So. Florida Continues to Seek Justice for Slain Teen

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com February 27 2009 1:00 AM ET

A year ago this week,
17-year-old Simmie Williams, a culinary school hopeful still
attempting to forge an identity for himself on his own terms,
was gunned down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Fifty-two weeks later,
a murder suspect has yet to be named, and
Williams's death has become symbolic in the southern
Florida community -- not only among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender people, but among communities of color -- of the
inequalities of justice.

Williams was killed
near Sistrunk Boulevard and Northwest 10th Avenue, an area
known as a gathering point for transgender people. Williams was
walking with friends along Sistrunk on February 22, 2008. An
attacker shouted words, and a shot was fired, catching Williams
under his arm, according to the
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

newspaper. The bullet went straight to his heart, causing him
to collapse in seconds.

Though police say
Williams was found wearing feminine clothing, Michael Rajner, a
local activist who is close to the case, says that the
description of Williams's garments was sensationalized.

"In reality,
[Williams] was gender-questioning, and was actually found in a
T-shirt that was tied in a knot, not a dress," Rajner
said. "How did the media even distort this into something
that this wasn't? How did law enforcement distort
it?"

Williams would also go
by the names Chris and Beyoncé. His mother, Denise
King, said that she knew Simmie was gay; she said she had to
pull him out of school for being bullied so frequently. His
case is not unique -- about a quarter of black LGBT students
have missed classes or at least one day of school for fear of
being harassed, according to a study by the Gay, Lesbian, and
Straight Education Network released in January. Students who
are harassed and then miss school are also more likely to see a
drop in grades. Rather than complete high school, Williams was
planning to earn his GED and then go on to culinary school.

"When you look at
it, it could happen again," King said to reporters at a
vigil on February 22. "And it's going to be somebody
else's child and they will want somebody to step up and
speak."

King has since become a
vocal advocate against bullying in schools and has become
involved in other LGBT-related causes, like the fight against
Florida's Amendment 2, a ban on state recognition
of same-sex partnerships that passed in November. In
turn, activists like Rajner and Waymon Hudson have partnered
with her through the investigation. Hudson says he has
partnered with King for local outreach in trying to bring
Williams's murderer to justice. He, King, and many others
have canvassed neighborhoods looking for any clues that might
lead to an arrest or further leads for police
questioning.

There is frustration
with locals who will not come forward, since it is rumored that
some people know who fired that fatal shot. Even more
frustrating is that Fort Lauderdale police have yet to make any
arrests.

Hudson said that the
police department's decision to not treat the
attack as a hate crime has detracted from the gravity of the
case. "Those of us in the south Florida community
can't help but feel that it is a hate crime when a
gender-variant young African-American person was shot and
killed in the streets. That definitely made Simmie more of a
target."

Hudson added that while
it is clear that some police officials care about this case,
the effort to find his killer has been deficient. The
investigation has been kept confidential so far to protect the
fragility of the case, public information officer Frank Sousa
said. So far, he told
The Advocate

, every lead that has come in "has proven to be
incorrect."

The initial reward to
find a suspect was $1,000, which is typical for a homicide in
Broward County. As Sousa said, officials are "treating
this homicide as we would treat any other homicide." In
contrast, the reward for information leading to the arrest
of the person who killed a Broward County
sheriff's deputy in August 2007 is currently posted at
$267,000, a cumulative fee from local and federal law
enforcement agencies and the Concerned Citizens of Law
Enforcement, which is putting up $172,000 of the total.

"People in our
community are worth less," said Hudson. "I agree that
killing a cop is a horrible thing, but so is killing a
17-year-old kid. To put that price tag on something that hit
our community so hard, it's really hurtful."

Furthermore, Rajner
said that when King tried to be compensated after the shooting,
authorities denied her claim, saying that Williams engaged in
unlawful activities contributing to his own death.

"But they
haven't solved the case," Rajner said, "so how
could they even make such a claim? It's
outrageous."

Rajner said that adding
another "$10,000 to $15,000 for information leading up to
the arrest would definitely lead somebody to come forward... If
that's enough to help someone move away, [to protect the
informant], it could make a huge difference."

The quest to find
Williams's murderer continues. Rajner said that posters
asking for information about the crime are
displayed in juvenile detention centers and jail cells
typically reserved for effeminate men, some of whom identify as
gay or transgender. In Fort Lauderdale and the broader south
Florida community, several segments of the population have come
together to rally around King and speak more openly about
issues that this case touches on, like economic differences,
hate crimes, safety in schools, and police attitudes toward
minorities. Williams's life has been honored in vigils and
town hall meetings, bringing together local leaders and
concerned citizens from different walks of life. Community
members convened a town hall meeting on hate crimes
that raised an additional $4,000 to add to
the Crime Stoppers reward, bringing the total to $5,000.

"Simmie's case
has become about crossing the community walls, and the
'cause walls' that we put up sometimes," Hudson
said. "It's not about being gay or transgender,
it's about race and class, and all of these other issues
that play into that. It's forced us to expand our outreach
[to include issues of] poverty, race relations,
general acceptance, and social justice."