Loving, kind, outspoken, wickedly funny, strong. These are some of the words that Cashay Henderson’s friends and family used to describe her at a vigil on Friday at Zao MKE Church. This is the person they say was lost in the news coverage of the tragedy of her murder – and that they are trying to reclaim.
“I have seen this play out,” said Justin Roby, director of prevention, care and empowerment at advocacy group Diverse and Resilient. “Black trans women are mortified to see what their reality could look like, how their hard work to create a community, life and body that they are proud of can be summarized in a one-page report that identifies her [alleged] killer as many times as her own name.”
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Henderson was shot to death on Feb. 26 in her own home, which was then set ablaze, according to police. Henderson was the third Black transgender woman in Milwaukee to die by homicide in less than nine months, following the deaths of 28-year-old Brazil Johnson last June and Regina “Mya” Allen, 35, in September.
A suspect has been charged with Henderson’s murder, which some at the vigil say gave them a sense that she would soon see justice. However, the opening panel discussion centering Black trans women’s ideas and feelings about transgender violence returned multiple times to the repetitive misgendering and lack of nuanced reporting about Henderson’s life.
In a statement released by the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the group alleges that initial reports from MPD identifying Henderson as a “male living as a female.” In response, MPD said they made a judgment based on information available at the time.
“Cashay was murdered in her own home…There is no possibility that they walked among her things and could not see that a woman lived there. Misgendering her was intentional,” said Elle Halo, advocate and consultant with many organizations including Diverse and Resilient and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
When police misgender victims of violent crimes, oftentimes journalists make the same mistake. According to a study by Media Matters for America, news reports misgendered two out of three victims of anti-transgender violence in 2020.
This trend necessitates a different approach from activists, Halo said, which is why she broke from the status quo when organizing Friday’s vigil celebrating Henderson’s life.
Where typically a vigil is a somber event, the vigil for Henderson on Friday had an air of celebration and community that set a particular tone for the evening. Beginning the event with a panel was intentional, playing to the organizers’ strengths as experts and consultants, Halo said: “It felt different because we had a real connection to Cashay, so we were intentional about inviting her family and making accommodations so that they could be there in the front row – this is what it looks like when you put Black women in leadership roles.”
Black transgender people are statistically at greater risk of homelessness, poverty, harassment and HIV than trans people of other races, according to a study published by the National LGBT Task force: five times more likely than the general population to experience homelessness, and eight times the general poverty rate, for example. Those startling numbers only begin to describe the unique position that Black trans women are in at the intersection of womanhood, Blackness and queerness all at once.
Friday’s vigil showcased leadership by Black trans women with revolutionary thought, truth telling, storytelling and passion uncommon even in other queer or trans spaces. Halo argued that those voices need to be heard through intentionally increased diversity in journalism and public safety.
Henderson herself was a passionate advocate in her life, pushing other Black trans women to speak out for themselves and become in control of their own reality through the Diverse and Resilient program Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity (SHEBA).
The celebration for Henderson ended with a ceremony in which attendees could be mindful and leave candles in a bowl as an offering. Led by DeeDee Watters, who specializes in Black healing and grief, participants were invited to remember how powerful, how strong and how royal their essential being is. This was where the deep loss and sorrow felt by the community was most on display, and there was hardly a dry eye in the hall.
“Since her passing, we have had the opportunity to hear from other women in the group about how she impacted their lives,” said Roby, who knew Henderson through SHEBA, where they became fast friends. “She was a force.”
If You Need Help
Diverse + Resilient offers a statewide “warm line” connecting LGBTQ+ people with trauma-informed support via call or text: 414-856-LGBT (5428).