Discovering Crystal: Photographer Gioncarlo Valentine remembers Crystal Edmonds, a trans woman killed in 2016

In 2016, 27 transgender people were murdered, making it the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans. Twenty-two of these individuals were trans-identified people of color. Crystal Edmonds was number 22. Growing up in Baltimore, I'd seen Crystal around a few times. Her family and friends tell me she was a beautiful, hilarious, fiercely loyal, and incredibly supportive person.

After news of her death started to spread online, I was heartbroken. Crystal was found on Sept. 16, shot twice in the back of her head in West Baltimore. She was rushed to the hospital, where she later died. It felt far too close for comfort. I've done a lot of work in the trans community of Baltimore and now in New York. At the time of hearing about Crystal's murder, I was beginning a photo project on Black trans men and women. The project explores their transitions, happiest moments, struggles, love lives, and traumas.

My personal connection to the trans community goes back over 10 years. At 16, I felt as though I was trans. I dressed in traditionally female clothes, wore my hair in a traditionally female way, and wore makeup through high school up until my second year of college. In college I had many trans friends and I started to learn about the dynamics of gender performance and identity, as well as the gender binary. It became clear to me that I was not trans, I felt completely at home in my body and in my gender assignment. However, I could not forget my experiences or the experiences of other transgender people.

As I searched for more information about Crystal's murder online, I noticed that the only image circulating was her mug shot. My first reaction to this was anger. Crystal has a public Facebook page. There you can find images of a smiling, convivial, outgoing Black woman. Her rich and beautiful dark brown skin. Hair styles, colors, and cuts varying by the month from silky black bobs to wavy brown wraps. You can find her there surrounded by her family and friends. Why use a mug shot? What message was the media trying to convey about her? This seemed like lazy journalism, at best, and racial bias at worst.

I couldn't stop thinking about it or her. Crystal's murder shook me out of complacency and shocked me back into action. I felt compelled to document some of her story. A few weeks later I was back in Baltimore and I wanted to track her family down. I reached out to them through a common friend and I was connected to Crystal's aunt Vanessa.

Vanessa was warm and enveloping, kind and reassuring. She cooked enormous meals every Sunday and welcomed people into her home with dignity and grace. When I called her to see about photographing her family, she agreed with genuine excitement, calling me "baby" and "sugar" every chance she got. Talking with her made me feel that deep warmth of Baltimore.

Upon arriving to her home I felt a great deal of sadness and conflict. My initial worry was if it was too soon. It had only been about five weeks since Crystal's murder. Her sisters hadn't even been back upstairs to her room since the funeral. As I got out of the car I was nervous, but as soon as she opened the door, Ms. Vanessa's embrace felt more like a welcome home.

Ms. Vanessa, all 5'6" of her, had a gold necklace, gold rings and bracelets, gold hoop earrings, two shining gold teeth, and short brown hair dyed blonde on top. She looked happy to meet me, but as soon as she reentered the house the tragedy became real to her again. She appeared to be both somehow deeply in mourning and filled with joy.

The family had a video playing on their desktop with a slideshow of Crystal and 'Tru' by singer Lloyd playing in the background. Images of Crystal at clubs, as a child, with her family and with her friends flashed across the screen. Crystal's younger cousin Asia, who was more like a little sister, and her cousin Jamal were huddled in front of the screen, both welcoming and somber. When I asked Crystal's aunt Vanessa about the song choice she said, "It describes her perfectly. She was always her true self. And we accepted her and loved her no matter what."

Her eyes watered slightly, but she pushed through.

To her family, Crystal was known by a few names. Because, as a child, she had a bump on her face, they called her Bumpkis, Bumpy, and then Bumpers. But mostly they called her Ms. Crystal. Now and then the family referred to her by her birth name, or as many in the trans community call it, her dead name. Deadnaming is the act of referring to a trans person by their birth name instead of their chosen name. Some of the family members also had an issue using Crystal's preferred pronouns. However, they spoke highly and honestly of her. You could see how fresh this trauma was on all of the family's faces. Any time Crystal's sister spoke of her, she would fight back tears.

The familiar way that Ms. Vanessa glided through the kitchen, cooking eight separate dishes—baked macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, barbecued chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and more—was both a juggling act and an act of tradition. To me, Sunday dinner is a part of the fabric of Black culture. It is a physical representation of the complicated idea of home.

"Crystal was an incredible cook, but her specialty was baking," Ms. Vanessa said, grinning from ear to ear. "She loved to bake. When holidays came she baked everything. I don't even want to think about the holidays this year. It's gonna be hard."

I asked Ms. Vanessa about the day of Crystal's murder: "I got a phone call after five in the morning asking me if I'd heard anything about Bumpers getting shot. I didn't believe it. I started calling and checking all of the hospitals for gunshot victims. After getting the run around I found out she was at Sinai. They had her as John Doe, because she didn't have any identification. She was alive, two bullets in the back of the head and she was alive. My baby waited on me."

After eating a meal that can only be described as divine, the family gathered in the living room into a circle to share with me loving memories of Crystal. They started by talking about her before she came out as gay, and then when she came out again as trans.

"When she was five we knew," her sister said. "We would tell Mom that [she] might be gay, but she was in denial. We saw it happening. My shoes, my clothes, my hair would be disappearing, and we'd find it in her room because she would be trying it on. We knew. And by the time junior prom rolled around she told us she wanted to wear a dress, so we started looking for dresses."

The ladies in the family seemed absolutely embracing and supportive of her transition, but not everyone felt that way.

The transition was particularly difficult for Crystal's father Tony. I accompanied Tony to Crystal's grave. She had recently been buried and the family had not yet finalized a gravestone. We had to search for her burial spot, as there was no marker for her at the time. When we located Crystal's burial space, Tony's girlfriend placed a small American Flag to temporarily mark the location. Throughout the ordeal Tony tried to appear stoic, but I got the sense that he was distraught. When asked about Crystal's transition, Tony admitted, "I was upset about it because I was [her] father. Of course I still had love for [her]. I'd see [her] out in the streets and at the mall and stuff like that and I would hide from [her], because I was ashamed of [her]. I grew into it eventually. Everything got better between us."

Transgender people face pervasive violence, limited access to healthcare, police brutality, sexual violence, and a lack of employment discrimination protections that are incomparable to any other group. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report, the largest survey ever conducted that examined the experiences of transgender folks in the U.S., found that the life expectancy for Black transgender women is about 32 to 34 years old. Earlier this year, Alphonza Watson, 38 years old, was shot and killed in North Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the police themselves often mistreat trans folks. A subsection of the Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department titled "BPD's Treatment of Transgender Individuals" begins, "We received allegations of BPD officers' mistreatment of transgender individuals and have concerns that BPD's interactions with transgender individuals reflect underlying unlawful gender bias. We heard allegations that BPD officers make disparaging and inappropriate comments to transgender individuals, and that BPD officers refuse to acknowledge transgender women as women." Specifically, it details a December 2015 traffic stop wherein a transgender woman was misgendered and then harassed in police custody. During the stop, she was asked about her pronoun and told the officer that her pronoun was "she," and the officer still referred to her as "him." When this woman arrived at intake the report goes on, a supervisor (who was a woman) said, "I am not here for this shit. I am not searching that." When the woman objected to be talked to like that, the supervisor told her, "like I said, I don't know you. I don't know if you're a boy or a girl. And I really don't care, I am not searching you."

Not long after the release of the DOJ report, the Baltimore Transgender Alliance offered this comment on Facebook: "Transgender women of color endure the brunt of the BPD's excessive harassment and intentional dehumanization out lined [sic] in the DOJ report. Hopefully, this report will assist in our ongoing fight for transgender women's lives in this city through holding police accountable, building infrastructure to meet our basic needs, and continually centering the transgender and GNC voices of Baltimore."

As America enters a unique and abrasive period of intolerance, racism, and discrimination, one can only imagine how these numbers will change. How many more transgender people will be murdered due to hatred, ignorance, and insecurity? How many trans people will be forced into unsavory sex work due to the limited protections they have in many states across the country? Crystal lived a beautiful life and impacted many people, but it was cut too short. Her life matters. Her murder matters. Her family deserves justice.

Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg.

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