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Monica Roberts, a pioneering transgender activist and journalist, dies at 58

Monica Roberts speaks at the 2016 GLAAD Gala in San Francisco. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for GLAAD)

Monica Roberts, a trailblazing transgender activist and journalist who documented the violence against her community long before it gained mainstream attention, died earlier this week. She was 58.

Her close friend and fellow transgender activist Dee Dee Watters posted on Facebook late Thursday afternoon that Ms. Roberts, of Houston, “was called home to glory on Monday.” The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences confirmed Ms. Roberts’s death Friday, but said it had not yet determined a cause or manner of death.

Her death was initially investigated as a hit-and-run, but authorities did not find signs of trauma to her body, according to Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman for the Houston Police Department. She was found outside of her apartment.

The news immediately sent shock waves through the transgender community in Texas and across the country. Many of her fellow activists described her as one of the most influential transgender figures nationwide, a journalist whose groundbreaking work transformed the way transgender lives are represented in the media.

“Monica Roberts was an icon and a trailblazing voice for transgender rights, both in her home state of Texas and around the country,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement: “For decades, Monica has been a fierce leader — bringing light to the injustice transgender people face, especially Black transgender women."

Ms. Roberts was perhaps most well known for her award-winning blog, TransGriot, which she founded in 2006. At the time, her blog was “the sole source on what was happening in the trans community,” said Raquel Willis, a transgender writer and activist. On her blog, Ms. Roberts described herself as a “proud unapologetic Black trans woman speaking truth to power and discussing the world around her.”

She began tracking the killings of transgender people nationwide, often reporting on deaths that would otherwise go uncovered because police departments and news outlets would use incorrect names and genders for victims in reports.

“I got tired of them being disrespected in death,” Ms. Roberts told the Daily Beast in a profile last year. “We know for a fact that the first 48 hours are critical in any murder investigation in whether the person gets justice,” she added. “So when you deliberately misgender a victim, then you’re delaying justice for that trans person who has been murdered.”

Ms. Roberts became a mentor and inspiration to younger transgender activists and journalists who sought to pursue similar work. Willis said she felt a connection with Ms. Roberts early in her career, as a fellow Black transgender journalist and organizer from the South.

“We’re often asked to strip ourselves of our trans identity. What was pioneering about her approach was she was unabashedly trans in her writing and her reporting,” Willis said. “There are just so many people who have benefited from her work and her career who may not even know it yet.

In the years since Ms. Roberts began her work, the transgender community has grown to unprecedented levels of visibility and acceptance. Transgender people have been elected to public office across the country and have gained landmark advancements at the state and federal level — most recently, in a Supreme Court ruling on workplace protections. The violence faced by transgender people, especially Black trans women, has also gained national attention. It is now considered an “epidemic” by the American Medical Association, has spurred massive marches and even received mentions during presidential primary debates.

And much of that growth in awareness is thanks to the work of Ms. Roberts, advocates say.

“Before anyone really in this country on the national stage paid attention to the deaths of trans and nonbinary people … Monica Roberts was there drawing attention to it,” said Charlotte Clymer, a writer and LGBTQ advocate.

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Her death comes after a particularly violent summer for transgender people. At least 31 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been killed so far in 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign. As in most years, the majority of the dead have been transgender women of color. Since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking the data in 2013 — long after Ms. Roberts — the group has never recorded such a high number at this point in the year.

Longtime transgender activists in the D.C. community had close ties to Ms. Roberts, working closely with her whenever she came to the nation’s capital.

Ruby Corado, an activist who founded the D.C. LGBTQ youth organization Casa Ruby, said Ms. Roberts provided moral support for her as she advocated transgender issues in the District. The two women often roomed together at LGBTQ conferences, and spoke about their shared grief of losing so many members of the community.

Corado just spoke with Ms. Roberts on Saturday, the same day as the National Trans Visibility March, which was held virtually this year in D.C.

“She was working really hard, because one of her dreams was to see Texas turn blue,” Corado said. Ms. Roberts was a proud Texan, and worked closely with local lawmakers, politicians and activists, often rallying outside the state Capitol.

“She always told it like it is,” Corado said. Amid historic racial justice protests this summer, she was unabashed about her concerns that the Black Lives Matter movement “was leaving Black trans women behind,” Corado said.

But she was also known as an eloquent and moving speaker, a towering presence who could command a room, she said.

“She’s what I call the Kennedy Onassis of the trans community,” Corado said. “She was very proper. She was classy.”

And whenever she called Corado to ask about the death of a trans woman in the District, she was meticulous about reporting the facts on her blog, often urging Corado to be cautious about how much information they could release to the public.

“She took her work very seriously,” Corado said. “She was almost like a historian.”

Earline Budd, a longtime transgender advocate in D.C., was still at work late in the evening on Thursday when she heard the news about Ms. Roberts.

“Lord, have mercy,” Budd said. “Oh, my soul.”

The 62-year-old has seen death after death in her community, as recently as in the past few weeks. But the loss of Ms. Roberts, a peer in her tightknit world of elder transgender activists, felt personal, she said.

“It just hits me like a mirror,” said Budd, who said she is fighting kidney failure and may need to go on dialysis soon. “I start asking myself, we’ve all got to go some day, so when will my day be?”