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This year has proven especially dangerous for transgender people in North Carolina. The two most recent deaths of Remy Fennell and Jaida Peterson stand out in everyone’s minds. But there have been a record number of transgender deaths in 2021 across the United States. 25 confirmed fatalities have taken place in the U.S. this year, with three in North Carolina. The numbers reported here for this year do not include the suicides or deaths of deceased individuals who were not identified as transgender.
The most recent victim this year is Serenity Hollis, a 24-year-old Black transgender woman, who was shot on May 8 in Georgia.
Last year also proved to be a record breaker, in the worst possible sense. 44 transgender individuals were killed in 2020 with the majority of them being Black or Latinx transgender women.
While the number of transgender deaths has increased over several decades, history confirms that discrimination, prejudice, violence and harassment have long been a part of the lives of gender-expansive people.
In April 1998, a gay man named Christopher Todd Cloninger, who performed as a professional female impersonator at nightclubs of the time like Oleens and Scorpio, was shot to death in his apartment in East Charlotte.
As a performer, Cloninger was known as Victoria Sinclair. Her death sent shockwaves throughout the local LGBTQ community, according to a report written by former qnotes writer and editor David Stout.
Only 28, Sinclair was popular and well known regionally as an accomplished entertainer and a multiple titleholder. She was described by many acquaintances as friendly and outgoing, and never without a smile.
At the time, police told qnotes her death was somehow related to a possible drug theft. Multiple witnesses gave different accounts as to exactly what happened when Sinclair was gunned down, and friends of Sinclair’s insisted there had been no wrong doing on her part.
Sinclair’s aunt, Beth Cloninger, talked with qnotes about her nephew’s death in a phone interview May 21.
“That’s what the police told us,” she recalled. “It was really a case of him being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We were all so heartbroken,” she continued. “He was one of the funniest, kindest people you could ever encounter.”
According to Beth Cloninger, the police later informed the family the chief suspect in the murder of Sinclair was under surveillance and about to be arrested at a motel when he abruptly put a gun to his head, taking his own life.
“So we think that some kind of justice was served,” Beth Cloninger recalled. “But was it? Do we really know if that was the person that killed him? I guess we’ll never really know.”
A representative for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department did not have any additional details. “It’s sad,” the CMPD representative said. “Especially back then. There wasn’t always a person to step up to the plate to be an advocate in cases like this. [With no further investigation] that murder just slipped through the cracks.”
Unfortunately, that’s a trend continued with the violent death of another performer and gender-expansive individual in 2002, known as Franklin Freeman. A devoted fan of Aretha Franklin, Freeman would occasionally lip-sync songs by the R&B diva at the long-since shuttered Oleen’s, a former Dilworth neighborhood gay bar.
“Franklin’s shows were unlike any other,” recalls Lupie Duran, a friend of Freeman’s and owner of Lupie’s Cafe. “He didn’t pull off being a woman as much as some of the other drag queens did. But he didn’t care. He was just Franklin. And he was very funny.”
Duran initially met Freeman in her restaurant.
“There was something about the way he carried himself,” she says. “The way he just busted up in a place. I knew he was the kind of person I wanted to meet. He didn’t care if somebody looked at him funny. He was definitely one of a kind for Charlotte. He’d be all done up with lipstick and false eyelashes and then he’d have this five o’clock shadow.
“He didn’t care that he didn’t pull off being a woman. I think he just enjoyed the outrageousness of it all. He was a good person. I totally miss him.”
Freeman was found shot to death in early June 2002 in Center City Charlotte. A passing motorist had called 911 to report seeing a person lying by the road. When officers arrived Freeman was unconscious and bleeding profusely. He died within minutes and was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy report later revealed that Freeman’s death was the result of a gunshot wound to his leg that lacerated his left femoral artery and vein.
The element in the mix that caught the attention of the media and the LGBTQ community: Freeman was shot to death just days before a courtroom appearance, scheduled for him to testify against Officer Michael Marlow of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD). Freeman had been involved in an altercation with Marlow prior to his death.
Almost immediately, Officer Marlow fell completely off the radar.
Like Cloninger, no one has ever been charged with Freeman’s death, and both cases remain definitively unsolved.
Despite efforts by HRC (Human Rights Campaign) to keep track of transgender deaths since 2013, there can be no way to account for every suicide, as well. One such case was the suicide death of Blake Brockington in 2015.
Brockington’s passing stirred the community of LGBTQ and allied people to post on social media and create fundraisers. The first transgender homecoming king of East Meck High School, Brockington was constantly fighting against the stigmatization of his gender identity.
In a letter to qnotes, Tracy Setzer, mother to one of Brockington’s friends, says, “I am heartbroken that he chose to surrender to the fight of being overwhelmed with grief from narrow-minded individuals that make it hard for people such as Blake to just be who they are… human.”
Gender-expansive individuals’ suicides are, without question, the result of acts of transphobic harassment, violence and intolerance, causing mental, physical and emotional harm, which lead to the individuals making the decision to take their own lives. According to a study by the Trevor Project, 52 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported having suicidal thoughts in 2020 (bit.ly/3wnIrxk).
For those whom are not contemplating self-harm, there still remains a serious external threat to their health and wellbeing. Rev. Deborah Hopkins of There’s Still Hope has spoken at length about trans deaths.
“We don’t actually know about the nuances those individuals experience throughout their day,” says Hopkins. “Nor do we know if the chances of losing one’s life or being violently attacked is going to happen.
“We just set out to live another day. We are just trying to survive. We struggle in a corrupt system that’s been in place for decades, where we are left with very limited options. It continues to deny many of its citizens their equal rights or opportunity to earn and make a decent living.”
The fact that both Fennell and Peterson were sex workers has been highlighted by various media outlets. The importance of this common denominator is that many gender expansive individuals, especially transgender women of color, are left with no other viable career options.
There’s Still Hope was created as a way to address an area that Hopkins says the city of Charlotte has ignored: transgender adults of color.
“This system continues to judge, criticize and draw up conclusions about us,” Hopkins continues, “It’s a system that constantly makes things extremely hard for some to get a decent education, access to quality health care, good paying jobs and affordable housing.”
“They [are] critical and disrespectful almost every chance they get. This means the path we’re forced to travel down often turns many within our community to substance abuse; and to street work to simply put or keep a roof over our heads, find food to eat and put clothing on our backs.”
As social consciousness grows in light of these deaths, LGBTQ and allied communities are coming forward in an effort to help. Hopkins points to the importance of helping where help is needed.
“Fundraisers should [help] nonprofits that are already doing the groundwork. The purpose is to channel that kind of energy towards struggling individuals whom have become fallen victims with guidance, help and support.”
In addition to donating funds to organizations like There’s Still Hope and Equality NC, Hopkins confirms the need to establish a local community center in a neighborhood, like the NoDa area. “It’s a central safe haven location that would exist for trans individuals to go rest, find information and develop connections with kindred spirits.”
The model There’s Still Hope uses for operation is one that Hopkins believes all organizations should adopt.
Dubbed the “pizza pie” method, Hopkins has created the “Steps for Stability Program” that allows other nonprofits around the city to interact with There’s Still Hope in order to provide as many services as possible.
The idea behind this process is that no one organization can offer housing, counseling, health care and transportation. Instead, Hopkins believes that all existing groups should work together to ensure that all gender expansive people have access to the help they need.
Says Hopkins: “Society needs to learn how to be more sensitive to its fellow citizens, no matter how they identify.”