Poe Delwyn Black, a 21-year-old transgender man, was stabbed to death in California last month, making him at least the 28th trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person to die by violence this year.
Black’s death was reported just recently, when the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office put out a request for assistance with the investigation. The sheriff’s office used his former name in a Facebook post and described him as nonbinary, but Human Rights Campaign has identified him as a trans man, as have some media reports. He was also Indigenous — a member of the Wyandot Nation — two-spirit, and neuro-divergent, according to friends.
Black’s body was found May 11 in the Coachella Canal near Slab City, which is an unincorporated community near Niland, in the desert close to California’s border with Mexico. Workers from the Coachella Valley Water District originally thought he had drowned, but an autopsy several days later revealed stab wounds, the Calexico Chronicle reports. Police are investigating his death as a homicide.
Slab City, an encampment on what’s left of a closed military base, is popular with artists and retirees. Black, who went by the nickname “Legion” in the area, arrived in Slab City in December or January from Nashville, a friend who went to high school with him in Tennessee told the Chronicle. “Poe went to an arts-based high school and was a very talented visual artist. He loved to paint and draw, and he also liked restoring things that he found at thrift stores,” the friend, whose name was not disclosed, told the paper via email.
“He went to the Slabs because he had always wanted to go out West, and he had a sort of idealized image in his head of the Slabs because he had always wanted to live off-grid. He just wanted to feel freedom,” she continued. She had kept in touch with him while he was in California but missed a call from him a few days before he went missing, and she heard from other friends that he had decided to return to Tennessee.
Black had a history of activism, the friend said. “He was a strong activist, he was very involved in multiple Black Lives Matter protests and shed blood, sweat, and tears for the cause (in the most literal sense, this happened right before my eyes),” she said in her email to the Chronicle. “He was also very involved in LGBTQ activism. When he began staying out in the Slabs, he had the goal of trying to help increase access to resources/supplies for trans people living in the Slabs.”
Black had had a difficult life, according to the friend and Black’s cousin Lori Brammer, who also spoke to the Chronicle and plans to travel to California from Tennessee later this month. His father was killed in an auto accident before Black was born, his mother has been abusive, an older brother was murdered in 2011, and his surviving brother is addicted to drugs, the paper reports.
The friend noted that Black “was recently diagnosed as autistic, and we had both had many conversations about being neuro-divergent. There was suspicion that he had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome [a condition that affects the body’s connective tissue], and he used to miss lots of school towards the end of his time in high school due to chronic pain. Besides this, we don’t know why else it was happening to him.”
Brammer attended a vigil for her cousin in late May in Nashville. She will be in California June 26 to bring attention to his death and to attend a vigil for another trans homicide victim, Marilyn Monroe Cazares, a woman who was killed in the Imperial Valley town of Brawley last year; the crime remains unsolved. The Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center is organizing the event.
Brammer told the Chronicle she will do whatever’s necessary to achieve justice for Black. He “was a young, beautiful soul,” she said. “And he was taken in a terrible way, in such a way that should never happen to anyone’s child. And there should be justice, and it should be swift. This should never happen to anyone, especially someone so young, such a beautiful soul that had [his] whole life ahead.”
The Imperial County Sheriff’s Office asks that anyone with information that may help solve the crime call its investigations unit at (442) 265-2052.
HRC called attention to the widespread violence against trans people in the U.S. This year is on track to exceed 2020’s record of 44 deaths by violence among this population. “In May alone, we now know of the deaths of at least nine transgender or gender-nonconforming people,” Tori Cooper, HRC’s director of community engagement for its Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a news release. “This violence is staggering, and if it continues, we will record more cases of fatal violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people this year than any prior year. As we continue to see unprecedented levels of fatal violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people, everyone must speak out in support of trans lives.”