’s memory alive in the North Side neighborhood.

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

According to Albe Gutierrez of the Chicago Therapy Collective, the other members feel a responsibility to carry on Malary’s legacy through their work.

“One way for the community as a whole to cope with this loss is to continue the work that our brothers and sisters have started to preserve their legacy,” Gutierrez said, “and to do our best to ensure that this violence that we have all experienced, that we are surviving, is mitigated by the work that we do.”

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

“We do our best to support campaigns or goals that are not directly related to police work, but other areas of security that are more under our control, like employment, like mental health,” Gutierrez said.

“Keeping people safe and providing essential resources to everyone means everyone benefits,” Gutierrez said.