The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Death of Duanna Johnson

In the time since I started the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, I don’t ever had a follow-up or an update in which the victim of an earlier attack is eventually murdered. Until now. Via the LGBTPOC listserve, I learned last night that Duanna Johnson — whose case I wrote about in August — has been murdered.

The videotaped beating of a transgender woman in police custody in Memphis last February led to charges against two officers and national condemnation from gay rights groups. The officers were fired, and the Police Department overhauled some of its procedures and began sensitivity training for the entire force.

But a week ago, the woman, Duanna Johnson, 43, was found fatally shot near downtown. Ms. Johnson’s death has revived scrutiny of the case as the department is under pressure to find the killer.

“Duanna Johnson’s case was tragic before, and now it’s an almost unimaginable loss,” said Jared Feuer, the Southern regional director of Amnesty International. “Her treatment demonstrates a culture of violence against transgender people that must be addressed.”

Ms. Johnson sustained a gunshot wound to the head late on Nov. 9, the police said, and officers found her body after responding to a shooting call in North Memphis. Investigators said three men were seen near the crime scene before the officers arrived, but police officials say they have no suspects, have made no arrests and do not have a motive for the killing.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil rights group, called for a federal investigation.

It’s a terribly sad ending to what was, by all reports, a hard life.

To say that 43 year-old Duanna Johnson leads a difficult life would be an understatement.  At her small, rundown, North Memphis house you’ll find condom wrappers on the ground outside her door. 

Her power meter is missing.  Not that it matters because her electricity was turned off months ago after she stopped paying her utility bill.

She has one extension cord running from her bedroom window to the neighbor’s house.  They charge her $20 a month to plug into their electricity.   It powers the single fan Duanna uses to cool her house.

And because Johnson has no running water in her home, neighbors often let her use their bathrooms to wash up and take care of her personal hygiene.

And, as I posted before, her position is one that many transgender women face.

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.

And they still have to find a way to make a living.

During a press conference following Evengelista’s murder, Budd told how transgendered women informed her that they turned to prostitution only after they had been denied jobs because of their appearance.

“It’s a matter of simple survival,” Budd said. “Some of the girls have no other choice but to turn to the streets for survival.”

… Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said about 50 people attending a transgender “speakout” meeting in the District on Sept. 9, discussed a wide range of issues and problems faced by transgendered people, including the issue of prostitution.

“It’s about economic opportunity or the lack of opportunity,” Keisling said. “I call it survival sex work, which is not the same as commercial sex work,” she said.

“If you were thrown out of your house at 10 and you didn’t finish school, what are your chances of going to college at Georgetown?” she said.

I don’t know much about Johnson’s story before the jailhouse beating that turned a spotlight on her life, but it probably took a course similar to other transgender women’s stories.

Add Channel T to your page

I won’t speculate about who might be responsible for Johnson’s murder at this point. But I hope the matter is thoroughly investigated, and every potential lead followed-up.

Most of all, I hope she can finally rest in peace.

Now that the election is over, and in light of Johnson’s murder, I’ll probably dedicate a bit more time to updating the hate crimes project.


  1. Have to correct one thing in one of the articles: the article is old (2003), because DC, locally, does in fact protect transgendered individuals under the DC Human Rights Act now.

  2. I wrote this poem in memory of Duanna, and it is being read out at transgender remembrance services around the globe.


    Duanna was beaten,
    By cops they say.
    Now she’s in heaven,
    And at peace we pray.

    She was warm and kind,
    A mixed up girl.
    With a life so bad,
    We watched it unfurl.

    The media storm,
    Was no good for her.
    Nasty stories and videos,
    On the internet I can confirm.

    Now shot by a person,
    Or persons unknown.
    The suspicions of who,
    Have certainly grown.

    Killed for being,
    Transsexual and black.
    I hope the police and legal system,
    Get the murderers and never slack.

    Soon she’ll lie,
    In her grave.
    But not forgotten,
    For the love she gave.

    Copyright by Miss Stephanie Elizabeth Anne Butterfield