Mikal Woods holds a candle at the vigil for Michelle “Tamika” Washington. Photo: Laura Smythe
May 24, 2019
When Michelle “Tamika” Washington’s younger sister, Crystal Davis, was sad she couldn’t visit the aquarium as a kid, Washington brought her a stuffed white and purple penguin — her sibling’s favorite color.
Mikal Woods regularly talked on the phone with Washington, who he calls his chosen mother in the LGBTQ community, for hours at a time just to hear her voice.
For Donna Kinley, Washington’s aunt, the best memories with her niece involve cooking together and constantly joking around.
“She was really wonderful,” said Kinley, 67. “She kept me laughing and she would do anything for you. Tamika was just that type of person. She would go above and beyond.”
Davis, Woods and Kinley joined about 70 people Thursday night at a vigil for Washington, 40, at the recently-opened Gloria Casarez Residence, Pennsylvania’s first LGBTQ-friendly youth housing facility. Washington’s friends, family members and allies of the gay community gathered amid handmade signs displaying messages like “Trans lives matter” and “Say her name, Tamika” to share stories and commemorate Washington with a candle-lit moment of silence.
Washington, a transwoman of color and LGBTQ activist, was shot to death last weekend in North Philadelphia’s Franklinville neighborhood. Police have arraigned Philadelphia man Troy Bailey, 28, in her murder.
Nationally, Washington is one of three transwomen to be murdered in a one-week span. Muhlaysia Booker, 23, was fatally shot in Dallas on May 18, while Cleveland resident Claire Legato died May 14 from injuries sustained in an April shooting. They were all women of color.
In Philadelphia, at least six transwomen of color have been murdered in the last six years. They include Shantee Tucker, 30, who Woods described as a “great friend, [like an] aunt” and Keisha Jenkins, 22, Woods’ “first gay mother.”
Woods said he feels like transwomen, particularly those of color, are experiencing a “witch hunt” and a law protecting them is necessary.
“I’m tired of going to funerals,” he added. “I’ve been to more funerals than I’ve been to graduations, birthdays, celebrations, anything. I’m tired of going away crying and weeping because people are getting killed for senseless murders.”
Washington helped found Sisterly L.O.V.E., a support and education group for transwomen at LGBTQ healthcare hub Mazzoni Center — the organizer of Thursday’s vigil. Mazzoni staff presented Washington’s family with a Certificate for Heroism that recognized her contributions to Philadelphia’s gay community.
“I would always see her downtown, and it didn’t matter if I was on the other side of the street, she would make her way to acknowledge my presence and to say hello and check in with me,” said Tatyana Woodard, Mazzoni’s community health engagement coordinator. “Being a transwoman of color is not easy and a lot of us don’t get along, so I always appreciated the fact that she would come over and check on me. …I looked at her as a sister.”
Family members attending the vigil described Washington as bubbly, smart, sassy, kind, opinionated, helpful and secure in her identity.
“She was proud of who she was,” said Lauren Hughes, 54, Washington’s cousin. “She didn’t try to hide it, even when she was a little girl.”
Cedric Deveaux, 29, knew Washington since he came out at age 15. He said she was a loving person and hopes attendees gained a sense of unity from the vigil.
“It could be anybody’s family members,” Deveaux added. “At a time like this, we should just stick together and become one and love everyone.”
Washington’s death has resonated throughout the state. Gov. Tom Wolf released a statement May 21 denouncing a national uptick in violence against LGBTQ people and urging passing legislation to protect the gay community.
“The trend of violence against transwomen of color is disturbing, but this violence is not new and we’ve watched as it has escalated,” Wolf said. “We owe it to our citizens to provide them the protections that ensure their safety. We mourn the loss of Michelle ‘Tamika’ Washington, a black transwoman and longtime advocate for the transgender community, who was senselessly murdered on Sunday. Let us use this moment to make these long-overdue changes without further delay.”
“To my knowledge, this is the first publicly released statement from the Governor’s office on violence against transwomen of color,” said Jere Mahaffey, a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs who attended Washington’s vigil.
In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs determined 27 hate-related homicides of transgender and nonconforming people occurred in the United States. Transwomen of color accounted for 22 of these incidents. This represents a 42-percent increase in these crimes from the 19 reported incidents in 2016.
At least 26 transpeople were violently killed across the country in 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
On Thursday, Woods urged members of the LGBTQ community to come together in Washington’s death.
“I just hope we can move forward as a community and as a whole to come to a better understanding that we are a community and we cannot allow other people to divide us,” he said. “We have to protect our sisters and our brothers and as people are coming into the community, we educate them, and people who are not in the community, educate them,” he added, explaining that ignorance plays a role in murders against LGBTQ people.
Washington’s family echoed Woods’ sentiments of education and understanding, adding that Washington fully lived her life until she couldn’t.
“I hope that people know she’s not a transgender woman, she’s a woman. She’s a person,” Hughes said. “Her life matters and you have to respect and love life. You don’t have to agree with the lifestyle, but her life mattered and she had loved ones.”