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The LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Bella Evangelista

This entry is part 15 of 53 in the series lgbt hate crimes project

August 2003 was a deadly month to be a transgender woman in Washington, D.C. One year after Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas were shot to death, three transgender women were shot inside of just five days. It started with the murder of Bella Evangelista. It continued with the murder of Emonie Kiera Spaulding, and the shooting of Dee Andre. All of three murders had something in common besides the victims being transgender. In each case, the victims were engaged in sex work. Evangelista, according to friends, was part of a support group in which she talked about having to engage in occasional sex work to support herself.

In fact, the three murders caused a discussion at the time that came to mind for me when, as I was working on the Bella Evangelista entry, a I found myself in a discussion about including transgender people in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I couldn’t help but see a direct connection between employment discrimination against transgender persons, and the murders of transgender women engaged in sex work.

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I kept remembering the words of transgender activists who spoke out in the aftermath of the shootings, and criticized the media coverage of the murders for not going beyond labeling the victims as sex workers and asking why.

Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista’s or Emonie Spaulding’s often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it’s a form of blaming the victim.

“The implication is that it’s your fault for being beaten or killed,” says Jessica Xavier. “But a lack of privilege means you don’t have a choice.” Or as Mottet puts it, “Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living.”

“The classic profile,” says Mara Kiesling, “is a 13-year-old who’s thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She’s kicked out of school for wearing girls’ clothes. She can’t get a job because her says ‘Andre’ but she looks like a girl.

“What’s going to happen? Most likely, she’ll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable — living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival.”

And Gwendloyn Smith, Founder of the Rememering Our Dead website, offered some statistics.

The D.C. media, in contrast, wants you to believe that it was the “lifestyle” that Bella and Emonie were living that led to their deaths — as if their transgender status was a simple life choice, and that this choice somehow forced their killers’ hands.

Being transgender can be a recipe for a difficult life. Many transgender people are cut off from the employment and education opportunities that are basic expectations in our culture, and discrimination leads many into sex work as their only means of survival. Such may well have been the experience of Emonie and Bella.

Some studies have put transgender unemployment as high as 70 percent, well above even the worst levels in these economically troubled times. While many places have enacted legislation to protect the rights of individuals seeking and keeping employment — regardless of their gender expression or identity — no such protections exist nationally, or in Washington, D.C.

In 2003, the jury was out on whether D.C.’s Human Rights Act protected transgenders.

The D.C. Human Rights Act bans job discrimination based on an individual’s personal appearance , gender, dress and sexual orientation, among other grounds. Gay and transgender activists have long concluded that one or all of those categories combined make it illegal in D.C. to discriminate against transgendered people.

However, Cornelius Alexander, an attorney and chief hearing examiner for the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, which is in charge of enforcing the Human Rights Act, said no transgender discrimination case has ever reached the commission for adjudication. Alexander said that until a ruling on such a case is rendered, it remains unclear whether the Human Rights Act actually bans transgender discrimination.

The Human Rights Office, which deliberates over discrimination cases before sending them to the commission, did not respond to a Blade inquiry on transgender cases by press time.

Transgender activists have said transgendered people have encountered widespread job and housing discrimination in D.C. and the surrounding area and that the victims most likely did not take steps to file a complaint with the city or nearby county.

For every Susan Stanton, who may be on her way to a job in Arizona or California, there are hundreds more like Bella Evangelist, Emonie Spaulding and others who’s vulnerability to hate crime violence is directly related to their vulnerability to discrimination in employment, housing, etc. So, dealing with violence against transgender people has to involve not only including gender identity in hate crimes legislation, but also in anti-discrimination legislation. The lack of protection against discrimination contributes to the increased vulnerability to violence.

But you can’t fault people for their survival-based choices if their choices are severely limited in the first place. If Bella Evangelista hadn’t had to engage in occasional sex-work to support herself, would she have ever met Antione Jacobs?

Bella Evangelista (1978 – August 6, 2003) was a transgender Latina who lived in Washington, D.C. She was shot to death on August 16, 2003, by Antione Jacobs, who felt deceived upon learning Evangelista was transgender after paying her for a sex act.

Background

Evangelista, 25, immigrated to the United States from Guatemala. She became a popular performer at Club Chaos1), and other D.C. bars and drag shows, becoming known for her lip-synch performances of numbers from The Phantom of the Opera2), though she did not identify as a drag queen. She attended a transgender support group where she spoke about struggling with drug addiction, and having to engage in occasional sex work in order to support herself. 3)

The Murder

At about 4:30 a.m., on August 16, 2003, Evangelista was shot to death at the corner of Arkansas Avenue and Allison Street NW, by Antione D. Jacobs.4) Jacobs told investigators that he paid Evangelista for oral sex. After learning from someone else shortly afterwards that Evangelista was transgender, he became enraged and returned to the scene and shot her.5)

Jacobs, 22, was stopped and arrested by police as he rode away from the scene on his bicycle. Jacobs told police that he’d shot Evangelista to defend himself against anattempted robbery. Investigators dismissed Jacobs’ robbery claim, and investigated the murder as a hate crime.6) Police recovered the gun after observing Jacobs toss it away as he rode on his bike. 7)

According to a close friend, Evangelista lived in the neighborhood where she was shot, and was “out” as a transgender woman.8) Transgender activists said the area where Evangelista was shot is rarely frequented by transgender sex workers, but is popular with heterosexual female sex workers. However, police said that the area is frequented by Latino male-to-female transgender sex workers.9)

The Aftermath

On August 19, 2003, 75 to 100 people attended a vigil in honor of Evangelista, at the site where she was murdered. Attendees created a memorial to Evangelista, covering a sign post with her pictures and leaving stuff animals, candles, and signs calling for an end to violence.10) Attendees reported being verbally harrassed by neighborhood residents as they walked to the vigil.11)

Two nights later, on August 21, friends of Evangelista discovered that the memorial had been destroyed. Photos of Evangelista had been torn down and ripped to pieces. Flowers candles that had been placed on the sidewalk were smashed.12)

Evangelista’s murder happened just four days after a vigil commemorating the murders of transgender teenagers Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas one year earlier. Evangelista was the fourth transgender woman to be murdered in D.C. in 2003.13) She was also the first of three transgender women who were shot in D.C., in just five days.14)

On December 16, Jacobs was sentence to 16 years and eight months for Evangelista’s muder, followed by five years of supervised probation.15)

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