Diamond Woods case reminds us of work to be done

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Six years ago, Aamina Morrison says she nearly lost her life to the man accused of killing Diamond Woods earlier this month.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Six years ago, Aamina Morrison says she nearly lost her life to the man accused of killing Diamond Woods earlier this month.
Posted: July 26, 2013

MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE there have been so many rallies lately - for Trayvon Martin, for victims of urban violence. But there was a familiar attitude among those who stood vigil for a transgender woman allegedly butchered by a john in Strawberry Mansion:

The media ignore us, and when they don't, they disrespect and misrepresent us. Society views us as disposable, expendable.

I didn't totally disagree. But, as I stood in the crowd listening to friends and advocates mourn Diamond Woods, I wondered: If we can't even manage to care about the deaths of people we should be able to relate to - children - what chance do people often viewed as spectacles and freaks have at getting our attention, let alone our sympathy?

To the transgender community that gathered Tuesday at LOVE Park, Diamond was a gregarious and generous friend who struggled with the same issues as many of them. They had come out on the other side. Diamond wasn't so lucky.

But - and forgive my bluntness - to most of the world, she was just some trick-turning, drug-taking tranny. It's cruel and heartless and speaks more to that ongoing conversation we need to have about whose lives we value and whose we don't.

It's also just the latest battle in a war over respect and representation that many in the LGBT community have waged for years.

"As a gay man, I remember the media coverage of lesbian and gay and bisexual lives in the '70s, '80s and early '90s, when we too were devalued and viewed as less than human," said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center on Spruce Street near 13th.

That has changed - mostly, anyway. And Bartlett said it started with the media changing the way they spoke about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. And by moving away from just telling stories about them as victims of crimes to showing them as real people.

Six years before Diamond Woods was butchered and her body parts scattered in an empty North Philly lot, Aamina Morrison said she nearly died at the hands of the man charged with killing Diamond.

"I hadn't seen that man in years," Morrison said of Charles "Nolan" Sargent. "But as soon as I saw his picture and looked in his eyes . . . I knew. I knew that he did it, and I knew what he was capable of, and I knew that it was the same guy that I almost lost my life to about six or seven years ago."

At the time, Morrison - co-director of TIP, the Trans-health Information Project - was doing what her friend Diamond and many other transgender women are forced to do: sell their bodies to survive.

"My story could have ended there," she said. "But it didn't." And as I looked around that rally, I saw transgender men and women who are so much more than what we in the media have sometimes reduced them to.

In May, Mayor Nutter signed a groundbreaking bill that strengthened the city's laws to provide equal treatment to everyone in Philadelphia regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

As wonderful as that is, clearly there is more ground to break.

Police behavior in the 2002 death of transgender entertainer Nizah Morris in Center City still has not been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Other transgender Philadelphians have been killed and their deaths unsolved, advocates say.

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said the department is meeting with members of the LGBT community to help train officers in relating to them.

While those folks have some real concerns about how they are portrayed in the media, I also really hope they noticed how many reporters were at that rally, stumbling as many of us were to use the right pronouns, to show the proper respect.

At the rally, a woman approached me and asked if I was "there to repair the damage" after many were unhappy at how Diamond was described by some news organizations.

I told her that I actually hadn't written about Diamond yet. But, I warned, she should give it a minute, because I was sure I'd step in it somehow.

Sometimes that happens when you break new ground.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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