Detroit Metro Times reporter Allie Gross covers the murders of seven trans women over five years, and the stories these women left behind are terrifying examples of brutal violence, crushing poverty, and bigotry that turns deadly.
AT 10:21 A.M. On a smotheringly humid July morning this past summer, a woman on Detroit's west side dialed 9-1-1.
Six minutes later, a second call came through. The message was more or less the same: A lady, who appeared to be naked, was lying in the intersection of McGraw and 25th Street. She was possibly moving. Maybe hit by a car.
When first responder Officer Michelle Jones arrived at the scene she found a 25-year-old transgender woman, who would later be identified as Ashton O'Hara, lying in a pool of her own blood. Dressed in nothing but a black tank top, red bra, and black footies, Ashton was naked from the waist down. A wig lay 50 feet away from her body. She had been discarded and left behind, like the cracked hubcaps and plastic soda bottles littering the rest of the street.
Shallow breaths puffed Ashton's sternum skyward, an indication to Officer Jones that the victim was still alive. But barely. Ashton had been run over by a car not once but twice and both of her shins were severely fractured, causing tremendous blood loss. The leg injuries were just the beginning. Ashton's body was riddled with stab wounds. Medical examiner Jeffrey Hudson would later testify that many of the cuts were on Ashton's outer wrists. Crossing his arms like a shield and holding them in front of his face, Hudson would explain that the location of the gashes are typically suggestive of self-defense.
At 11:17 a.m., upon arrival at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital, Ashton was pronounced dead. While she didn't have an ID on her, rumors of the murder skittered across town. Within the hour, Ashton's mom, Rebecca O'Hara, was at the hospital. She identified her child's body and buried Ashton the following Monday.
"It was just overwhelming," O'Hara says, dabbing away tears as she sits in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in downtown Detroit, waiting for the jury to deliberate in the trial of Larry Gaulding, the man who killed her "Woogie" — a nickname Ashton was given as a toddler because of the way she used to laugh when being tickled — just five months earlier.
Since Ashton was a little kid playing with Barbie dolls and testing out different shades of nail polish, O'Hara wrestled with anxiety about her child's interests and identity. Not because of who Ashton was, but because of what the world was.
The anxiety calcified as Ashton grew into an adult.
While O'Hara was aware of America's seeming progression toward gay rights and equality — as well as the uptick in trans-visibility in mainstream media, including the 16.9 million people who tuned in to watch Caitlyn Jenner's 20/20 special — she was also clued in to the less appetizing facts.
Facts like: One in four transgender people lives in extreme poverty, with an income of less than $10,000 a year. Nearly 25 percent of trans people in Michigan who took part in the last comprehensive survey of the population said they became homeless because of their gender identity and/or expression. Ten percent of trans people drop out of school because of bullying — something Ashton decided to do after the ninth grade.
O'Hara knew these facts and she knew how they translated to real life. She knew that because of job discrimination and a lack of opportunities and education, many trans women, specifically trans women of color like Ashton, turn to survival economies, like sex work, to get by. And she also knew how dangerous this could be, hearing stories of trans women coming up missing, being shot, or found in dumpsters after nights on the "stroll" — a stretch of Woodward between Six Mile and Seven Mile, where Johns look for transgender women for dates.
O'Hara knew that while the LGBTQ community had PRIDE and other celebratory festivities, the trans community had Trans Remembrance Day, a day to honor those who lost their lives to violence and hate. A day defined by grief and mourning, not progress and hope.
These were the realities that were on her mind. She feared that the world, despite all its real and apparent headway, wasn't truly ready for biological boys who liked to wear mascara and mini-skirts.
So when the call summoned O'Hara to DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital, when she learned of her child's death and the circumstances behind it, the news was harrowing but also — and her whole body tightens up as she says this — anticipated.
"It was something I was scared of," she says, "for a very long time."
It's sobering even by standards of Sunday Long Reads. America has come far, but the journey is by no means complete.