The first thing you noticed about Dejanay Stanton is her hair.
In one video, it was styled pin-straight and dark brown, though the sunlight teased it out to a golden sheen. As she twirled around on the grass, it cascaded past her hips and swished freely in the wind, almost like it had a life of its own. Other times, it would be crimped or in soft curls, in a bob with blonde tips or, toward the end of her life, dyed scarlet.
That flashy color was how Terry Jones, a close friend, knew the woman found with a gunshot wound last week in Bronzeville was her. Someone who witnessed the scene in the 4000 block of South King Drive had posted on Facebook, “Check on your people. A lady has been shot. Red hair and yellow nails.”
“Everyone, no matter what their gender or sexuality, knew her,” Jones, 25, said. “She was loved and never did nothing to nobody. So it was a shock.”
Stanton, a 24-year-old transgender woman, passed away minutes later at Stroger Hospital. Her death was ruled a homicide, and Chicago police said an investigation was ongoing.
It was the 18th homicide of a trans American this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign — though actual numbers are likely higher given the possibility of victims being misgendered in death. Last year the group reported 28 homicides of transgender people.
On Aug. 30th, the same day Stanton died, another trans woman was fatally shot in Shreveport, Louisiana. In Chicago last year, Tiara Richmond, a 24-year-old black trans woman, was slain in Englewood.
“It’s a constant fear that a trans woman, especially a person of color, could be killed at any moment,” said LaSaia Wade, executive director of the Chicago trans advocacy group Brave Space Alliance and former mentor to Stanton. “That’s not just in Chicago; it’s around the country.”
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the largest study on transgender people conducted in the U.S., found almost half of its respondents said they have been verbally harassed and nearly one in 10 were physically attacked due to their gender identity.
Though prejudice is behind many of these killings, there are systemic disadvantages that could also put trans people in harm’s way. The 2015 survey reported staggering disparities for the group in employment, housing, health care and criminal justice.
Wade believes education about gender identity is a crucial step to ensuring trans people feel safe. She said transphobia happens when other people are angry at the sight of someone living outside of society’s definition of “normal.”
“We pushed ourselves out there more and more, especially with the rise of social media, and normally we don’t,” Wade said. “It’s the only way to let the world know we are people too.”
The violent end to Stanton’s life stands in stark contrast to all she embodied, said Jones, who grew up with her in Englewood.
Jones said Stanton never had a bad word to say about anyone and was a family-first person. She lived with her mother, step-dad and four siblings, and every day she told her mom she loved her. Whenever someone was short on money, she always paid for that person’s meal or drinks.
“There was a sweet spirit about her,” Jones said. “Always inspirational or encouraging. She was always living life.”
Stanton also loved to travel, Jones said. One of her favorite destinations was New York City, where she’d go shopping and restock her much-coveted wardrobe.
“She was a girl who loved style,” Wade said. “She was trying to live her best life. It was like a breath of fresh air.”
More than 100 people attended a candlelight vigil for Stanton on Friday evening, clutching purple, pink and silver balloons in front of a wall with her nickname spelled out in gold: “Dada.”
About 12 hours earlier, as Stanton was leaving her house, Jones said she told her mother, “Ma, I love you. I’ll be back.” She never returned.