Layleen Cubilette-Polanco had experienced some rough patches in her 27 years but had tried to change course, seeking to switch out of previous jobs as a go-go dancer and sex worker for employment in places like McDonald’s and Walgreens, her sister said.
She never completed that journey. Cubilette-Polanco died in June of complications from epilepsy in New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail where she spent her final two months, unable to make $500 bail.
On Wednesday, transgender advocates across the United States commemorated people like Cubilette-Polanco for the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Vigils such as one in New York that culminated in front of the Stonewall Inn LGBTQ landmark drew attention to at least 22 transgender people, almost all of them black women, who have been killed so far in 2019. A similar number have been killed in each of the past seven years, as tracked by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the United States.
Globally, at least 311 were killed in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, the second-highest total on record, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project of the Berlin-based group Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide.
Of those 130 were killed in Brazil and 63 in Mexico, the project said.
The U.S. campaign made special note of Cubilette-Polanco. Though she was not a homicide victim, her story illustrates the insecurity of trans women of color, who are more likely to be unemployed and lack access to healthcare.
After a youth spent helping others, whether rescuing stray animals or bringing home runaway kids needing a place to stay, she decided to start helping herself, sister Melania Brown said.
“The last couple of months of her life, she wanted the change. She wanted to get a real job. She wanted to fulfill herself in society, and society let her down,” said Brown, who believed that discrimination never gave the Dominican-born U.S. citizen a fair chance in the job market.
Cubilette-Polanco was arrested in April on charges of misdemeanor assault and theft over an altercation with a taxi driver. Bail was set at $500 because of a 2017 prostitution arrest, local media reported, citing arrest records.
She lived with epilepsy and schizophrenia, according to a lawsuit her family filed against New York City’s Department of Correction.
The Human Rights Campaign has recorded at least 157 homicides of transgender people since 2013, nearly all of them women of color.
More than 100 demonstrators gathered in New York on Wednesday night to remember those slain, meeting at the Christopher Street pier, where transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992, and marching to the Stonewall, site of the 1969 uprising considering the birth of the modern queer rights movement.
“We need to invest more in our trans community. Don’t just send me roses when I’m gone,” said Kiara St. James, executive director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
The names of victims were read, and people dressed in white, their faces veiled, held up portraits of the dead.
Another speaker, who goes only by the name Synthia, said she had been the victim of a hateful act of aggression in which a man pulled a gun on her.
“I survived that day knowing my name could have been on the list I just read,” she said. “So for me, Transgender Day Remembrance is about living survivors that walk these streets daily just trying to survive.”