After Ashanti Carmon was found shot dead in Prince George’s County in late March, it was the D.C. transgender advocacy community that organized a candlelight vigil, gathering a crowd under falling rain to mourn the slain transgender woman.
When another transgender woman, Zoe Spears, was found gunned down recently just blocks away from where Carmon was killed in the town of Fairmount Heights , LGBTQ advocates from the District again stepped in to call attention to the homicides.
The nation’s capital is known for its large LGBTQ community and the wide array of resources available to them, from health care to housing to employment support. But in Prince George’s County, advocacy groups focused on LGBTQ issues are few and far between, community members say. Unlike the District, which has an office within city government dedicated to LGBTQ affairs, Prince George’s has none.
In counties across Maryland and Virginia, LGBTQ-focused advocacy and government programs continue to lag far behind the District, causing many people to flock to Washington for housing and support, said Ruby Corado, executive director of LGBTQ outreach center Casa Ruby.
“I have several girls that relocate to D.C. just because it is a cushion, a safety blanket for transgender people,” said Earline Budd, a longtime transgender advocate in the District with the nonprofit HIPS, which provides a drop-in center and support for the transgender community. “All of the resources to some degree are being drained out of D.C., and that’s sad.”
Carmon and Spears were commercial sex workers on occasion, and they knew each other, but authorities have not yet uncovered any evidence that their deaths are linked, said Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski.
There is no evidence that suggests the two women were targeted because of their gender, Stawinski said.
But to LGBTQ advocates, who were scheduled to hold a vigil for Friday , this is a transgender issue, whether the women were targeted for their gender or not. To them, Carmon and Spears’s deaths are the latest symbol of the dangers faced by transgender women of color, particularly those who rely on sex work for survival.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 10 transgender people have been killed in 2019 so far. All of them — including Carmon and Spears — were black. The American Medical Association released a statement recently calling the pattern of violence against transgender people an “epidemic.”
Their killings underscore a lack in resources that helps keep transgender women from finding housing, employment and stability.
“In Prince George’s, there’s really been no advocacy on LGBT issues,” Corado said. Community members, Corado said, “are fed up because they see people are dying.”
County officials acknowledged the problem at a news conference on Friday. Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) was joined by at-large Democratic council members Calvin S. Hawkins II and Mel Franklin, a state senator, two state delegates and D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat who represents Ward 7, which borders the area where the women were killed. Ivey said the county wants to do more, and that they’ve held a few meetings about the need to do more, but that the resources aren’t there.
“It’s not like we don’t care — we just don’t have the money,” Ivey said, noting the budget in Prince George’s is substantially smaller than in the District.
It is not a problem unique to Prince George’s. Sheila Alexander-Reid, the director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, estimates there are fewer than 20 jurisdictions across the country that have an office dedicated to LGBTQ issues. “Our focus is always D.C., but we’re always looking to work with neighbors whenever possible because these lines are not etched in stone,” Alexander-Reid said.
Police have ramped up patrols along Eastern Avenue, which straddles the Maryland-D. C. border and is known for being a popular strip for sex workers. They are working on adding more street lighting and boarding up vacant houses nearby, where prostitution often occurs, said Fairmount Heights Police Chief Stephen R. Watkins.
But Watkins acknowledged local leaders need to focus on eradicating prostitution and addressing the factors driving transgender women into sex work.
“There’s a variety of reasons they’re on the street,” Watkins said. “They’re homeless, their parents or families pushed them out because of their transition. . . . Trying to address all of these problems is extreme for D.C. alone, much less for a small town like ours.”
The issue hits home for Watkins — one of the chief’s relatives is transgender, he said. “I think we’re all learning,” Watkins said.
Prince George’s officials point out that the county’s Human Relations Commission and the Department of Social Services offer protections against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. The county also partners with a local chapter of PFLAG, a national organization for families and allies of the LGBTQ community.
But that is of little comfort to those within the transgender community.
Prince George’s County police have recorded three transgender bias-related incidents over the past three years, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan. In 2017, a transgender minor was walking home from school when she was assaulted by other young people who made anti-transgender comments. That same year, a transgender person’s belongings were vandalized inside the person’s workplace with an anti-LGBTQ slur. Then, in 2018, a group of people robbed and hurled anti-LGBTQ remarks at a transgender person who was on the way to a nightclub. The county has recorded eight other anti-LGBTQ incidents since 2016.
Prince George’s police had an adviser to the chief focused on LGBTQ issues, but she retired at the end of April. The agency plans to develop a group of police officers that would focus on LGBTQ issues, Stawinski said. The department underwent implicit bias training last year and earlier partnered with the Justice Department on an officer training video focused on interacting with the transgender community.
The two recent deaths have prompted Prince George’s County officials, the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and transgender advocates from the District to try to find ways to better coordinate efforts. After Carmon’s death, the county’s Human Relations Commission began planning a panel discussion to talk about issues facing the transgender community. The discussion will take place the second week of July, and the panel will consist of social workers, law enforcement officers, and a member of the transgender community, a county spokeswoman said.
At Carmon’s vigil in early April, Prince George’s resident Cassy Morris noticed that not one elected official spoke to the crowd gathered at the site of the killing. A county spokesman pointed out that several Prince George’s police officers were present at the vigil, and that it’s not standard practice for elected officials to attend vigils for homicide victims.
Still, Morris, a 35-year-old who has been married to her wife for more than five years, has heard from many transgender people that they feel their needs are not prioritized by the county. “They feel discriminated against for housing . . . for jobs. They don’t feel safe in the community. They don’t feel that they are getting the help from the police.”
She decided she wanted to help fill these holes by launching a group of her own, the LGBTQ Dignity Project. The group — about six people so far — has begun meeting in recent weeks and plans to formally launch in August.
“I pay taxes here and I’m a homeowner here,” Morris said. “I feel like I need to be represented. . . . As part of the LGBT community, I shouldn’t feel like I need to go to D.C. if I need resources.”
“We need to have a voice in Prince George’s County,” Morris added.
Rachel Chason contributed to this story.