COVER STORY

STRUCK DOWN IN HER PRIME

The unsolved murder of transgender activist Terrianne Summers

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On Dec. 12, 2001, a single bullet took the life of local transgender activist Terrianne Summers, just as she was entering what were likely to be some of the happiest years of her life.

After a long job search, the year before she died, Summers was hired by the U.S. Department of Labor (the federal government has long prohibited discrimination based on conduct which has no bearing on job performance). She was overqualified for the IT job, but it was a paycheck. She’d taken on a public role protesting Winn-Dixie’s firing of one of their truck drivers who cross-dressed in his spare time and was actively involved with the local LGBT community and causes, including JASMYN (Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network). She also had a vibrant social life. Weeks before her murder, she’d taken part in the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held annually on Nov. 20, memorializing those killed as a result of transphobia.

“She was a happy chick,” says friend and local attorney Carrington Mead.

Much of her Navy pension was going to her estranged wife — checks she left outside her home every Monday, so they didn’t have to see each other face-to-face — so the long struggle to find a steady job had taken its toll. Summers was living with a roommate in a crime-ridden neighborhood on Day Avenue in Murray Hill. The police file about her murder says that, at the time, a group of juveniles was terrorizing the area.

Not the type to back down, Summers repeatedly called the cops on the teens, who were suspected in a string of burglaries, assaults, vandalism and selling drugs in the park near her home. Mead says Summers would pace behind the chain-link fence in her yard with her gun, a .357 pistol, strapped to a hip, yelling at the youths, trying to run them off. Summers’ roommate is quoted in the police file as saying, “ … the victim told [her] in the past that if anyone was going to rob [her], they would have to kill [her], because [she] was not going to be ‘pushed over.’”

The police file also says that sometime before her death, Summers received an anonymous letter asking her to meet “them” in the park. She declined.

The day of Dec. 12, 2001, began like any other. Summers rose, dressed impeccably, with an attention to detail that was probably second nature for someone of her intelligence, education and military background, and went to work.

That afternoon she called to check on her roommate, who was recuperating from a medical procedure that required her to be in a wheelchair.

Arriving home around eight o’clock that late autumn evening, Summers got the mail, as she routinely did before heading inside. According to the police file, neighbors reported hearing shots fired at approximately 8 p.m. Another neighbor down the street said that at approximately 9:15 p.m., a group of three or four juveniles rode past on bicycles and said that there was a woman dead down the street.

That woman turned out to be Terrianne Summers. She appeared to have fallen right where she was shot, still clutching her keys in her hand, mail scattered around her body. The force knocked one of her shoes off; the contents of her purse, including a can of mace, spilled on the ground around her.

Sadly, in many ways, Summers’ life and death were, and are, typical for transgender people.

Born in 1950, Summers came of age in a time when the idea of identifying as a gender other than one’s biological sex was not only relatively unknown, but could lead to arrest. After all, this was a time when homosexuality (which should not be confused with being transgender) was deemed a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. (The APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1974; it wasn’t until 2013 that it removed gender identity disorder from its list of mental disorders.)

Like many closeted transgender women, in her youth Summers embraced masculine roles. She joined the Navy and became an engineer, eventually rising as a Mustang, or enlisted person, to the rank of Commander. She also wed and had two sons.

From the outside, hers was a typical, nuclear American family; she was a regular family man.

In reality, Summers was probably just hiding from her truth. It is a common experience.

Benjamin Charlick, a third-year student at Florida Coastal School of Law, says that it took many years before he accepted his transgender status.

 

Throughout his 20s, Charlick, now 32, would at times play with gender identity and express himself as male. Then circumstances or friends would change and he’d “put it back in the box,” bury himself in work, sports and an active social life in New York City, where he then lived.

“Until you break yourself out of the binary, all you know is the binary. I was thinking in terms of very black-and-white binary,” he says.

Similarly, over time, the male mask that Summers wore began to wear thin.

“What happens is, for a lot of people who do that, they’ll continue to see an increase in depression, an increase in anxiety, an increase in suicidal thoughts and ideations because they’re not being true to self,” says local mental health counselor Kristie Overstreet, who has worked with LGBTs for nearly a decade and actively pursues equal rights for the community. “… They’re feeling like they’re sacrificing part of themselves, which they are.”

Summers came out to her family in the late ’90s. By then she was retired from the military, her sons were approaching adulthood; she may have felt that it was a now-or-never situation.

Waiting until later in life to come out is common for transgender women in particular. It may be difficult to understand how a person of advanced age would “suddenly” become transgender, but Overstreet says that individuals who transition later in life have typically been deeply conflicted about their gender identity for much of their lives, perhaps even since before they had a name for their feelings. Charlick spoke of a woman in his childhood neighborhood who told the rest of the parents, “to be wary and not let their kids play with me because I was a boy trapped in a girl’s body and I was an ungodly creature.” This was long before Charlick himself became aware that he does not identify as female.

Like Summers, many succumb to the pressure of family, society and other cultural expectations until they just can’t bear to pretend anymore. 

“I think that’s why we see a lot of people wait until later in life to come out because they feel they’ve done those roles … [they may feel like], ‘I don’t want to be on my deathbed and regret that I’ve not lived who I am,’” says Overstreet, who is cisgender (a person who identifies as their biological gender) and makes it clear that she does not speak for the community, but as a mental health professional who has many years of experience working with it.

Like many transgenders, Summers’ family did not support her transition and she became estranged from her wife and sons. Nevertheless, she continued transitioning, eventually legally changing her name and presenting as a woman for her driver’s license photograph.

Mead says that Summers’ estranged wife did not allow the LGBT community to attend the funeral and believes that she was buried under her male name.

Cam, who asked me to keep his last name confidential, says his family tries to accept him but that they have asked him to avoid some family friends.

“People in the family are still struggling about getting everything right and seeing me the way I want to be seen,” he says.

Transitioning is frequently more difficult for transgender females, and typically carries far more stigma. Speaking in his individual capacity and not as a representative of the university, Jake Moore, LGBT Resource Center program coordinator at the University of North Florida, theorized that it’s because society expects women to work so much harder on their physical appearance, which also has the effect of making it more difficult for female transgenders to “pass” or to avoid being identified as trans. Several sources also suggested that people may subconsciously feel that biological males who transition to female are giving up male privilege, while biological females who transition to male are trading up to a higher societal status.

TRANSPHOBIA AND VIOLENCE

Regardless of biological gender prior to transition, every single transgender person Folio Weekly interviewed for this article spoke of fears of transphobia-based discrimination and hate-motivated violence.

Local tattoo artist Synthia Roy, a transgender woman, says her three best friends in Maine beat her up when she came out.

“I remember as a guy going out in femme [dress] to straight clubs, I feared for my life, I always had my straight guy friends with me,” Roy says.

Roy says she’s developed a phobia of straight cisgender men, particularly when they’re drinking alcohol, and actively avoids going alone to places like “small redneck bar[s]” where such men congregate. Friends, she says, have been beaten up when a cisgender man found out they were trans; one friend in another state was gang-raped when a man found out she was trans.

“They’re having hate against her because she’s a ‘fag,’ so what are they going to do? Rape her — that doesn’t make sense,” she says.

Hate-motivated violence against the transgender community is on the rise. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that hate-motivated violence against transgenders rose 13 percent from 2013 to 2014. In August, Time Magazine reported that this year, a historic high of 15 transgenders had been murdered in the U.S., the majority of those were transgender females of color.

“Violence has been happening to this community for a long time but people weren’t paying attention,” Moore says.

Moore pointed out that even those who feel safe in jobs, homes and communities still experience fear in certain places, such as public restrooms. Cisgenders may illogically fear that they will be assaulted by a transgender person in the bathroom; in reality, it is far more likely a transgender person will be assaulted. In fact, some transgenders actively seek establishments, such as Starbucks, that have single-stall bathrooms to minimize the risk.

“I’ve felt fear going into a restroom. I used to hold my bladder as long as I could to avoid going to the restroom,” says Moore.

 

EMPLOYMENT DESCRIMINATION

Like many, Summers’ transition created economic difficulties. Mead says that, initially, Summers went on job interviews dressed as a man to increase her likelihood of getting hired. She’d get hired and start working, but eventually someone would find out she was trans and she’d be fired.

When Summers began living as a woman full-time, Mead says, her job search was hindered even more. “She couldn’t get hired in the engineering jobs because all they saw was a man in a dress,” says Mead.

Overstreet noted that transgenders’ inability to find work and support themselves can exacerbate their underlying mental health problems, such as depression, dysphoria-based distress and anxiety.

Summers could not have been fired for being transgender if Jacksonville City Council had passed a Human Rights Ordinance that prohibited housing, public accommodation and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. HRO legislation failed to pass City Council in 2012; many believe it failed because it included protections for gender identity and expression.

“If I go off campus, even just to Town Center for lunch, and I use the men’s restroom, I can technically, because of the HRO being the way it is, be asked to leave. I don’t think that anything like an arrest would happen but that would technically be legally plausible as well, because I still have an ‘F’ on my license,” says Moore.

Jacksonville is the largest metropolitan area in the nation that does not provide such protections. The city also has the largest percentage of LGBTs of any major city in Florida. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 4.3 percent of Jacksonville’s population identifies as LGBT, which means that there are 36,231 LGBTs in the city, roughly equivalent to the size of one city council district.

Mayor Lenny Curry has stated that he intends to draft HRO legislation and local LGBT leadership has agreed to let the mayor take the lead on the issue. The mayor’s office did not provide a timeline or any guidance to the mayor’s stance in response to a request by Folio Weekly, but some sources believe that the mayor’s HRO will not include protection for gender identity and expression.

If the mayor eliminates those protections in his HRO, Councilmember Tommy Hazouri intends to propose inclusive legislation.

“I vehemently support an inclusive human rights ordinance in Jacksonville to bar discrimination in any form. It is my intention to sponsor a bill and lead on this issue to ensure we move forward as a city,” Hazouri stated in a written statement.

Every single source for this story spoke of concerns that some of the cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual community may be willing to leave out protection for transgender people in spite of the reality that they are the most vulnerable members of the community.

“Right now, any trans person, myself included, I could be kicked out of my house. I could lose my job. I mean, when you really think about, there are fundamental things that people are striving for in society … make a living, work hard, chase the American dream to the best of your abilities,” says Charlick, a Florida native who intends to move to Baltimore after law school because “the Northeast is safer for me than the South.”

 

Roy had long been fluid about gender expression, but when she began her transition in earnest, she was fired from the tattoo parlor where she had worked for 17 years. Her boss claimed he’d replaced her out of necessity while she was recuperating from a brain bleed caused by abruptly quitting drinking alcohol, which led to a coma and total memory loss (her memory later returned). However, former coworkers later said that her boss had never been comfortable with her transition and used her absence as an excuse to get rid of her.

Cam spoke of going on interview after interview during his transition.

“Lots of people liked my work but after, once it came to me coming in and seeing people face-to-face, I never heard from them again,” he says. He says he never had problems with clients when he worked for them remotely, as a freelancer. After Cam began “passing,” he was hired.

The 2013 report, “A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers,” by Movement Advancement Project, Human Rights Campaign, Center for American Progress and National Center for Transgender Equality, found that 14 percent of transgender workers were unemployed, twice the rate of the rest of the population. The report found that 44 percent of transgender workers were underemployed.

THE MURDER INVESTIGATION

In the hours, weeks and then months following Summers’ death, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tracked leads, interviewed witnesses and suspects and scoured the neighborhood for evidence. The day after the murder, one man claimed to have witnessed it. But detectives were unable to find him after their initial interview.

The case file from Summers’ murder reveals a pattern of prejudice by the very neighbors she was trying to protect by running off the troublemaking juveniles. It’s filled with disparaging references to her as “sissy boy,” “that fairy,” and “faggot.”

Mead believes that Summers’ murder may not have technically fit the definition of a hate crime, but that her trans status enabled her killer and any potential witnesses “to dehumanize her” and, thus, contributed to her death.

Detectives seem to have narrowed the suspect pool down to a group of several juveniles, likely the ones Summers had frequently confronted. Several people police interviewed — and some of the juveniles themselves — implicated different individuals in the crime. Two of the juveniles told detectives that a group of four of them found Summers lying dead in her driveway at approximately 8 p.m., the precise time that neighbors reported hearing shots fired. In the years since Summers’ death, all of the juveniles have accumulated extensive criminal records.

Mead, who performed her own investigation into the crime, says that police felt confident that they’d identified the killer. But, unable to find the one witness after the initial interview, and without a murder weapon or any other concrete evidence, after many months police had little choice but to drop the case. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Through the course of investigating this story, FW tracked down the witness, who is being held in the Duval County Jail on an unrelated charged. There is a chance, albeit slight, he will be able to identify the person who murdered Terrianne Summers. All these years later, justice could finally be served.

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