Bridget, better-known as LaKyra, Butts has faced violence and discrimination in every aspect of her life as a transgender woman of color. For her, it’s a harsh reality that women who make up her demographic get killed at disproportionately higher rates than any other group within the LGBTQ community — a fact that’s not lost on her.
“It’s a scary feeling knowing you could die tomorrow,” she said.
In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were transgender women of color. And this year, the Human Rights Campaign reported that already there have been two more women of the same demographic killed by other violent means.
But despite the looming presences that violence and discrimination have in Butts’ life, she’s firm that they don’t make up the sum total of her life. Butts’ dreams and hobbies mirror those of many 30-year-olds; a fan of the silver screen, she hopes to one day become an actress and she has a love of acoustic guitar. She is active in Detroit’s ballroom scene and finds time once a week to satisfy her Monopoly addiction, playing with friends who love, respect and trust her.
“Do I hide in the closet? No,” she said. “Either way it goes, if I allow you to keep me in my box, I didn’t live my life. So, I gotta do what I gotta do.”
For Butts, part of that means speaking up for other victims of violence and discrimination. Most recently as a witness in the case of Kelly Stough, a 36-year-old transgender woman of color who was murdered in December 2018 in the city’s Palmer Park neighborhood.
“I’m not going to be quiet because this was a sister of mine … She kind of was like a mother figure as well because she was older than me and she taught me some things … a parent figure would teach you,” Butts said. “This is someone who’s in my heart. I couldn’t see myself just not saying anything.”
Butts took the stand in February in Detroit’s 36th District Court to testify against Albert Weathers, a Sterling Heights pastor who was charged with Stough’s murder.
“I was able to see her in a completely different light than I’ve ever seen her and that was when she was on the stand testifying,” said Lilianna Reyes, Second Stories Director at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park and co-executive director of the Trans Sistas of Color Project. “Her ability to not blink an eye when the defense attorney was very transphobic and the strength that she had — and I knew that she had strength, but to see it in that way was just really beautiful.”
A Growing Movement
Butts coming forward is an example of the mobilization happening amongst transgender women of color in Detroit. Reyes said in the last year or two she has seen more transgender women of color seek each other out in an effort to work together, serving as their own support system during times of crisis.
Emani Love is a spiritual justice activist and a friend of Butts; she concurs.
“Our safety is up to us, because the forces of the legal system have failed us time and time again,” Love said.
One study, titled A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018,” by the Human Rights Campaign explores why discrimination happens and many of the factors that can contribute to or facilitate fatal violence. In many instances, according to the report, systemic discrimination at the intersection of gender identity and race lead to significant barriers to employment and housing. This pushes many transgender people into underground economies to survive, including sex work, and into circumstances where they may be more likely to face violence.
Love points to the murder in October 2011 of Shelly Hilliard, known by friends and family as Treasure. Her death was at the intersections of police coercion, criminalization of sex work, Jim Crowe drug laws, cissexism and transphobia.
Similar to the relationship she had with Stough, Hilliard was Butts’ chosen daughter who she met and befriended over a decade ago.
“I feel like I had to come up and speak about that because there was a lot of people who claimed to have known her but really didn’t, and there were a lot of people who had questions that couldn’t get answers because people wouldn’t speak up,” said Butts, adding that she was “terrified” while the Hilliard case was ongoing, “kind of like I am right now.”
Despite that fact, Butts doesn’t let the fear dampen her voice.
“I am strong-minded. I’m not going to shut up and I’m not going to hide,” she said. “There are already a lot of girls who live that lifestyle, live in fear, and we all can’t live like that because no justice ever gets served.”
Local Resources and the Need for More
Conquering her own fears has been much easier with support from other transgender women of color and from the Fair Michigan Justice Project, which investigates and prosecutes crimes against the LGBTQ community.
On behalf of the FMJP, a partnership between the Wayne County prosecutor’s office and Fair Michigan, Julisa Abad — a transgender woman of color herself and FMJP’s director of transgender outreach — helps transgender women like Butts, via support services that range from transportation to housing while they seek justice for victims of violence and discrimination.
“I am very grateful that Kyra had the knowledge, the wisdom and the bravery to not only come forward but to be able to advocate for herself and get services so that she can make it through this process as easily as we can make it,” Abad said, “because obviously, it’s not an easy situation.”
Abad has called on the community before to take action, emphasizing that there is a “lack of attention to the very real issues” faced by transgender women of color on a daily basis.
Love added that without more help and community supporters this can lead to “burnout” for many who involve themselves in the social justice movement.
One of the most important services that Love said “helps keep us afloat” is transgender-affirming mental health care which she said is sorely lacking. Lack of financial benefits from existing services is also a problem.
To tackle this problem Reyes said that TSOCP has taken steps to put reliable systems in place.
“We are now at the point of building programs in conjunction with the Ruth Ellis Center and Fair Michigan where these women are getting paid something,” Reyes said. “Some girls are getting paid a monthly stipend … We believe in paying people for their worth.”
She went on to say that the financial aspect is especially important because agencies in the past have, intentionally or not, “manipulated and used” the demographics they’ve tried to help.
” … To do volunteer work to get numbers, to get research, and, at the end of it there’s not many girls that we see stably employed,” Reyes said.
Not an uncontroversial stance, Reyes said she has received backlash previously for stating her opinion on the issue, and while she is thankful to the people, agencies, organizations and even companies that are supportive of transgender women of color, she emphasized that it’s important to let members of the community know that TSOCP gets no local funding.
“Zero,” she said. “I think in our few-year history we’ve only ever got maybe $5,000 to $10,000 from a local grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan,” she said. “Our programming first and foremost is emergency assistance funds, which is almost impossible to get funded … We’re doing it alone and the Ruth Ellis Center has been so supportive by allowing us to do that work here.”
The need for programs like these was put into even starker perspective when the National Center for Transgender Equality released their U.S. Trans Survey in 2015. Those statistics showed that transgender people experience unemployment at three times the rate of the general population, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.
Funding or no funding, however, Butts is still aware that her friends and loved ones are being murdered, and Stough was the last straw for her. Following her death, Butts reached out to Reyes and said, “I want to do this work and I want to do it well.”
Together, Butts and Reyes have been working on a plan.
“We know that there’s going to be another trans woman of color that’s going to be murdered at some point,” Reyes said. “We want to create a program, working with organizations like Fair Michigan and the ACLU of Michigan, to help trans women of color to better understand the legal and law enforcement systems along with supporting trans women of color who are going through criminal justice cases. Whether that’s to testify or they have had violence happen against them. If there’s an issue, we want to make sure that we understand our rights and what we can do as a community to really push back against this violence.”
Reyes has been writing grants in search of funding for this program, which Butts will facilitate as a leader in the community.
“A lot of people say that now, like community leader, and I don’t look at it like that. I just do it from the heart,” she said. “I’ve always been a people person. And I do have a lot of people who follow behind me, but it comes from my experiences and my childhood.”
The Difficulties of Advocacy
Since testifying during the Stough trial, Butts has become more visible. She has been subjected to local media reports that focus solely on her gender identity and her history of sex work.
“What people need to know is that even though someone is a sex worker it does not deter them or mean that they can’t do anything great,” Reyes said. “People who give sex workers the ability to show them something other would be gladly surprised. If people also see that Kyra and every other girl is more than their survival then you would see the great changes and the great ideas and the passion that come behind that.”
Butts began a local factory job in June last year and no longer participates in the street economy to survive.
“I’m just normal like everybody else,” said Butts, a dog-lover who jumped at the chance to share pictures of her two-year-old Maltese Yorkie mix named Trevor.
“I can talk about having a job, talk about having a family, people who love me. They don’t think that. They think that nobody loves us because that’s probably what they would do to people in their family. But no, my family loves me. I can go home. I can chill, be comfortable.”
Struggles Around Visibility
When asked if more visibility makes her feel like more of a target, Butts said, “I have times where I’m nervous because I don’t know who’s all on his (Weathers) side. I don’t know who all watches the clips. I don’t know who knows me. I don’t know who all was in the courtroom or who’s going to be in the courtroom when I have to testify again,” she said. “It’s a scary feeling, but it’s also an empowering feeling. If I don’t do it, he could just walk away. I don’t know what the verdict is going to be, but if I didn’t speak up, they could have believed everything he said. Now we have a chance to make it a case, to make it a fight.”
And Butts encourages other women to get in the fight.
“You’re going to be scared, but oh well. Like I told my friend, ‘It’s either fight or die.’ If I die from me testifying, I would have died anyway from being a target,” she said. “It could have been me and people could’ve not spoke up … You have to speak up.”
Contributions to support Trans Sistas of Color Project programs can be made in care of the Ruth Ellis Center (Be sure to write TSCOP on the memo line) 77 Victor Street, Highland Park. Contact Julisa Abad from the Fair Michigan Justice Project at 877-432-4764, ext. 3.
Equality Michigan Victim Services Department
Jey’nce Poindexter, Transgender Victims Advocate
19641 West 7 Mile Road, Detroit
313-537-7000, ext. 12
Kole Wyckhuys, Counselor and Community Advocate
20025 Greenfield Rd., Detroit
313-397-2127, ext. 111