More than 200 people turned out Saturday night, July 23, for a vigil to honor Lashai Mclean, a 23-year-old transgender woman who was shot to death three days earlier in Northeast Washington.
The event took place at the site where police say Mclean was gunned down about 4:30 a.m. near the corner of 61st and Dix Streets, N.E. Among those attending were Mclean’s mother and other grieving family members and relatives.
Deputy D.C. Police Chief Diane Groomes, who spoke at the vigil, said later that homicide detectives are pursuing information provided by a witness that the fatal shooting took place shortly after two unidentified males “had some words” with Mclean in an alley shortly before she was shot.
“The motive is still not clear to us,” Groomes told the Blade after the vigil. Groomes said police haven’t found evidence of either a robbery or a hate crime in the early stages of the investigation.
Neighborhood residents and passersby looked on with interest as more than a dozen speakers, including D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander, condemned the murder and called on the community to speak out against violence targeting the transgender community.
“To the family and to the community, I want you to know that we are committed to making sure that justice is done, that this life that has touched many of us will be remembered and the life that she led will be remembered,” said Quander, whose duties include overseeing city law enforcement agencies.
“We will always be reminded that what happens to one happens to all of us,” he said. “Injustice to one is injustice to all of us and that in this society no intolerance will be accepted.”
Several of Mclean’s family members, including her mother, joined vigil participants by sitting in chairs or standing under a tent set up on the sidewalk on an evening when the temperature reached 100 degrees.
The mother, who was not identified by name, became overcome by grief at the conclusion of the vigil and suffered a seizure. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital in a development that compounded the grief of other family members.
Two other male family members were being held by police at the site of the vigil after getting into a scuffle with each other on the street where many vigil goers were standing. Police confiscated a tire iron from one of the two men.
“We’re sorting it all out, but emotions are high among the family,” Groomes said later. “They lost their loved one. You saw the mother, the sisters, aunts and uncles, the loved ones, and they’re very distraught.”
During the vigil, Groomes and Sgt. Brett Parson, former head of the department’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit, called on the community to provide police with any information that may lead to the identification of those responsible for Mclean’s murder.
Parson now works as a patrol supervisor in the Six District, where the incident occurred.
“I know that many of you are hurting right now,” he said. “I know that many of you are angry. And you have a right to be because any time a member of our family is taken from us in such a violent way it should make our entire community angry,” he said.
“I want you to know that we get it. We understand that the anger is not just that Lashai was gunned down senselessly,” he said. “But it’s that Lashai was forced to be in a place and time to be ripe for victimization and that those circumstances have to change.”
Although Parson did not say so directly, he may have been referring to the fact that Mclean was shot shortly after 4 a.m. in an alley near the corner of 61st and Dix Streets, N.E., which is a location well known as a gathering place for transgender prostitutes and the men that patronize their services.
Groomes said police could not immediately determine whether the incident was prostitution related but said investigators were looking into that as a possibility.
“This is an area where there are transgenders that hang out,” she said. “So how do we know that someone filled with hate didn’t come up here and do this?” she told the Blade.
“It’s not clear. Right now we’re not saying anything – we don’t hear anything about hate-bias overtones. So it’s frustration. I mean, what is it?” she said.
Court records show that Mclean was arrested on a charge of “inviting for purposes of prostitution” on Aug. 5, 2010 at 4:45 a.m. on the unit block of K Street, N.E. as part of a sting operation conducted by undercover male D.C. police officers.
Records filed in D.C. Superior Court show that Mclean accepted an offer by the U.S. Attorney’s office to enroll in a court diversion program operated by the local group Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). The program called for Mclean to successfully complete eight sessions of HIPS’ Trans-In-Formation program, a counseling and self-help program that HIPS created under a federal grant to enable transgender sex workers avoid prosecution when arrested on solicitation related charges and become productive citizens.
Court records show Mclean successfully completed the program and the U.S. Attorney’s office dismissed the charge against her on May 9 of this year.
HIPS Executive Director Cyndee Clay said Mclean worked well in the program and the group was pleased to help her. At the vigil on Saturday, HIPS Outreach Manager Jenna Mellor told the gathering she was honored to have known Mclean.
“Every time you talked to Shai you really knew how strong she is,” Mellor said. “And it’s an inspiration to see someone live that strongly every day.”
Earline Budd, an official with the local group Transgender Health Empowerment, and Ruby Corado, a member of the D.C. Trans Coalition, were the lead organizers of the vigil. Both described Mclean as a vibrant, charming, and outspoken young woman who made a lasting impression on everyone who came in contact with her.
Budd and other transgender activists have said workplace discrimination against transgender people often forces young transgender women into prostitution as a means of survival.
D.C. Trans Coalition member Vanessa Crowley told the gathering that Mclean’s murder was another in a series of violent crimes targeting transgender women in the city in recent years. She noted that Mclean’s murder comes two years after a transgender woman was stabbed to death in August 2009 “in broad daylight” in the city’s Shaw neighborhood in a case that remains unsolved.
“While nothing can bring back those that we have lost or undue the suffering that we share, we can and should confront the daily terror and anxiety that trans and gender non-conforming people face,” Crowley said. “We can do this by building networks of mutual support and solidarity and sustain our efforts to feel safe and to make change.”
Crowley also made reference to an initial police news release that identified Mclean by her legal birth name of Myles Mclean and did not list the case as that of a transgender related murder.
“We must stress once against the absolute necessity for the police and the media to respect Lashai’s gender identity,” Crowley said. “The least we can do is respect her chosen and lived identity.”
Others speaking at the vigil included A.J. Singletary, president of the Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence; Jeffrey Richardson, director of the mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs; Nick McCoy, gay activist and community member of the police department’s Critical Incident Team; Ron Mouton, founder of the local anti-crime group Peaceoholics; David Mariner, executive director of the city’s LGBT community center; Jenna Miller, an official with the local group Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), which provides services to transgender woman involved as sex workers; and Budd and Corado.
Rev. Dyan Abena McCray, pastor of D.C.’s Unity Fellowship Church, which has a largely LGBT congregation, told the gathering in an opening prayer that while the family, friends and community members share feelings of hurt and bitterness over Mclean’s loss, the scripture cautions against vengeance.
“We know that justice is going to reigndown, God,” she said. “We claim jujstice right now…We claim the victory over the adversary right now. He has no power over our lives.”