Tracy Single had an eye for fashion and an ear for music. The 22-year-old Houston transgender woman had a passion for working with clothes, and dreamed of securing a job in a local resale shop. Someday she wanted to become a part of Houston’s rap music scene.
Instead, she became the latest statistic in the relentless violence against trans women of color.
During the early morning hours of July 30, Single’s body was found in a gas station parking lot at 11009 Katy Freeway, near Wilcrest and I-10. Houston Police Department (HPD) homicide detectives determined that she had died from a puncture wound and multiple lacerations.
Single’s death marks the sixteenth murder of a trans individual this year in the United States—the fifteenth trans woman of color, and the twelfth under the age of 30. It was the third murder of a trans woman of color this year in Texas.
An Energetic Spirit
Single was known by many in the Houston LGBTQ homeless youth population. She was a frequent visitor at two safe spaces in the area—Montrose Grace Place (MGP) and Tony’s Place. She had been living with a friend named Lala.
Courtney Sellers, MGP’s executive director, says that Single grew up in the New Orleans area before moving to Houston. She was the oldest of six siblings.
Natalie Ferguson, an MGP direct volunteer, says that Single loved to go into the MGP clothing closet. “She could put together a great outfit from the random assortment of donations. During my last interaction with her, we had an activity to teach how to make bags out of T-shirts. But Tracy made a super-cute skirt and a halter top instead. That so encapsulated who she was—a very creative person.”
Sellers also remembers the night that a drag queen came to MGP for their bingo night: “Tracy peppered her with questions. Tracy had a personality that could fill a room—she would have killed it as a drag queen. She had quiet moments, but she also had a vibrancy. She lived unapologetically. If she felt something, she said it. There was nothing guarded about her.”
Asia Foster, one of Single’s close trans friends, says that Single began transitioning about two years ago. Her transition created tension at home, and Single moved out on her own. The two trans women of color met at one of the homeless shelters for LGBTQ youth.
“She loved Louisiana bounce music,” Foster says. “Music was her way of keeping her cool. We felt very comfortable hanging out together. We helped each other remember to keep up our hormone treatments.”
Foster says that Single was struggling to find a decent job, but felt that she was usually brushed off because she was trans. “She definitely did not want to get involved with drug dealing or survival sex. That was so not her. She was a happy and optimistic person,” Foster remembers. “She was often a good peacekeeper between people who were having problems with each other.”
Madonna Land, program director at Tony’s Place, recalls that Tracy always had a game plan. “She was very clear that she didn’t want to remain on the streets. She wanted to get employment and housing, and to be productive. She took advantage of any homeless resource that we offered. She always followed through with appointments and didn’t have a lot of drama. Tracy was the sweetest girl—very personable and charismatic. She got along with all the other clients. She was well-liked and supportive, and had lots of friends.”
Single’s mother, Joyce Williams, declined an OutSmart interview request. However, she did briefly share her thoughts with KPRC-TV: “My child is no longer with me, and I have to deal with this every day. This is sad. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody’s child.”
A Tragedy Unfolds
Single was last seen at the MPG youth-night dinner on Monday, July 29. Early in the morning of July 30, her body was found in the parking lot of a Citgo service station in West Houston. HPD initially listed the homicide as that of a Houston woman.
On Saturday, August 10, HPD’s LGTBQ community liaison, Sgt. Alexa Magnan, was notified that the victim was a transgender woman. She immediately contacted leaders of Houston’s trans community, asking for their help in identifying the victim. Longtime trans activist Dee Dee Watters organized a meeting at the Montrose Center on August 11. That event was both a memorial service for the victim and a town-hall discussion. Various individuals were shown a photo on Sgt. Magnan’s phone, and Single was finally identified.
Trans activist Monica Roberts says that a meeting is being scheduled with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to discuss HPD internal protocols, so that another 12-day delay in contacting the LGBTQ community does not occur.
A memorial fund was established to help Single’s mother pay for burial expenses. Watters says that Williams agreed to respect Tracy’s self-identification as a transgender woman as the funeral arrangements were being made. After the fund’s goal was reached, a funeral service was held on the evening of Friday, August 23, at the Fort Bend Memorial Planning Center in Rosharon, Texas, south of the Sugar Land area.
On August 23, HPD arrested and charged Joshua Dominic Bourgeois, 25, with Single’s murder. Bourgeois was considered a suspect after investigators learned that he had been in a dating relationship with the victim. Police say Single threatened to end her relationship with Bourgeois just hours before she was found murdered.
“The community has really helped us to be better,” Magnan said. “We are very lucky to be working as closely with them as we are.”
The Community Reacts
Houston’s LGBTQ community has quickly pulled together in the wake of Tracy Single’s murder. Kindred Montrose, where the Montrose Grace Place youth program is housed, posted the message “Tracy Rest in Power. Say Her Name” on their sidewalk billboard. A table space was reserved in honor of Single at the youth-night dinner on Monday, August 12. “We usually cut off the dinner line [after serving] the first 25 youth in line,” Sellers says, “but we opened the doors to everyone in line—nearly 45 youth.”
Local news media covered the developing story of Single’s death with respect for her gender identity, and Fox 26 News produced a segment that delved deeper into the tragedy by including an interview with both Dee Dee Watters and Monica Roberts.
Harrison Homer-Guy, who chairs the Mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, worked to have Houston City Hall and the six Montrose I-69 freeway bridges lit up in transgender colors in memory of Single on the nights of August 14 and 15. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus released a statement condemning the murder.
Sellers says that members of Montrose Grace Place miss Single “immensely.” For many of the youth, this is the first time a close friend has been lost to violence. The group recently decorated a shadow box in Single’s favorite color of blue, and hung it up on a wall. They have also written messages to Single and drawn pictures in her memory as they work through their grief.
A Culture of Hate
Watters and Roberts say that the underlying core issues that drive violence against trans women of color are complex, and involve numerous intersecting layers.
Roberts has been tracking incidents of assault and homicide against trans individuals for several years. She says that violence has increased as hate rhetoric increases, especially when anti-trans legislation is in the news. In 2015, Houston’s equal-rights ordinance (HERO) led to the 2017 “bathroom bill” (SB2) that failed during a special session of the Texas Legislature. Most recently, the Trump administration filed lawsuits banning transgender workplace protections and military service, in addition to supporting so-called “religious freedom” legislation that further legalizes discrimination.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) published a special report in 2018 entitled Dismantling a Culture of Violence: Understanding Anti-Trans Violence and Ending the Crisis. As the forward to the report notes, “Since 2013, more than 130 transgender and gender-expansive individuals have been killed in the United States. Even in the face of this physical danger, hatred, and discrimination, transgender Americans live courageously and overcome unjust barriers in all corners of our country. But until we as a country collectively address and dismantle these barriers, transgender people will continue to face higher rates of discrimination, poverty, homelessness, and violence.”
The report concludes that the dehumanization of trans individuals begins with the anti-trans stigma created by a lack of family acceptance, a hostile political environment, and cultural marginalization. This stigmatization has led to the denial of opportunities for trans people to participate fully in society. This in turn has led to increased risk factors. The result is further stigmatization, all enmeshed within an environment of cultural racism and sexism.
Watters and Roberts agree that the first step in breaking this self-perpetuating cycle is to call out transphobia, both online and within our personal circles of influence. The social-media reaction to Single’s murder included numerous transphobic reader comments aimed at blaming the victim and invalidating her self-identification.
A renewed attempt to finally pass HERO is in the planning stages, after a local referendum by right-wing groups killed Houston’s civil-rights ordinance in 2017. Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, says that new strategies for neutralizing right-wing attacks have proven to be successful in other cities, and a recent attempt to roll back statewide protections that included gender identity in Massachusetts was defeated in 2018. “They laid the groundwork over a three-year period,” Schelling notes.
Watters, Roberts, and Schelling say that the biggest myth about the cause of trans violence is that transgender individuals are seeking to deceive others in intimate settings. This is similar to the “gay panic” defense long used in gay-bashing or gay murder cases, where the murderer claims that the victim was acting in a sexually suggestive manner.
Watters says that the bottom line for winning the battle against trans violence is the full realization that “trans rights are human rights.”
Tips from HPD’s Sgt. Magnan for Staying Safe
- Always stay vigilant and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t talk on your cell phone while walking to a car or waiting for public transportation.
- Let people around you, including friends and family, know about your plans so they have a better chance of noticing if something is out of the ordinary.
- Practice safety in numbers by traveling with others whenever possible, especially if you are walking or utilizing public transportation.
- Travel in well-lit, high-traffic areas if you are on foot, and park in well-lit areas if you are driving.
- Learn the warning signs and risk factors for domestic violence, and learn how to safely remove yourself from dangerous relationships.
- Be careful about what you post on social media about yourself and your plans—criminals are looking there, too.
- Be careful who you associate with. People who unnecessarily expose you to risk probably don’t have your best interests in mind.
- Practice self-care, and be aware of the effect that tragic events in our community can have on each of us.
Watch an August 27 news briefing by HPD on the suspect wanted for Single’s murder here: twitter.com/houstonpolice/status/1166430651903463424.
This article appears in the September edition of OutSmart magazine.