The horrifically deadly summer for black trans women claimed another victim this week, this time in Columbus, Ohio.
Rae'Lynn Thomas, 28, was shot and then beaten by her mother's ex-boyfriend in their Columbus home Wednesday, reports local TV station WBNS. Thomas is the 19th trans person known to have been murdered in the U.S. this year.
While Thomas's family was accepting of her authentic identity, an ex-boyfriend of her mother's who still lived with the women, James Allen Byrd, made no secret of his transphobic attitudes. He reportedly often referred to the transgender woman as "the devil."
Thomas's mother, Renee Thomas, was home at the time of her daughter's murder, and described the attack to police and media. "He was in the bedroom and he just came around the corner and shot [Rae'Lynn],” she said. After firing at her twice, Byrd — who was nearly a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than the petite Thomas — proceeded to beat her with any heavy object handy.
Renee Thomas says the last thing she heard was her daughter begging for her life, saying "Mom, please please don’t leave me. Mom, I’m dying."
Thomas called police and Byrd was arrested shortly thereafter.
Shannon Thomas, Rae'Lynn's aunt, believes her niece's murder was a hate crime. "In my heart of hearts, I feel like that’s what it is," she told reporters. She also shared her desire to see Byrd pay for his crime, saying "I want to see him go to jail forever."
Renee Thomas echoed her sister's statement about what her ex deserves:
"Life in prison. Spend your life in prison. That’s what you do. I can’t spend my life with my [daughter] because you took [her] from me. I don’t want you to spend your life with your family."
Byrd faces murder charges for Thomas's death, and he is being held on a $2 million bond.
Columbus police are not investigating the attack as a hate crime at this time, though the city's hate-crime law does include crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Ohio's statewide hate-crime laws, however, do not have such provisions, and conservative lawmakers in the state have spent the past three years resisting efforts to add LGBT identity to list of characteristics covered.
Shannon Thomas says she will remember her niece as a performer, a fashionista, and the life of the party. "[Byrd] took a light away from all of us," she told WBNS.
Thomas is the second black trans woman to be murdered in Ohio in the last two weeks. Skye Mockabee was found murdered on the sidewalk in Cleveland July 30. She is also the second trans woman of color killed in her own home this week, after 36-year-old Erykah Tijerina, a trans Latina, was found dead at her apartment in El Paso, Texas on Monday.
Aaron Eckhardt, assistant director of the Ohio-based LGBTQ group BRAVO, said in a statement, "Our hearts, minds and condolences are with the family, friends, and community of Rae’Lynn in this time of tragedy. As all of us are still mourning and reeling from the death of Skye just about two weeks ago, all of us at BRAVO are saddened and outraged as our communities continue to be repeatedly targeted and we remain steadfast in providing services to the LGBTQI communities of Ohio."
At least five trans women of color have been murdered in just the last two months in the U.S. In addition to Thomas, Tijerina, and Mockabee, Dee Whigham was murdered in Biloxi, Miss., in late July, allegedly by a U.S. Navy recruit. Deeniquia Dodds was shot July 4, just a few blocks from her home in Washington, D.C.
With Thomas's death marking at least the 19th trans person killed in the U.S. this year, 2016 is on target to be even more deadly than 2015, in which 21 known trans women were murdered. In each year, most of the victims are transgender people of color, with black trans women like Thomas consistently representing the majority of those killed.
However, advocates frequently note that these somber counts are likely underestimating the actual rate of violence against trans people, as mainstream and local media outlets often fail to correctly identify the victim as transgender. Contributing to the problem, police departments across the country regularly insist on identifying victims based on their anatomy or the gender listed on their legal identification, regardless of how the victim identified in daily life. For many of the victims, who live at the unforgiving intersections of oppression based on race, gender, and class, obtaining a state-issued ID that accurately reflects their identity is not feasible — and in some states, not even legally possible.