Every Thursday night, Tracy Williams’ larger-than-life personality charmed the entire room at a dinner for youth experiencing homelessness at Montrose Grace Place.
Those who dined with the 22-year-old each week said she was outgoing, spontaneous and wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and those she loved. She was an expert fashionista, enamored of drag and taught her peers and mentors how to dance.
Williams, also known as Tracy Single, was found murdered in the early-morning hours of July 30 in a parking lot at 11009 Katy Freeway, according to the Houston Police Department. She suffered multiple lacerations and puncture wounds. Her identity was made public by law enforcement officials on Aug. 14. Police said there is no known motive in the killing and that they had not yet made any arrests.
Friends this week remembered Williams as funny, creative and courageous. Her slaying, they say, has left a permanent void in their lives.
“This is a big loss for the community,” said Courtney Sellers, executive director of Montrose Grace Place. “It’s hard for so many reasons.”
Calls to action
Williams’ killing is the third of a transgender woman in Texas this year, and the 16th of a transgender person in the nation since January. Of those victims, all but one were black women.
In 2017, 26-year-old Brandi Seals was murdered at a construction site in Houston. Her killer has not yet been arrested. In January, Candy Elease Pinky was shot five times
at a Houston gas station on Richmond Avenue. She survived and her shooter has not yet been identified.
“We’ve been living with that reality for years now,” said Monica Roberts of Houston, a board member of Black Trans Women, Inc. “The threat of violence is everywhere for us and it can pop up rather quickly.”
There has been a steady rise in the number of homicides of transgender women of color in recent years, according to a 2017 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Of the homicides included in the report, 71 percent of the victims were people of color. Texas had the highest numbers of anti-LGBTQ murders in the nation, according to the report.
Advocates say Williams’ killing underscores the importance of passing legislative protections at the state level for transgender people.
“The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act is not inclusive of transgender folks,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas.
Roberts said she’s been working for decades with other advocates and legislators to add transgender protections to the landmark Texas bill that strengthened penalties for violent crimes targeting other minorities and groups, including gay and lesbian people. The law was named for an African-American man who was killed in 1998 by three white supremacists who dragged him for three miles behind a pickup truck.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he’s introduced a bill every year for the past seven years to add such protections for transgender people.
“Gender identity or expression should be added to this current list of attributes [in the Byrd Act] because, like the currently listed attributes, it is a universal trait that has historically been a target for widespread and systemic discrimination and violence in our culture,” Coleman said.
President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009. It expanded the federal hate-crime law to cover crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. But some activists have expressed disappointment that prosecutors haven’t brought more cases involving the LGBT community under the law.
Advocates also note that Texas law does not prohibit the so-called “gay and transgender panic” defense, a legal strategy used to justify murder and assault on the grounds that the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity caused a defendant’s violent reaction.
“If the person who killed Tracy is caught, they could use the trans panic defense,” Roberts said.
In addition to advocating for hate-crime protections, Schelling said his group is still pushing for basic human rights to be afforded to transgender people in the state.
“We often spend the session trying to retain what little dignity is afforded to us by the law here,” he said. “All we want is the same confidence we will be able to be who we are and maintain employment and stay in our homes.”
In Texas, there are no state laws explicitly prohibiting employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. No state or federal law prohibits housing discrimination based on gender identity. Those policies strip away basic security for transgender people and put them at even greater risk of violence, Schelling said.
“I think the political battles about bathrooms put trans women at more risk,” Coleman said, referring to heated clashes over bills limiting transgender people’s access to bathrooms in public schools and government buildings. “The rhetoric gives license to anyone who wants to act on feelings of hatred toward trans women and Texans of color.”
Williams’ homicide has shaken her community and brought many together in grief.
Since those at Grace Place learned of Williams’ murder, there has been a place saved at the community dinner table for her. A memorial adorned with a photograph of Williams, lights, artwork and a box filled with notes from her friends has served as a way for those mourning her loss to say goodbye, Sellers said.
In her honor, Houston City Hall and the bridges over Texas 59 were lit up in light blue, red and white, the colors represented on the Transgender Pride Flag.
Williams began transitioning about eight months before her death, according to Dee Dee Watters of Black Trans Women Inc., who didn’t know Williams but has learned about her from her family since she died.
Watters organized and raised money to start the burial and funeral process for Williams.
“Everything that took place with Tracy could have taken place with me,” Watters explained. “I could be murdered and I could need this help too.”
Watters worked with the family to ensure Williams would be buried and memorialized with her correct gender identity.
“It’s really important to be there for the family and advocate for Tracy so her family knows this is who she was,” Watters said.
Though Williams’ life ended abruptly a short time after she transitioned, Watters said she is grateful that Williams had the chance to be her authentic self.
“I’m just glad she was able to express who she was and people were able to see who she was before her life was taken from her,” said Watters. “Being your true authentic self is a remarkable thing and a revolutionary act. We’ll never know who she came into contact with and (inspired to show) their true self because they met her.”
Roberts said she hopes the tragedy will motivate people who are not transgender to be allies.
“Support us when we’re not in the room,” she said. “If you hear people trashing trans folks, call them out on it. We need that to happen moreso now than we ever did. Silence is complicity.”