Islan Nettles was out in New York City with friends when a group of young men approached her, learned she was a transgender woman and began taunting and maliciously beating her—right in front of a police precinct in Harlem.
The fashion design student with delicate features was punched in the face, knocked to the ground and beaten until she lost consciousness on the night of August 16.
“They were called f****, they were called he-she’s, she males, things of that nature,” Nettles’ mother told a local newscast.
Islan Nettles, born Vaughn Nettles, fell into a coma she would never awake from. She died Thursday after being taken off of life support. She was only 21.
The site of the violence, near a police station, highlights a startling increase in hate crimes against the LGBT community, and what some view as a historic lack of police sympathy.
Nettles’ alleged assailant, Paris Wilson, was booked on a misdemeanor assault charge and freed on $2,000 bail. Last Friday, Nettles’ death was officially ruled a murder. According to a spokesperson for the New York County District Attorney’s Office, Wilson has not yet been arraigned on any murder charges, telling TakePart, “charges will be updated pending further investigation.”
That investigation could go on for some time. Wilson’s next scheduled court date isn’t until October 4.
The death of Nettles may strike some as a tragic but otherwise freak incident for a progressive city like New York—one of the birthplaces of the modern LGBT-rights movement.
Statistics show, however, that isn’t the case. The world may be outraged over Russian anti-gay atrocities, but according to the NYPD, anti-LGBT “bias crimes” have nearly doubled since this time last year here in New York City, from 13 to 22 according to the NYPD’s most recent report on the issue.
“I don’t think people should be shocked [at the death of Nettles],” says Shelby Chestnut, codirector of community organizing and public advocacy for the New York Anti-Violence Project. “This happens more regularly than the media reports. We see this type of violence all the time.”
Back in May, Eugene Lovendusky, cofounder of the LGBT rights group Queer Rising, was assaulted by a 19-year-old man after being bombarded with anti-gay epithets. Lovendusky’s assault came amid a series of high-profile hate crimes against New York LGBT residents—most notably the May 17 murder of 32-year-old gay man Mark Carson, who was shot to death in the streets of New York after being called “faggot” and “queer” by his assailants.
Chestnut says her organization has seen a major uptick in LGBT hate crimes this year. That said, the problem of anti-LGBT violence has always existed, she says. Reporting is improving, which could account for some of the increase.
Police mistrust, and a general lack of empathy, particularly towards the transgender and people of color, have hampered efforts to document anti-LGBT incidents of violence in the past.
“I don’t want to suggest [our stat] means more violence. These incidents may finally be reporting what has been happening in the streets for a long time.”
If nothing else, Chestnut hopes Nettles’ death will bring to light the tremendous violence faced by transgender women—particularly transgender women of color.
Seventy-two percent of anti-LGBT murders in America affected people of color and 53 percent of those were transgender women, Chestnut said.
The only way to end LGBT hate crimes is to keep talking about it and let the public know that incidents like the one that left Nettles dead are hardly uncommon, Chestnut said. Victims of hate crimes also need to have the courage to come forward and tell their stories.
“Reporting violence helps end violence,” says Chestnut. “Unless we know where violence is occurring, we can’t do outreach in the area. We can’t reach out to the general public to let them know anti-LGBT violence shouldn’t be tolerated.”