Vigil for Islan Nettles

The vigil for Islan Nettles, who died last week after being beaten into a coma and being declared brain dead, drew a crowd of hundreds to Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem.  Nettles was a 21-year-old transwoman who was pursuing a career in fashion.

On August 17 Islan was walking with a transwoman friend when they encountered a group of men outside a Harlem police precinct station.  One of the men, Paris Wilson, 20, had recently friended Islan on Facebook.  Wilson reportedly began flirting with Nettles, until one of his friends yelled that she had been born a man.  The friends began teasing Wilson until he attacked her.  As he was beating her, the “friends” shouted anti-trans and anti-gay epithets.  He continued to pound on her face after her head had been driven into the sidewalk.  Wilson was arrested after police finally arrived.  He was charged with misdemeanor assault and released on $2,000 bail.

Wilson’s mother took one of his friends to Harlem’s 32nd Precinct and forced him to confess to the crime.

She brought this innocent kid in to the [32nd] Precinct [in Harlem] and he confessed.

The dude who confessed said that he was too drunk at the time to remember the crime.  But eyewitness descriptions did not match this guy, so police have dismissed his confession.

At the vigil:

I feel like I am her.  Honestly, it’s really horrific, really scary.

–Tamara Williams, 24, adding that she has been repeatedly harassed, bullied and followed both in the Bronx, where she lives, and in Harlem, where she went to school

She was artsy, energetic.  You never know if maybe she could have been the next transgender city council woman.  We think we’re beyond this violence, but then we’re transported back into the past again and again.

–Jeffrey Padilla, a health educator at Iris House, an AIDS advocacy group where Islan volunteered

Carmen Neely, director of Harlem Pride, opened the vigil by asking the crowd to remember that the evening was a vigil for Islan and her family, not a political rally.  The rally was organized by the Nettles family, Manhattan Burough President Scott stringer, who is running for city comptroller against Elliot Spitzer, and gay rights groups.

We all know that things need to change and things need to happen and that’s very important.  But tonight, let’s focus on Islan, her life, and listening to her family and her mother address us all.

–Carmen Neely

The event was disrupted when Vaughn Taylor-akutagawa of Gay Men of African Descent, referred to Nettles as “he.”  This elicited shouts from the crowd.

She was a woman!

Gay Men Of African Descent shouldn’t be speaking for trans people, period.

My girlfriends died last year and the year before.  And none of you came, none of you!

–Mariah Lopez, transgender activist

Taylor-Akutagawa said later that working with the transgender community was “still a learning process for me.”

We do our best to include them, but what wasn’t being effectively communicated yesterday is that the family determined who was going to speak, and why.


At the end of the vigil, which included only one transgender person until then, actress Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black, took the microphone.

I know there are lots of people out there who are upset that she’s been called by the wrong pronoun.  That hurts me, too.  I stand here as a trans woman of color and my heart aches for this loss.  I think that what the trans community needs to hear is that our lives matter.


That drew huge applause.

The next day, Cox was interviewed about the event.  She said that the intentions were good, but when speakers referred to Islan as a man, it hurt.

I know as a trans woman, and I think so many trans women in the audience understand, that when we’re misgendered, that is an act of violence for us.  It’s a part of the violence that lead to Islan’s death.


Eventually enough has to be enough.  I don’t know what’s wrong with some people, why who I am or who transgendered people are is offensive to them, but at the end of the day I don’t really care.  It is not OK for people to act out their feelings in a violent way.

–Openly Lesbian Mayoral Candidate Christine Quinn

In 2013, for us to still be stuck in that stigma, and society to still be so angry because a person chooses to be what their heart desires is very unfortunate.

–Nicole Bowles, transgender activists

It saddens me that a 21-year-old girl, that her life was taken away for no good reason, because of hatred, because of misunderstanding.


Police are reconsidering the charges against Wilson now that Nettles has died.

The District Attorney, the police are investigating the specifics of this crime and are investigating this as a potential hate crime.  Now, they’re going to continue to do that investigation but we have another situation that there is a very real possibility that someone’s life is over, over because people didn’t like who they were.

Taking away somebody’s life that you don’t like for who they are, feeling so affirmed in your hatred that you get to act it out so violently, that’s not what New York is about…Enough has to be enough.


He deserves to rot because he took a life.

I accepted him no matter what because I loved him at the end of the day.  My son was a beautiful woman.

–Delores Nettles, mother

An attack against one person, or one community, is an assault against all New Yorkers.

We ask all New Yorkers to come together, to embrace our differences and to denounce hate violence.

–joint statement of the City Council


    • Robyn on August 31, 2013 at 00:43

    …it is an insult to all of us.

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