‘We Have Targets on Our Backs’: How Jacksonville Became America’s Transgender Murder Capital

As the Transgender Day of Remembrance approaches on Nov. 20, black transgender women in Jacksonville aren’t just mourning. They are also afraid.

Out of the 22 reported killings of transgender people in the United States in 2018 so far, three took place in Jacksonville, more than in any other city.

All three of those homicide victims were black transgender women: Celine Walker was shot in a motel on Feb. 4, Antash'a English was gunned down in a June 1 drive-by shooting, and Cathalina Christina James was killed in a motel on June 24. Another transgender woman was shot repeatedly in June, but survived—and police charged her alleged attacker in July.

After LGBT advocates criticized the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for misgendering these victims—rather than using the names and genders by which they were known in the community—the JSO created a nine-officer LGBT Liaison Team in August, as WJCT reported, in order to forge better ties with the community.

But now, months later, some black LGBT advocates say that relationships with the police remain strained.

“Everything is pretty much the same here in Jacksonville,” Paige Mahogany Parks, a local black transgender advocate and founder of the Transgender Awareness Project, told The Daily Beast. “Transgender women are still walking around here like we have targets on our backs.”

When Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams publicly introduced the LGBT Liaison Team at a community forum in August, Parks was one of about 20 advocates in attendance who ended up walking out of the room, as the University of North Florida student newspaper reported.

She said back then that the LGBT Liaison Team was a “publicity stunt” and she maintains now that her impression of it has not changed in the interim.

“It was just created to keep everybody quiet,” Parks told The Daily Beast. “But there’s nothing been done, trust me. I make a full point of everything here when it comes to the transgender community in Jacksonville. Nothing has been done. Once we had that one meeting, that was it. They haven’t reached out to me or any of the other organizations to try to find out what the needs are—none of that, none of that.”

Asked for comment on the activities of the LGBT Liaison Team to date, JSO Public Information Officer Christian S. Hancock told The Daily Beast, “The team has attended several community meetings as well as met with numerous groups and individuals in the community—to further build relationships and open lines of communication.”

When asked to provide examples of groups and individuals with whom the LGBT Liaison Team had met, Officer Hancock wrote: “I have not been given a list of the specific individuals and/or groups that have been met with at this time.”

Due to the number and frequency of the shootings earlier this year, the transgender community was initially concerned that the killings could be the work of a serial killer. Sheriff Williams, however, has said that the crimes are unrelated. There are still no official updates on the three homicide cases.

“These cases continue to be active investigations,” said Officer Hancock. “No new information has become available for dissemination at this time.”

A local news report shows that at least one change has been made due to the formation of the LGBT Liaison Team: In October, as First Coast News reported, the JSO updated its Code of Conduct for police officers interacting with transgender people, instructing them to use pronouns consistent with a person’s gender identity, to refrain from asking them invasive questions, and to “enter the individual’s chosen name in the parenthesis” on official reports.

According to Christina Kittle, a black queer organizer in Jacksonville who works with both the Coalition for Consent and the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, the JSO has been successful in convincing “some people” that the LGBT Liaison Team “is doing something,” as she told The Daily Beast.  

But Kittle is still firmly of the belief that the LGBT Liaison Team is “a publicity stunt.”

“Creating this team literally was just to stop the momentum—and to split us up against the affluent white gays who were upset at first,” she told The Daily Beast, alleging that the Liaison Team has been selective about who they meet with: “They don’t want to talk to me and they don’t want to talk to people like Paige [Mahogany Parks].”

One of the primary points of tension between the black transgender community and police in Jacksonville has been the JSO’s handling of external communications around this year’s homicide victims.

Despite outcry from the local LGBT community, the JSO maintained that they were in the right to refer to transgender victims using their legal names and by the sex listed on their government documentation, as The Daily Beast previously noted.

Such policies can impede investigations into transgender homicides, LGBT anti-violence advocates say, because many in the transgender community won’t recognize a deceased friend by their legal name and therefore can’t provide information to police until it is too late.

In fact, it is often the case that local communities do not even know that a transgender person has been killed until Houston-based blogger and transgender advocate Monica Roberts confirms it by cross-checking local media reports with social media accounts.

For example, as the Human Rights Campaign noted, when Celine Walker was killed, she “was not identified as trans until several days after her death was reported.”

If police exclusively refer to Celine Walker by her legal name, says Kittle, they shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t catch a suspect within the first few critical hours. When Celine Walker is referred to as a man with a different name, “nobody knows who the hell that is,” Kittle told The Daily Beast, “so of course the murderer gets away.”

“What is the liaison force going to do if the first thing they do is not an apology? They don’t even acknowledge where they messed up. To move forward, you have to at least acknowledge where the mistake was made.”

— Paige Mahogany Parks

As far as Kittle is concerned, until the JSO apologizes for the repeated misgendering of transgender homicide victims earlier in the year—an apology Paige Mahogany Parks asked for when the LGBT Liaison Team was first introduced to the public—relations with the community are not going to improve.

“What is the liaison force going to do if the first thing they do is not an apology?” she asked. “They don’t even acknowledge where they messed up. To move forward, you have to at least acknowledge where the mistake was made.”

In the absence of meaningful change, says Parks, the mood among black transgender women in Jacksonville is grim. She said that black transgender women can’t live publicly: “They’re too scared to be outed—because they’re too scared to be killed.”

None of this year’s killers have been apprehended—and Parks continues to perceive the LGBT Liaison Team as “an empty gesture,” one that was intended more to silence criticism and defuse national media attention than to actually help the community.

“Jacksonville is not a trans-friendly city to come and live,” she told The Daily Beast. “And I advise anyone that’s trans that’s thinking about moving here, honey, turn the car around, because it’s just not the city for transgender folk.”

Ideally, Parks would like to see Sheriff Williams and the LGBT Liaison Team hold town halls with the transgender community. She would like to see the city’s homeless shelters take in transgender women of color so that they don’t have to do sex work for survival. She would like city council to institute job training to help black transgender people—often the victims of employment discrimination—find work and make rent.

“Jacksonville is not a city for black transgender women. It’s not even really a city for LGBT people, period. But gays and lesbians can make it better in Jacksonville than a transgender woman of color can.”

— Paige Mahogany Parks

But given the length of that wish list, Parks may simply move away from Jacksonville once her lease runs up to find a friendlier—and safer—place to live.

Despite passing LGBT protections last year, the Northeast Florida city is challenging even for non-transgender people: As the Florida Times-Union reported earlier this year, one 2017 study found that 75 percent of the LGBT community in the region reported experiencing “chronic disrespect, threats, or harassment.” Black transgender women, said Parks, are the least likely to be able to weather that prejudice.

“Jacksonville is not a city for black transgender women,” she said. “It’s not even really a city for LGBT people, period. But gays and lesbians can make it better in Jacksonville than a transgender woman of color can. Even a white transgender woman has it better—she can walk on through the radar. But a black transgender woman has no hope here in Jacksonville.”