On June 10, more than 600 friends, family members, and allies gathered in Manhattan to support Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx trans woman who was found dead in her cell on June 7 at New York's Rikers Island prison.
Several people spoke at the Foley Square gathering, including Pose star Indya Moore, who said that Layleen's death brings to light the systemic issues incarcerated trans women often face. The events surrounding Layleen's death yielded its own hashtag: #JusticeForLayleen.
A story like this, or anything concerning trans women's mortality, is all too common now. News reports aiming to spread awareness around the tragic phenomenon of anti-trans violence — specifically against Black trans women — sometimes miss the mark, too. Anti-trans media errors frequently reveal a lack of knowledge on the very lives reporters and editors are chronicling. Practices include deadnaming, misgendering, misspelling the names of the deceased, and misquoting those closest to them.
Reports surrounding the events of Layleen's death vary. Some speculate she died of natural causes from a pre-existing health condition. Others feel foul play or abuse occurred while incarcerated. According to New York's Anti-Violence Project (AVP), Layleen died on Rikers Island while being detained on $500 bail for a misdemeanor charge. She was reportedly being held due to a few missed court dates "as part of the services she was mandated to in an alternative to incarceration program."
AVP reports that Layleen was being punished with solitary confinement even though "officials at Rikers knew she had a serious medical condition that caused life-threatening seizures," according to a press statement. Per the Associated Press, Layleen's family's attorney said last week that Layleen had a "seizure disorder and other health problems and had been hospitalized weeks before," amid calls to investigate the matter. Still, the city's Department of Correction insists that Layleen's cause of death was not the result of violence, despite it not being officially determined yet.
"This is a tragic loss and we extend our deepest condolences to her family," Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said earlier this month, according to the New York Daily News. "We are conducting a full investigation as the safety and well-being of people in our custody is our top priority."
Only last year, Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio announced that trans inmates would now be housed in accordance with their gender identity. The new policy came shortly after the Board of Correction criticized the Department of Correction for lacking a consistent system to manage inmates seeking to be held in specialized transgender housing. Activists and trans advocacy organizations applied pressure to ensure that policy went into effect sooner than later, but it was initially supposed to begin starting January 2020.
Some, including AVP's Director of Communications Eliel Cruz, believe these sorts of measures don't necessarily lead to dramatic change of prison culture, nor do they eradicate mistreatment of incarcerated LGBTQ people. "From Rikers, while it had been that trans women were once being housed in the men's unit, and now aren't, it doesn't negate the countless stories of LGBTQ people facing both physical and sexual violence within Rikers and within the prison system as a whole," Cruz said.
Layleen's family, community, and activists are now seeking justice for their loved one because it appears, at present, there are few solid answers. Unanswered questions aside, Layleen's circumstance further highlights a recent string of deaths of trans women of color, "whether the result of racist and transphobic hate violence, violence from a partner or date, or from neglect and abuse in ICE detention," AVP reports. So far this year, 12 deaths have been reported, including Layleen's.
That number is on a tragic, steadily rising trend of hate-based anti-trans violence, including intimate partner violence and murder. A 2017 "crisis of hate" report conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found 27 cases of hate violence-related murders of trans and gender nonconforming people, compared to 19 in 2016. Of those 27 cases, 22 of those murders were of trans women of color.
The 12 women killed this year are not just numbers, though. Say their names: Dana Martin, Ashanti Carmon, Muhlaysia Booker, Claire Legato, Michelle Washington, Jazzaline Ware, Chynal Lindsay, Paris Cameron, Chanel Scurlock, Johana Medina, Layleen Polanco, and Zoe Spears.
The deaths of these women have an undeniably traumatic impact on their loved ones, who remember and honor them not as statistics, but as sisters, mothers, friends, lovers. PAPER spoke with people who knew and loved Layleen, and are pursuing justice for her and all trans women caught in the cycle of systemic violence: Indya Moore, Mother Gisele Xtravaganza from the House of Xtravaganza (of which Layleen was a member of), and her older sister Melania Brown, who shared a letter she wrote to Layleen.
PAPER: What was your relationship with Layleen? Why is she important to you?
Indya Moore: I didn't have a close relationship with Layleen, but she was someone in my community who I admired when I was a young teen looking for inspiration and motivation. My friends knew her and would tell me stories all the time about how funny she was. I met her in passing only one time. She was so sweet and magnetic. I hoped to be beautiful like her one day. She's important to me because she is a Black trans woman. I love my community very much and fight for our safety regardless how well we know each other personally — or what our relationship is like.
PAPER: What do you wish people knew about her and also this situation?
Indya Moore: Layleen's death reveals an intersection of issues revolving around the system of incarceration. Layleen's bail was $500. She was jailed three months for a misdemeanor offense. Cash bail punishes financially disadvantaged people, who are often POC and mostly trans. The difference between Layleen sitting in solitary confinement in jail before seeing a judge and someone who isn't in jail before they see the judge is money. That is horrible and arouses the distrust and anger people have in this system. Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment used to punish people by isolating them and keeping them from having minimal to no contact with other inmates. Solitary confinement is also used at times to "protect" the most vulnerable of inmates, such as trans people. Solitary confinement is a form of punishment and cannot possibly be used to protect humans especially when we are trans. Layleen wasn't protected in solitary confinement. She was neglected in solitary confinement.
Neglect is a form of murder when someone is in the custody of the state, and to add insult, her death was recorded as an "early release." She was then released to her family dead, leaving her loved ones traumatized and left alone to deal with having to plan and pay out-of-pocket for a funeral and other expenses revolving around Layleen's death.
"Solitary confinement is a form of punishment and cannot possibly be used to protect humans especially when we are trans."
PAPER: What do you think it will take to reform the way Rikers and other state-sanctioned institutions handle the lives of trans women?
Indya Moore: I think trans people should not be at the mercy of Rikers and other state-sanctioned institutions that harm trans people. Our lives should never be left to their responsibility. People are actively sexually assaulted, beaten, and killed in jail and these issues are exacerbated for trans people. Incarceration doesn't help people, it hurts people. It negatively affects people's mental health and disenfranchises people from employment and reentering society, and that often causes people to go right back because incarceration rarely offers transformative pathways to rehabilitation.
Lawmakers do very little to adjust or challenge the system accordingly when it harms people, and it's upsetting that it takes so much anger and disruption from the public for lawmakers to even consider law and policy change. This is disheartening, dismissive, and disrespectful.
How can we continue to invest in a system that operates on this contradiction? This system that systematically murders, punishes, and invalidates trans women and people is not equipped to keep us safe. We need to develop new pathways for safety and we need to do it now. I send my thoughts, prayers, and condolences to Layleen's family.
PAPER: Who was Layleen to you and what was her relationship to the House of Xtravaganza?
Gisele Xtravaganza: Layleen was in the House of Xtravaganza for a very long time. Our relationship was very, very beautiful and serene. I just never felt any bad vibes from Layleen. It was just always love and we were really close. She meant a lot to this house, and still does. She's participated and has been a member for over 10 years. Me, Jose [Xtravaganza] and the whole house, we have a deep connection because every time we bring anyone in we build a closeness with them. Regardless of what happens in the future, for us to bring somebody in we must feel that close connection and a loving vibe all around. That is what she had. She was loving, kind, sweet, gentle, never got into any problems. It was a shock when she died.
PAPER: Have you been in touch with her sister Melania and their family?
Gisele Xtravaganza: I was in touch with Melania at the funeral when I went and we spoke for a bit. It was sad, but I did get in contact with her and her family. At the service, a lot of people were really emotional through the whole process. It was just really sad, but everybody was there supporting Layleen and Melania. A lot of family was there. I loved seeing so many people there to support them.
"We should protect the rights of people that are incarcerated and that means that the police department needs to protect people in those places"
PAPER: We are now looking at a list of 12 names, and likely more, of trans women who died this year as a result of hate-based violence or as a result of state violence. What are your thoughts about this, considering your relationship with Layleen?
Gisele Xtravaganza: They can start to actually prosecute the murderer and incarcerate the murderer. And take the case seriously and make sure they get the maximum punishment for these hate crimes. Change starts with the judicial system, otherwise the violence will never end. The police officers need to be trained to stop treating people like shit and start treating people a little bit more humanely even when they are incarcerated. Because, as we know, there have been people who were innocent that have been incarcerated. We should protect the rights of people that are incarcerated and that means that the police department needs to protect people in those places. We are in 2019 and the people in power are the ones that need to start this trend. They have to go after all of these people, they need to make sure that this doesn't happen. Teaching people about accepting other people, that's what they can do. Honestly, I don't think that it is ever going to end because we have a lot of people who have hate toward trans people because of religious reasons. We have people who hate trans people because of society. We have people who hate trans people because it's just in fashion. All of these things need to happen in order for this to stop. It is not a little thing, it is a huge thing that's out of control.
PAPER: What was she like as a performer and a member of the community?
Gisele Xtravaganza: When she used to perform, she used to be really, really cute. She used to walk Realness. She used to walk up to the table and be quiet, cute and shy giving that realness vibe. She would come up with a cute little outfit, and she would still come up to them really cute and humble. She would never be like one of the other girls. The other girls were really catty. She was an all-around sweetheart. She was a cute performer, she was a realness girl. I always felt like I had to nurture her, always give her love when I saw her. I really had a special liking and love for her because of the way that she was. And though she was sweet, she would not take shit from nobody. She was a tough girl, too.
I want to start by telling you that I love you so much, I want to thank you for loving me unconditionally and being such a great auntie to my girls. Your heart of gold is irreplaceable, you helped anything that came near you heal. You were a natural born healer. To know you is to love you, anything that came in contact with you fell in love with you. I still can't grasp the fact that you are no longer with me, I'm angry, very emotional and feel myself slipping into a deep depression than I hear your voice telling me you are still here with me and I question myself if I'm now going crazy or if that's really you I hear. I talk to you every night since the day you left us and ask you to please come talk to me, to please hug me and let me know you're ok. I want to know what they did to you?, Were you in pain?, Did they make you suffer? And to please let me know exactly who's responsible for your death. I was the luckiest girl to have a beautiful person such as yourself as my sister. You were brave, you were loved, you were unique and perfect in my eyes even when you got on my last nerve but that's what sisters are for. I watched you grow up and have the courage to be exactly who you wanted to be, who you were destined to be. I witnessed every step you can name just to watch you develop into my beautiful sister. Not once did I judge not once did I look at you differently I accepted every single step in the process because true love has no boundaries, true love is in the heart not in the physical appearance and true love is judgement free. I can't wait to hug you, kiss you like crazy, cuddle with you and continue to tell you my deepest secrets. You were my secret bank and you kept your promise of taking it all with you one day. You always looked up to me not knowing I secretly looked up to you, I wanted to be brave like you, I wanted to learn to let things go like you instead of seeking revenge and I definitely wanted a heart like yours. The only thing we have in common is our bubbly personality and making it known when we walk in a room but other than that you were much more than me. You were supposed to learn from me and I actually learned from you, I learned to be a better person amongst other things. You protected me like you were my big sister making it known to whoever I brought around not to mess with me cause you would do the unimaginable for me. My only job was to protect you and I feel I fail you, I keep beating myself up saying to myself I could've done way more! I'm so mad I didn't even know you were arrested until after when I couldn't safe you, if I would've known I definitely would of made sure you didn't stay in Rikers "THE HUMAN SLAUGHTER HOUSE" the only place in the world where you can rape, kill, abuse and neglect humans and it's perfectly ok but you never wanted us to worry so you kept all your hard battles to yourself. Don't worry baby girl what they didn't know is that I'm nothing like you they took the good one and left the bad and I will get justice for you ONE WAY OR ANOTHER they can't run, they can't hide and they can't beg for mercy because I'm not god. I won't rest until I get justice and they pay for what they did to you I promise. I'll never forget you, I'll always love you and cherish the whole 27 years god gave me with you the good and the bad. Until the day we meet again, I love you princess
Your big sis
Photos courtesy of Melania Brown