Remembering Brandy Martell, the Transgender Woman Killed in Oakland
I am a woman of Hispanic descent. My parents came here from Colombia and Cuba. Throughout my life, I never really faced discrimination as a Hispanic. I've faced more adversity for being female. During the 2008 election, I picketed against Proposition 8, in San Luis Obispo (where I lived at the time) during a Thursday night farmer's market. One night, a man approached me in a hostile and aggressive way, getting right up in my face. I don't remember what his line of reasoning was, but I do remember him yelling "you people."
photo by Tiffany Woods Brandy Martell
"You people are what's wrong with this country!" he yelled.
I realized what he hated about me: He thought I was one of them -- one of the gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, or transgender people who have filled my life since I was a child. At that moment I realized what a hate crime was and just how ugly ignorance makes people. I bring this up because a hate crime recently happened and I have to talk about it.
On April 29 at 5:30 a.m., a beautiful young woman was gunned down on a street in Oakland. (See our post about the crime that ran the next day on The Snitch.) On the corner of 13th and Franklin is where Brandy Martell's short life came to a horrifc end. A lot remains unknown, but below is what I've gathered from witnesses and people who knew Brandy.
This part of Oakland is a cab stand. It is also a hangout for transgender people; Brandy was there in her car with three other transgender women. Around 3:30 a.m., a couple of gentlemen walked by them. Judging by their clothes, they'd been at a nightclub. They made catcalls and aggressively hit on the women; one was very interested in Brandy, repeating how fine she was. The men wanted the women to come with them, but the women realized that the men did not "know what their T is" -- "T," or truth, is slang for a woman who is trans.
The ladies then asked, "You know we're trans, right?" When they gave them the information, the pick-up ended. The men went up around a bookstore toward 14th Street. Around 5:30 a.m., the men returned, and the women were still in the car. One man opened fire on Brandy Martell, killing her.
Brandy Martell loved people. She worked for Tri-City Health Center as a peer advocate. She was a woman in every way. As I spend more time in the trans community, I realize we are born who we are, but the genitalia attached to us is another matter entirely. When I moved to San Francisco and I started to write about the sex-positive community, a theme became apparent. Trans people have it really fucking hard. Harder than most, and they pay a very high price for simply being who they are. Trans people are still asked to sit at the back of the bus, as it were. People can be deeply afraid of what they don't understand, and unfortunately a lot of people simply do not understand that genitals are not what makes us human.
Last week, I went to a celebration of Brandy Martell's life that was held on the same corner where her life ended. A public funeral was held at C.P. Bannon Mortuary by Martell's family. So why, you ask, why was I on the corner of 13th and Franklin?
Brandy Martell's family buried her under her given name, Milton Massey Jr. Some people felt that they owed it to Brandy to celebrate the person she was -- a woman. These people did not congregate in order to be disrespectful to her family. They were trying to be respectful to how they feel Brandy would have wanted to be honored.
Brandy Martell's assailant shot her in her genitals before he shot her twice more in the torso. Police were just minutes away, but unfortunately, EMTs were not as close. Many witnesses are said to have been present, but it's hard to come by information. Many witnessed have no desire to talk about what happened. Their friend was murdered in front of them. Beyond that, trans people are marginalized, treated badly, and this is not the first of their friends to die this year. One person did speak to me, though, on the condition of anonymity. On the night of Brandy's murder he performed CPR and tried to help her.
This is what he told me:
"I came from down the corner ... I heard shots going off and I started to run, thinking I was running away from the shots. I ended up running into it. Brandy's car was parked. ... The back door opened and somebody jumped out running. The car took off, and ... I heard rat tat tat tat tat tat. The car stopped on the curb, and I ran up to the car in the middle of the street, because that was when the shooting started again. The car stopped.
"When I got to the driver's side, I saw Brandy laying on the steering wheel, and when the door opened her arm fell out. I walked up to the seat, and I noticed the whole top of her torso was bleeding and the bottom had holes. I put my hands on the holes to keep the pressure on. I took my shirt off and wrapped it around the top of her, because I wasn't sure exactly where she was hit. When I did that I heard police coming. They stood around me while I was doing CPR, and they said they couldn't help me, because they are not authorized. I had already started CPR procedures, so I had to finish myself. I stood there doing the CPR, trying to hold the holes.
"I'm checking the pulse, and one of the officers came to the passenger side and lifted her arm up. In Brandy's hand she had her cell phone, and the phone was frozen from where it had broken. The last call was to her ma. The phone was still in her hand, and when they lifted it up, there was still tension in her arm. So the officer got back from the car and stood back. I saw her eyes roll back and I knew it was over. And then the phone slid out of her hand. My reaction was to grab it before it fell.
"They pulled me off of her onto the curb, and then they pulled her body out. The other officer walked to his car and put a sheet over Brandy. The paramedics pulled up. One was about to get out when the cop walked up to the paramedic, and said the coroner is on his way. The paramedic rolled his window back up, and kept driving."
About 40 of us were on this same corner during last week's memorial. Brandy's boss Tiffany Woods explained why we were there and not at the church. Woods was very kind and very clear about what she believes Brandy would have wanted. Woods stated that this is not a time to play the blame game, especially with the Oakland police. She said that from her perspective, they have made this crime a priority. But there is a much bigger issue here, beyond catching the men responsible for the murder of this beautiful young woman. Why is a street corner an acceptable place to use as a hangout? Why don't we have more community places for trans people to gather?
photo by Tiffany Woods Brandy Martell worked at the Tri-City Health Center.
When you are different or seen as different, the world is not a nice place. While most of us have experienced teasing, not all of us know what it is to basically walk around with a target on your back. This murder has stirred up a lot of emotions from a lot of people, but what deeply saddens me is how commonplace this type of crime seem to be. This woman wasn't murdered in a random act of violence. What happened to Brandy was a hate crime, and it was what she worked throughout her life to prevent.
There is a Transgender Day of Remembrance every December, to honor all the transgender people who've been murdered in the past year. Brandy was one of the people responsible for this day of remembrance. It deeply saddens me that her name will be read off this December as yet another victim.
I wonder, if the killer had been more educated about transgender people, whether this would have happened. If he had been taught from a young age that everyone is different, and that is okay, would he have still murdered her? We don't all have to be the same, but no one deserves to be permanently flagged as an object of abuse simply because they are different.
A thought that keeps returning to me is Brandy's last call on her cell phone to her mother. I wondered if she spoke with her mother on this night. I wonder if she called her before or during what happened. I wonder whether she got to tell her mom she loved her, or that she was scared. I wonder what her mother heard and how that will affect her the rest of her life. No one should ever have to bury their own child for any reason, and I cannot even begin to imagine how her family is coping with this.
While I understand there is controversy regarding the name her family chose to bury her under, none of us is in a position to pass judgment. Her parents welcomed a baby boy into the world, and they are honoring her in their way. Grief and death bring out the worst in people, because there is nothing that can turn back time.
No matter what any of us believe in terms of faith or God, none of us knows what happens when someone dies. Death is permanent. I think that is why grief is such a horrible emotion. No matter how much closure you get, that person is simply never coming back. So remember that people are trying to do the best they can, and no one has a perfect answer, especially to a crime as awful as this.
We need to be kinder as a community and as a people. We need to look at all of this violence and try to stop it. Hate crimes should not happen to anyone. At last week's memorial, after the moment of silence we observed for Brandy, Woods asked us all to make some noise. She asked us to make noise in celebration of Brandy's life and everything she had tried in her life to do. Brandy was a volunteer, a humanitarian, and her life was cut way too short. Brandy wanted people to be educated and supported. She wanted the world to be a better place. I refuse to believe her death was in vain, and I can say in all sincerity that even though I never met her, I will never forget her or her story.
There has been other public recognition. Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett is reported to have adjourned a session in memory of Martell on May 7. The Oakland City Council will reportedly do the same tonight (Tuesday, May 15) and encouraging people to sign up for public comment between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There was a rally against hate crime and violence Sunday in Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza.
This crime is a shocking reminder of why I write and why I allow people a window into my community. I hope that by sharing things that people don't know about or understand, those things will have less potential to frighten or provoke. Rest in peace, Brandy Martell. You will be missed.
Vanessa L. Pinto (aka Fleur De Lis SF) documented a year of her sex life on her blog Whatever You Desire. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a contributing writer with Whore! Magazine. She has a degree in political science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.