A death in Key West generated salacious headlines across the nation while one trans woman remains behind bars for the murder of a man she calls a “cannibal” and who she says came at her with a gun before she stabbed out his eyes. Now, 24-year-old trans woman Justin Tyler Calhoun remains in jail on charges of second-degree murder. And while national experts on trans rights were reluctant to comment on so sensational a case, they did warn that trans people often suffer tremendous barriers in the American justice system.
According to an official police report, Calhoun told police she was staying at the home of Mark Brann, a 67-year-old man with whom she had a regular sexual relationship, when the two got into an argument. Calhoun accused Brann of being a cannibal when an enraged Brann then picked up a gun from the bed where the two were laying together. Calhoun says she wrestled the gun from Brann’s hands and tried to shoot him, but when the gun jammed, she instead stabbed both of Brann’s eyes with a pen and shoved a piece of wood in his mouth. She shoved the wood into Brann’s mouth with her foot before grabbing a desk drawer and striking further. While Calhoun told police she did continue the attack even after Brann no longer posed a threat, she also said Brann admitted her accusations were true, according to police reports.
When a roommate of Brann’s came to check on the noise, Calhoun says she locked the bedroom door, grabbed her things and fled out a window in the nude. Brann died after being airlifted to Miami Hospital to be treated, according to police.
The Key West Police Department in its original reports listed Calhoun’s gender as female and police spokeswoman Alyson Crean says Calhoun indeed identifies as female. Crean says the gender in the reports may be changed after the fact.
But mainstream outlets, more focused on the cannibalism accusation and Calhoun listing her occupation as a Tampa stripper, have yet to discuss how Calhoun may serve as an example of dangers faced by trans women, particularly those engaged in any type of sex work, or about the inequity faced by trans people in the justice system.
Jail records at the Monroe County Sheriff’s office identify Calhoun’s occupation as a stripper in Tampa and her address as the streets of Key West. A study by the National Center for Transgender Equality shows that one in five transgender people in the United States experience homelessness at some point in their lives, with family rejection, housing discrimination and violence all exacerbating the issue.
Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she could not comment to the specifics of Calhoun’s case, especially based on the sensational coverage so far. She did note the high prevalence of homelessness among trans individuals contributed to tremendous barriers in employment as well. “People involved in any sex work, whether it's legal like dancing or it isn’t, also face an extraordinary stigma in the press and in the justice system that can keep them from being treated fairly,” Tobin said.
Calhoun told police that when she left Brann’s home she took her backpack, her money, and a dress to wear. Police later found the backpack on a nearby roof; the bag contained about 28 grams of powdered cocaine and a prescription pill bottle with Brann’s name on it containing 110 hydrocodone-acetaminophen pills. She faces charges of drug possession and grand theft of more than $10,000 of a person over age 65.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Becky Herrin says Calhoun sustained injuries and has been housed in the Monroe County jail’s sick bay since being booked. “After those issues are resolved, we will make a determination as to where she will be housed,” Herrin said, who says Calhoun will most likely be housed based on her own gender identification.
But Tobin says that's standard procedure in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which included guidelines on housing trans inmates. The standards require than trans individuals not be automatically assigned to a male or female inmate population based on birth gender. That’s especially important for trans women, Tobin says, who face an extraordinarily high risk of physical and sexual abuse behind bars if housed with male inmates.
Jail facilities have discretion to evaluate each inmate on a case-by-case basis. Some inmates will be assigned to a male population or a female population and later see that change. “This is moving in the same direction as school dormitories, homeless shelters, and domestic violence shelters are going, which is toward housing people more often based on their gender identity,” Tobin says, “but jails and prisons have significant discretion under current rules.”
Calhoun was denied bond and remains incarcerated. A judge assigned the public defender’s office to represent her, but no attorney has been assigned to the case.