There’s something different about the public reaction to Muhlaysia Booker’s death
Dallas (CNN)Muhlaysia Booker was honored in death Tuesday the same way she lived her life, as a fierce, beautiful transgender woman, surrounded by those who loved her.
From the pulpit, her mother said that Booker once told her she would do whatever it would take to live her truth, even if it cost her her life.
“She was willing to die behind it,” Stephanie Houston said. “That’s why it’s well with my soul.”
Booker’s death drew national attention to the pattern of deadly violence against transgender women of color. In five weeks, she went from a symbol of transgender resistance — catapulted into the national spotlight after a viral video showed her fighting back against a mob attack — to a martyr.
The two neighborhoods are just miles away from each other, but worlds apart. A short drive along the nest of interstates leads from South Dallas’ boarded-up storefronts to Oak Lawn’s gleaming multipurpose developments and businesses bedecked in rainbow flags.
Cathedral of Hope’s senior pastor, Reverend Dr. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, hopes that Booker’s death is an opportunity to bring people together and find common ground.
“Dallas is a tale of two cities,” he said. “Having Muhlaysia Booker’s funeral here is another statement to our community and certainly to communities of faith that we must stand for transgender bodies.”
That her family afforded her a funeral in her true gender was a rare gesture. Her mother acknowledged in her eulogy that it was not easy for her to accept her daughter’s transition, and signs of thatwere evident in the service.
The program cover described her as a both a “loving son” and an “adored daughter.” Inside, the program featured recent selfies alongside images of her as an adolescent before she transitioned, including one of her in a Boy Scout uniform.
The interior of her blue casket, however, only included recent glamor shots. The casket matched the color of her dress and the blue and white wardrobe worn by her family members, including a cadre of “father figures” in blue velvet loafers and white vests.
Her mother called upon the men in her eulogy, along with other members of her daughter’s extended family.
“When I couldn’t see eye to eye with my baby, they filled the gap,” Houston said. “I know what you did for me and I thank God for that.”
The presence of the mayor, along with faith leaders and prominent members of the LGBTQ community in Dallas, also signaled that this was no ordinary funeral.
Mourners came from New Orleans and Washington to honor a woman they had never met but nonetheless considered a sister. Transgender women of color everywhere saw themselves in Booker, knowing it could have just as easily been them.
“We’re not as visible as we need to be. We need to show up for each other and show that we exist,” said transgender advocate Tiara Gendi, sporting a T-shirt that read “Silence is Violence.”
Many knew Booker from social media, where she had found an outlet for her voice while she was transitioning, said Robyn Crowe, who first met Booker when she was a teenager and took her under her wing as one of her “grandbabies.”
Booker inspired others to be themselves, even as she was just coming into her own at 22 years old. She frequently went live on Facebook for “story time,” to address the highs and lows of life in the community.
“She would use her platform to tell the story of everything that everybody went through. She would take the good with the bad, and she showed her pain, anger and everything else,” she said.
She fought back and spoke up
Crowe sees Booker’s bravery on display in the assault footage. In South Dallas, to show weakness is to admit defeat, especially as a transgender woman, Crowe said. Had she not fought back, she might have been killed that day.
Booker’s social media status amplified the video of her assault and further raised her profile, drawing hate speech and death threats toward her.
After the attack, Abounding Prosperity provided a safe house for her and organized a rally, where Booker delivered an impassioned speech calling attention to the epidemic of violence against transgender people. It was another viral moment that elevated her from internet celebrity to resistance fighter.
Transgender rights activist Monica Roberts invoked Booker’s name at a legislative hearing as an example of why Texas should expand its hate crime act to protect transgender people. The bill failed to pass this legislative session.
Some close to Booker say she reluctantly took on the role, even though she was scared, because she felt a responsibility to her transgender sisters. And they fear that her bravery might have made her a target.
“She already had a popular life,” her auntie Jazmine Bandz said before the funeral. “She wanted to be famous for what she was already doing. She didn’t want to be their poster child.”
What comes next?
Myers, the CEO of Abounding Prosperity, said Booker’s death was a wake-up call for the black LGBTQ community to seek accountability on behalf of black transgender people.
Abounding Prosperity is already doing its part through programming and services for the transgender community, he said. Now, in the wake of her death, the group is focused on improving the community’s interactions with law enforcement.
He says he’s encouraged by what he sees as early signs of progress. After the attack on Booker, he said Dallas police reached out to Abounding Prosperity for a conversation about the threats transgender people face.
After her death, the department dedicated a town hall to the topic, in which they pledged to increase sensitivity training for new recruits, Myers said. And the district attorney’s office also reached out to the group for discussions about how to improve its understanding of the transgender community’s needs.
He acknowledged that what matters most now is follow-through. Dallas police announced they were looking into possible connections between Booker’s death and two other attacks on transgender people, one of which was fatal.
Roberts shares Myers’ optimism, to a degree. But she also has the same questions as many others: Why was only one person charged in the attack on Booker? Why was that person released on bond, if the law enforcement response was truly serious?
Dallas police did not respond to CNN’s request for additional information.
She also worries that the attention will burn out once the memorials have concluded and the activists retreat, leaving a dedicated few to carry on the hard work of agitating for systemic change.
“We want the same thing as everyone else. We want to be left alone so we can thrive and contribute our talents to the rest of our community,” Roberts said. “But we can’t do that if we have to look over our shoulders and worry about getting killed at any given moment.”