Da’Laja White planned to spend the afternoon as she often did, in the salon chair of her best friend, Queasha Hardy.
Around midday, the two friends talked on the phone about what they would wear that July night to a mutual friend’s birthday party. Queasha, a 24-year-old hairstylist who was known around Baton Rouge for her sleek bobs and booty-shaking dance videos on Instagram, planned to wear a new pair of short shorts. Da’Laja asked her friend if she could touch up her curls.
Things were falling into place for the two transgender women, who had become fast friends despite Da’Laja’s being a decade older. After years of struggling to find jobs and surviving two shootings, Queasha had recently opened a salon, So Federal Styles. After spending time in prison, Da’Laja had found work cleaning office buildings, but dreamed of starting up a store with leather accessories next door to Queasha’s shop. They talked about wanting to find their own apartments, about no longer having to stay with friends or boyfriends or with mothers who struggled to see them as women.
As they ended their phone call, they made plans to meet at the salon later that day. “Bye, friend,” Da’Laja said.
But less than an hour later, Da’Laja’s phone rang. “Have you talked to Queasha?” a friend asked. When she called Queasha, no one picked up. Moments later, Da’Laja looked on social media and saw the posts: “No, not Quee.” “RIP Queasha.”
A Facebook Live video showed Queasha lying in a ditch outside a white two-story apartment complex in east Baton Rouge. Around 1:15 p.m. on July 27, police arrived to find her with multiple gunshot wounds, they said in a report.
The circumstances of Queasha’s death and the identity of her killer would remain unclear, but her name quickly joined a list that would become the longest for any year on record. The killing of yet another trans woman in America.
In 2020, at least 44 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the largest number since the Human Rights Campaign began keeping track in 2013 and a figure experts say probably undercounts the true toll on a community that is often misgendered in police and news reports. Details about these women and their deaths are often limited, their lives shrouded in stigma and relegated to the margins of society.
The Washington Post identified 140 transgender women who were killed nationwide between 2015 and 2020, using news reports, court records, and interviews with police, advocates and prosecutors. More than 75 percent of those killed were Black transgender women.
In over 60 percent of the cases, police identified a suspect. The Post categorized these killings as being “solved.” According to a Post analysis, only a minority were killed in random acts by strangers; the majority — roughly 69 percent of solved cases — were thought to have been killed by someone with whom they’d had prior contact. In roughly half of those cases, the victim and the suspect knew one another intimately, including in sex-work relationships.
In Post analysis, a majority of
slain transgender women knew
their suspected killer
Of the 90 transgender women killed from
2015 to 2020 whose cases The Post
categorized as solved:
62 had previous contact with their suspected killer
8 had no previous contact
29 had an intimate
For 20, any previous contact is unknown
In Post analysis, a majority of slain
transgender women knew their
Of the 90 transgender women killed from 2015 to 2020
whose cases The Post categorized as solved:
62 had previous contact with their suspected killer
29 had an intimate
relationship with their
8 had no previous contact
For 20, any previous contact is unknown
In Post analysis, a majority of slain transgender women knew their
Of the 90 transgender women killed from 2015 to 2020 whose cases The Post
categorized as solved:
62 had previous contact
with their suspected killer
29 had an intimate
their suspected killer
8 had no previous
For 20, any previous
contact is unknown
“We tend to think of trans homicides as stranger-based hate crimes,” said Xavier L. Guadalupe-Diaz, who studies violence against transgender people. But available research shows that at least half of the perpetrators are intimate partners of some kind, he said.
Police and prosecutors rarely categorize these homicides as hate crimes motivated by a victim’s gender identity. In the past six years, prosecutors have pursued hate-crime charges in only three cases, in part because many states, including Louisiana, lack hate-crime laws based on gender identity.
A victim’s gender identity can play a role in these deaths in both glaring and subtle ways. Facing barriers to employment and housing, living in cycles of trauma, rejection and abuse, transgender victims of domestic violence can become trapped. This is especially true in Louisiana, where 12 transgender women have been killed in the past six years — the highest total per capita of any state. All of them were Black.
In Baton Rouge, a city facing its highest homicide rate on record, the list of slain trans women kept growing.
A few weeks before Queasha’s death, in a rural area outside Baton Rouge, a 32-year-old Black transgender woman named Shakiie Peters was shot five times and left on the side of a road by her physically abusive lover and his girlfriend, authorities said. They were both arrested on charges of second-degree murder, according to a St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office report. Then in late January, a 21-year-old Black transgender woman who went by the name Fifty Bandz was shot and killed by a man she was dating, Baton Rouge police say, a partner who kept his relationship with her a secret and who lashed out after she showed up to meet him in front of his girlfriend and brother. He was charged with second-degree murder.
After her best friend’s death, the first thought that crossed Da’Laja’s mind was that Queasha had been killed by a lover, by someone who didn’t want their relationship to become public.
Da’Laja had been with those kinds of men before, the “DL guys,” as she called them. Down-low guys, the men who refuse to be open about their relationships with trans women.
“I’m the side chick, then I’m also trans,” said Da’Laja. “That’s two secrets. But the killer secret is that I’m trans.”
After Queasha’s killing, Da’Laja said she became suspicious of messages from men on dating sites and Instagram. She resolved to avoid the DL guys and started dating a new man who was open about their relationship, who “knows who he is,” she said.
His temper worried her, she said, and their fights could get violent.
But in Baton Rouge, the alternatives seemed even more dangerous.
Victim and perpetrator
Da’Laja first learned about death at age 3, when her oldest sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. She was 13 when her other sister — who was also her best friend and taught her how to manage “money, friendship and self-respect” — died of complications of HIV.
She was 18 when she told her parents that her name was Da’Laja and that she “wanted to be a girl.” By then, her classmates in school all knew she was different — she competed on the dance team and the flag team alongside girls in her grade. But her parents refused to let her wear women’s clothing around the house, where Da’Laja’s nephew also lived. They didn’t want to “confuse him,” they told her.
So Da’Laja left, moving into an apartment with her “gay family,” a group of men who taught Da’Laja how to do her hair and makeup and how to perform in drag shows. She would sign up for amateur night on Fridays at Flavors nightclub in Baton Rouge, and later at bars in New Orleans. She’d cobble together cash to buy wigs, heels, rhinestones, and fabric for dresses. “I jumped into the scene headfirst,” she said.
But the pathway to survival as a trans Black woman in Baton Rouge led straight to Plank Road, a corridor of dilapidated buildings and empty lots frequented by transgender sex workers. This is a city with some of the starkest pay disparities in the country, where nearly half the population is Black but where a woman of color earns about half the median salary of a White resident. If the economic options for Black residents are few, the opportunities for a trans Black woman are even fewer.
Under Louisiana law, transgender people can legally be denied an apartment or loan because of their gender identity. Advocates say police and prosecutors have for decades targeted Black trans women with the state’s “crimes against nature by solicitation” law, which has been on the books since 1982 and continues to define “unnatural” commercial sex as a felony.
Da’Laja entered adulthood in cars and hotel rooms with strangers, in a competitive sex-work industry where friends could quickly become enemies and clients could become killers.
She was 18 when one client, a man she had met only once before, refused to pay the price she asked. Instead, she said, he pulled a gun on her and told her to empty her purse and pockets. Then he raped her.
Just months later, in 2006, a fight outside a carwash on Plank Road turned ugly — and deadly. A long-running argument over money with a friend, a fellow sex worker and transgender woman named Passion, culminated in Da’Laja fatally stabbing her.
Da’Laja ended up pleading guilty to attempted murder and manslaughter. She served more than 12 years in prison, in the men’s units, where she had to cut her hair and hide her femininity. She is still filled with shame and remorse for taking the life of someone she cared about. “At the end of the day, that really was my friend,” Da’Laja said. “She was one of those people that I met out there that kept me real.”
The victim’s 64-year-old mother, Ethel Germany, said in an interview that she’s forgiven Da’Laja. She sees Passion’s death as the result of a broken society “that has not accepted that … they are born this way, they don’t choose this life.”
Da’Laja, she went on, is “locked into this world where there’s a lot of confusion and hurt and pain.”
She was troubled that, 15 years after her daughter’s death, transgender women were still dying on the streets of Baton Rouge.
‘You have no one’
The trans women who were killed in Baton Rouge this past year were familiar with violence.
Before her death, Queasha Hardy was shot twice — in 2014 and 2016, said her mother, Rosalyn Henderson. Police never solved the shootings, but Henderson suspected that one of them had something to do with her daughter’s “lifestyle,” she said.
In the days leading up to her death, Shakiie Peters had told her mother that her boyfriend, Christopher Causey, was beating her and threatening to kill her, according to a police report. She planned to leave his house the following weekend for the Fourth of July, and had given her mother his address — in case anything ever happened to her, police said.
Fifty Bandz had recently gotten back together with an abusive boyfriend, a man who in the past had said he would kill her, police said. At one point in their relationship, her mother said, Fifty texted a photo of her boyfriend’s driver’s license to her sister, saying, “If anything ever happens to me, this who did it.”
In some ways, the killings of trans women are like the killings of cisgender women: A Post analysis in 2018 of 4,484 killings of women in 47 major U.S. cities during the previous decade found that nearly half — 46 percent — had died at the hands of an intimate partner.
But studies show that transgender people experience dramatically higher rates of intimate-partner violence when compared with non-transgender people.
“Your own family threw you out. You have no one. You have me, and that’s it,” abusers will say, Guadalupe-Diaz recounted, based on his interviews with victims of intimate-partner violence. “You couldn’t even get an apartment. That landlord says he doesn’t rent out to trans people, remember that? Other people won’t love you. Other people won’t want to be intimate with you in any kind of way.”
The families of the transgender women recently killed in Baton Rouge say they had seen signs of threats to their safety. But as in many domestic violence cases, police became aware of these threats only when it was too late.
“How can we stop something like that?” said Sgt. Ross Williams, homicide commander for the Baton Rouge Police Department. “There’s no way to say, unless we can show a pattern through either her being at a battered women’s shelter, unfortunately; her filing a restraining order; or her showing us a path that, yes, this was leading to this … ‘I need help.’ … I don’t know how we can prevent that.”
A potential witness
On a late afternoon in mid-April, Da’Laja slowly made her way up a gravel driveway to a light-pink one-story house in Baton Rouge. She took small steps in the warm sun as she gripped a walker.
“Da’Laja walking?” said Makala Porter, 23, who was sitting with friends in the front yard of Rosalyn Henderson, Queasha’s mother. “First time I see Da’Laja since she got in that car wreck. A bad car wreck.”
Just weeks earlier, Da’Laja’s car had skidded off a highway and crashed into a tree. Police extricated Da’Laja, ripping her clothes — a T-shirt with Queasha’s face on it. She was airlifted to a hospital, where she learned she had dislocated her hip and broken her leg in three places. She posted a photo of the mangled Lincoln sedan on Facebook, telling her friends she had swerved to avoid hitting a deer. She did not tell them what actually led up to the crash: an argument with her boyfriend, who was in the passenger seat, about the former love interest Da’Laja had been talking to. At one point, her boyfriend grabbed the steering wheel, she said, veering the car off the road and crashing it into a tree as he threatened to kill them both.
“The way Da’Laja car looked, she lucky she alive,” Porter said.
They changed the subject as Da’Laja sat down on a chair. Henderson had invited her daughter’s friends over, yet again, to take group photos in their “Justice for Queasha” shirts so they could share them on social media and make sure that Baton Rouge didn’t forget the 24-year-old’s name. More than nine months after Queasha’s death, the police investigation had stalled. Detectives had heard several theories but were struggling to find witnesses willing to talk.
The friends took selfies next to a life-size cutout of Queasha, an image of the hairstylist wearing a bright blue wig and sunglasses, smiling as she holds a stack of $20 bills.
One of the women at the gathering, Jasmine Porter, posted a photo on Instagram. Minutes later, she was speaking to a woman on the phone who had seen the post and said she had information about the person who may have killed Queasha, a man she had seen with Queasha before. She had wanted to say something for a while, she said over the phone.
“A bullet went through my house,” said the woman, who lived near the site of Queasha’s killing. “I feel like I could have prevented this if I was in my house or something at the time, but I wasn’t there.”
They talked about how Queasha knew this man, how she may have been buying marijuana from him, Porter said, or been romantically involved with him. It wasn’t clear, and Queasha was always private about the men she dated, especially the DL guys. But the woman on the call said Queasha would visit her apartment from time to time.
“Girl, I didn’t know about none of this stuff,” Jasmine Porter said. “That just put chills in my body, girl. It’s going to be almost a year.”
The woman on the phone said she would call Queasha’s mother. This was what Henderson had hoped would happen. As months passed and the police investigation seemed to lead nowhere, the mother had made it her mission to do her own research — to keep posting Queasha’s name in the hope that someone would come forward with information. Now she wondered whether the woman on the phone would speak to the detectives.
“I think she’s scared,” Jasmine Porter said.
“That's why Sherwood not going to talk,” another woman said, referring to the apartment complex where Queasha was killed. “Somebody seen something, somebody know something. You know Sherwood not going to say nothing.”
Da’Laja wondered whether this man was the same one who had sent her a message shortly after Queasha’s death, asking to meet her at a park across the street from Sherwood.
She also remembered getting other messages on Instagram at the time, “telling me I wouldn’t be remembered how Queasha is, how Queasha been remembered,” she told the group. “That my days are numbered.”
A second chance
A few days later, Da’Laja lay on her mother’s couch, wrapped in a blanket with her hair in a pink bonnet, as heavy April rain pattered on the roof of the one-story Baton Rouge house. It had been pouring just like this on the day of Queasha’s death, she thought to herself.
She elevated her swollen left leg, the pain throbbing from her foot to her knee, where a surgeon had placed a metal rod to hold her bones together. Just below her right eye was a scar from a glass shard, still healing from the car crash that nearly ended her life.
Earlier that week, Da’Laja had decided to tell the truth about her car crash to Henderson, who had become a second mother to her since Queasha’s death. Henderson was stunned as Da’Laja told her that her boyfriend had taken the wheel, saying he wanted to kill her. She asked Da’Laja why she was trying to hide it. Why was she trying to protect him?
Her boyfriend, who suffered no major injuries in the crash, had visited her every day in the hospital, Da’Laja explained. He had apologized and offered to help take care of her — buy her a new car and nurse her back to health. He had moved in with her in the home where Da’Laja had grown up, the home of her mother, who had come to accept who she was but still called her by her birth name.
Da’Laja wanted to give her boyfriend another chance. He was one of the first people she had dated who was open about his relationship with her. He agreed to participate in this article without his name.
“He is who he is, and I love him for that,” Da’Laja said.
She believed him when he said he would never try to hurt her again, even as her friends — the few friends who knew the truth about the car crash — understood all too well what could happen to transgender women in volatile relationships.
Sitting on her mother’s couch with her throbbing leg, she asked her boyfriend to grab her prescription pain medication.
“Look in the white drawer,” she said. “The Oxy.”
Weeks later, after another argument, Da’Laja would realize how much she had lost in the aftermath of the crash — her ability to walk, to work, to be independent. She would end the relationship with him, and tell herself that she would never let a man break her down like this again.
But for now, she chased the OxyContin pill with a swig of Arizona green tea and rubbed her hands against her temples.
About this story
The Washington Post’s database contains 140 records of homicides of transgender women in the United States from 2015 through 2020.
To collect the data, The Post started with annual lists of incidents of fatal violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people published by the Human Rights Campaign. Additional homicides found through Post research were added to the database.
The Post focused data collection on people who identified as transgender women. Using news reports, court records, and information from police, advocates and prosecutors, The Post documented the race, age, location and cause of death of each victim, while also noting whether the victim was deadnamed. If the police identified a suspect, The Post counted the case as “solved” and gathered whether the suspect and victim had contact before the incident, the suspect’s relationship to the victim, if any, as well as whether police suspected gender identity or sex work was involved in the incident. Cases marked as “intimate” include if the victim and suspect: met on a dating app, met with the intention of having sex, or were former or current partners at the time of death. The Post also collected whether the case resulted in a hate crime.
The Post’s database was last updated May 30, 2021.