October 17, 2015 at 9:46 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Transgender woman shot to death in Md.

Zella Ziona, gay news, Washington Blade

Zella Ziona (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The shooting death of a 21-year-old transgender woman in an alley behind a shopping center just outside Gaithersburg, Md., Thursday night has drawn expressions of grief and outrage from the victim’s family and LGBT activists.

A statement by Montgomery County police says police and fire department rescue personnel responded to a call to the Montgomery Village Crossing shopping center about 5:50 p.m. on Thursday and found Zella Ziona, a Montgomery Village resident, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head.

She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead at 8:12 p.m., according to police.

“This is a horrific crime and a tragedy for those who knew Zella,” said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger. “As with all homicides in Montgomery County, we have detectives working around the clock to thoroughly and completely investigate this murder,” he said.

Montgomery County police on Saturday announced the arrest of Rico Leblond of Germantown in connection with Ziona’s death.

Leblond has been charged with first degree murder. The Germantown resident is scheduled to appear in a Rockville court room on Monday for a bond hearing.

Rico Leblond, gay news, Washington Blade

Rico Leblond of Germantown has been charged with first degree murder in connection with the death of Zella Ziona. (Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Police Department)

Multiple news media accounts reported that witnesses who were present in the alley and a nearby parking lot when the shooting took place reported seeing four or five young men confronting Ziona.

One of the witnesses, who asked not to be identified, told Channel 4 News that he heard gunshots shortly after the youths and Ziona appeared to be arguing.

On Friday night relatives and friends of Ziona, including her mother, gathered at the site of the murder to console one another and remember someone they called a talented and caring human being who they all loved.

In interviews with news reporters, the family members and friends said that Ziona began transitioning into an openly trans woman earlier this year. They said that didn’t change their love and admiration for her.

Tyshika Smith, Ziona’s mother, told the Washington Post she and her family’s love and affection for Ziona during her period of transition was unwavering.

“It didn’t matter,” the Post quoted her as saying. “We welcomed him for who he was,” she said. “He was a beautiful boy, a beautiful girl.”

Trans activists have said that although they prefer people use the pronoun reflecting the gender into which a trans person is transitioning, they understand that family members and other loved ones need some time to adjust to the changes before they use the word “she” rather than “he” for a trans woman.

Regardless of the pronoun they used, Ziona’s brother, cousin, two uncles and several family friends joined the trans woman’s mother in speaking forcefully to news reporters to proclaim their full acceptance and love for Ziona for the person she was.

The New York-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which monitors anti-LGBT violence nationwide, said Ziona’s murder was the 22nd reported homicide of a trans or gender non-conforming person in the U.S. in 2015.

The group points out that 19 of the 22 cases, including that of Ziona, involve victims who were trans women of color.

“In 2015 we have witnessed the highest homicide rate of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. ever recorded by NCAVP, and we mourn this tragic, senseless loss of life,” said Chai Jindasurat, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy for the New York Anti-Violence Project.

“This is a state of emergency for our communities, and we cannot continue to witness this violence without every one of us committing to taking action to end it,” she said in a statement.

D.C. trans advocate Ruby Corado, founder and executive director of Casa Ruby LGBT community center, released a statement through NCAVP expressing concern that the murder of trans people continues unabated at an alarming high rate.

“This murder of Zella Ziona is a terrible tragedy,” Corado said. “Our transgender sisters continue to be taken from us far too often and at too young an age. She was only 21-years-old. We demand that the community say her name and stop this violence.”

The most recent murder of a trans woman in the D.C. area prior to Ziona’s slaying was that of Deoni Jones, 23, who was stabbed to death at a bus stop a few blocks from her home in Northeast Washington in February 2012.

A short time later D.C. police charged D.C. resident Gary Montgomery with first degree murder while armed in connection with Jones’ death. The disposition of the case against Montgomery, however, remains uncertain because several psychiatric examinations arranged for by a judge and defense attorneys have resulted in conflicting conclusions over whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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