On the morning of July 4, just before 3 a.m., Deeniquia Dodds lay unconscious and bleeding in the 200 block of Division Avenue NE, a 9 mm bullet lodged in her neck.
Hours earlier, Dodds, a 22-year-old transgender woman, had grabbed her silver purse and some extra condoms and headed out to work as a prostitute, her family said.
“Be sure to tell them who you are. What you are,” Joeann Lewis, Dodds’s aunt, has recalled telling her.
Police discovered Dodds — known to her friends and neighbors as Dee Dee — near the intersection of Division Avenue and Clay Street. She died nine days later when she was removed from life support.
Two suspects are charged with murder in her killing, Shareem Hall, 22, of District Heights, and Jolonta Little, 26, of Southeast in the District, and are due in D.C. Superior Court Friday for a preliminary hearing. Authorities allege the defendants set out to rob transgender women, and Dodds was among their targets.
The court case will push Dodds’s death and the dangers she faced in her final hours before a wider public. But her story, and other accounts of violence and obstacles confronted by many transgender sex workers, are already familiar to those in the D.C. transgender community.
Dodds is one of at least 20 transgender people slain in the United States this year, a Human Rights Campaign tally found, which also said more than one-third of the 53 victims in recorded transgender homicides from 2013 to 2015 were engaged in “survival sex work” subsisting on money from prostitution.
Yet homicide figures do not fully capture how pervasive violence is among the District’s transgender prostitution community, according to sex workers at the D.C.-based nonprofit Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS).
A slaying creates a momentary stir, as Dodds’s death did in July, and may again as the case goes to court, but that fleeting focus misses the recurring incidents, said Shareese Mone, a 47-year-old transgender woman.
Court documents filed in Dodds’s case describe a June 28 robbery in which a transgender woman was ordered to take off her clothes and run across the street, and an attack on the same night as Dodds was shot in which armed suspects forced three people to the ground.
The threat of violence remains in the back of many minds, said Destiny, a veteran worker who asked to be identified by her street name because her work is illegal. “You always think about it,” she said. “I’m always going to be on the lookout for the free hand that’s not on the steering wheel.”
Central to the risk and “a major barrier for trans people,” said Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán of the National LGBTQ Task Force, is that prostitution remains treated as a crime.
“Once they’re on the streets, they’re much more vulnerable,” she said. “You can’t go to the police, because you’re worried that you’ll be profiled as a sex worker or risk being arrested on prostitution charges.”
Hailey Flynn, the Georgetown University women’s law and public policy fellow at HIPS, agreed that treating prostitution as a crime leads to more violence against transgender sex workers, though she acknowledged that a more lenient form of punishment would not eliminate every risk.
Sharing information, about major clients or certain spaces, “is one way of banding together” for safety, Rodríguez-Roldán said.
At HIPS, veteran sex workers said it is important to teach younger workers how to avoid potential trouble, particularly those prone to “deceiving” clients by not disclosing they are transgender, which puts them in jeopardy if a client feels duped, ashamed or embarrassed and lashes out.
“For the young girls, you can lead by example,” Destiny said. “You can sit in a group and tell them and tell them and tell them, but you have to show, not tell, with those girls.”
Mone said many young transgender girls are enticed by “the glitz and the glamour” when they see a sex worker wearing jewelry and nice clothes with styled hair and nails.
“The first thing they say is, she has no struggle, so she’s prostituting to look good,” Mone said. “But they don’t know the whole struggle that you’re trying to pay rent and keep your apartment. They don’t see all that.”
For others, the work can help them transition and “get to know yourself,” Mone said.
“You’re a trans girl, you’re going from male to female, so you’re practicing your walk, your talk,” she said and “you’re going places where it’s comfortable for you to be known as a trans person.”
Working on the streets may also provide a needed social setting, especially for people unaccepted at home or elsewhere, and may even hold out hope for a pathway to love, said transgender advocate Ruby Corado.
Destiny, now 45, said she began sex work at 14 because she thought it was fun. It offered acceptance, too. But once she got a car and an apartment, it became a job.
A DC Trans Coalition survey of transgender people in the Washington area released in November 2015 found that 60 percent of respondents who make less than $10,000 a year had engaged in sex work. More than one-third of those surveyed reported exchanging sex acts for money, housing, drugs or a combination of the three.
The survey found, too, that 36 percent of the transgender population in Washington remains unemployed, nearly six times the D.C. unemployment rate in November 2015, when the survey came out.
Many turn to sex work, Rodríguez-Roldán said, because of a “vicious cycle” where they face discrimination and harassment that makes finding employment difficult.
“Your only recourse is the more informal underground forms, including those that are criminalized, like drug-selling, like sex work and whatnot,” she said. “And then we give you criminal records, and you’re trapped.”
A male sex worker at HIPS said he has walked a middle course.
He has worked at Pricewaterhouse, Lockheed Martin and the Library of Congress, he said, while also working as an escort for an agency to cut down on the risk of violence — although, he said, “stuff still happens.
To improve job prospects, Rodriguez-Roldan’s organization encourages employers who require background checks to ask “for only the relevant information” — which excludes an applicant’s gender, she said. Like some other advocates, she argued that transgender people shouldn’t feel compelled to reveal their gender to stay safe, whether they are sex workers or not.
“Truth be told, people aren’t under obligation to disclose their sexual history or their identities to anyone,” Rodríguez-Roldán said. “It’s a problem beyond just sex work and dating violence.”
As the discussions of gender identities evolve, Jazmin Sutherlin, a health-impact coordinator at the DC Center for the LGBT Community, said there are two different transgender communities emerging: one made up of people engaged in sex work and one where people work “normal jobs” but may still be stigmatized and demonized.
Some, including 65-year-old transgender woman Jeri Hughes, think transgender people no longer have to rely on sex work. Hughes says she has witnessed changes over her lifetime that opened other paths.
“Because for all the discrimination” that persists, she said, “there are still people who do not discriminate and will not hold it against you and will offer assistance. . . . We need to get that message to the kids to get them off the streets and get them into productive lives.”