She was strong, protective, loved, and sometimes hated. She looked like a guy, fought like a man, with fists of steel that were used frequently on street thugs who often preyed on our more vulnerable street family members.
She was bold, brave, butch, and beauteous as well as misunderstood and physically scarred all over her body and deep into her crazy soul. Her loyalty, humor, and zest for life somehow always outshone her demons and masculine protective energy.
Men often made the mistake of crossing her because they wanted her to submit into her “womanly” place, but she never once backed down and rarely did she lose a battle — in fact, I know of only one battle she would ever lose, and it was her last.
In 1985, on a very cold and rainy December night in downtown Seattle, while enduring the hatred that was so freely thrown her way, she left us. While she was standing up to the men who were taunting her and her girlfriend, one of them pushed a knife into her chest, piercing her tender heart. She died moments later, leaving nothing of monetary value behind, but leaving thousands of broken hearts and a heroic legacy — a legacy that sadly, too few know about to this day.
Lou Ellen Couch (we called her Lou Lou) was also a star. Because she was one of the main characters in the documentary Streetwise (by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark), her likeness had been seen by millions, who became enamored of her authenticity and bravado. The film was an instantaneous cult hit and nominated for an Academy Award in 1984. However, the Oscar went to a film about another, better-known LGBT hero, Harvey Milk (The Times of Harvey Milk), who had been murdered just a few years prior.
Lou Lou was never rich or educated. She grew up in the projects in South Seattle with her siblings, including her youngest biracial brother. Frankie, who she introduced to me when I was just 10 years old and living on the streets. They would both change my world and live in my heart forever. Their family would often take me in for a night and feed me with very limited resources. They were very poor, and although the creators of the movie were kind enough to provide a casket for her burial, no one had the resources for a headstone. As time moved forward no one seemed to remember.
I remembered and so did Frankie.
I’ll never forget Lou Lou because she was the first person to help me begin to accept my beautiful, intimate, intelligent LGBT design and the strong feelings of “first love” that I had so long ago with her brother. Even after she left, I remembered her coaching me and empowering me to be the greatest me, reinforcing a tiny light of remaining hope left inside me, most of which had been dimmed by the pain of the streets and a broken juvenile and criminal justice system. It was a system with an infrastructure that never seemed to care what happened to me, even when sleeping in one of the jail cells that seem to be built faster and more profitably than any housing developments in America.
Not many from that long-ago life made it off the streets and out of the “system.” Fortunately, Frankie and I were able to write new stories, which preclude anything that involves the old ways. We remain friends and extremely blessed contributing members of American society.
Though I moved away from the Pacific Northwest, I often go back to visit my family and sometimes Frankie. I have also visited his sister Lou Lou many times at Evergreen-Washelli cemetery in North Seattle. Sometimes I spend an hour or more digging my fingers into the dirt looking for her little 4-by-6-inch piece of cement with the initials “LEC” and a plot number; both have worn away over the years. Now I won’t have to look that hard. After many years of discussion, sometimes bumping heads, Frankie will finally be able to place a headstone on his fallen sister's grave. On December 12, Frankie and I, along with Lou Lou’s surviving girlfriend, Jenny, and a few other close friends and family, will gather at her grave and celebrate her life, a life that was far too short, but one that made a huge impact.
Though she is gone, her life and death were not in vain. Her love, light, and lessons live on in my book Street Child: A Memoir, where she has been brought back to life and continues to educate, inspire and empower people who struggle into better lives.
RIP, dear friend. We love and miss you.
JUSTIN REED EARLY is the author of Street Child: A Memoir, which chronicles his and other children's real-life experiences on the streets of Seattle. He provides books at no cost to at-risk and homeless children in crisis. Visit JustinEarly.com for more information.