The trial of trans woman Islan Nettles’ murderer lasted a few short days. It was a quick injection of an ongoing trauma, not only for Islan’s mother Delores and her loved ones, but also for Black transgender people in the United States, especially trans women and femmes.
After two years and seven months of mourning and remembering, justice never arrived in Manhattan Supreme Court. On Monday, April 4, James Dixon pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Nettles’ death and avoided a lengthy trial, in which he faced a 25-year prison sentence. Because he took a plea deal, Dixon is expected to be handed a term of 12 years.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said in a statement that he hoped that this news would provide comfort to Nettles’ family and friends, “and affirms my office’s commitment to protecting members of the LGBTQ community.”
Those who practice and enforce the law frequently offer words and sentiments that assume we Black trans people have built a utopia of happiness and celebration, but this is not the case. Dixon’s plea provides no victory.
“Islan was killed because of who she was and how she was dressed.” –Delores Nettles, Islan’s mother
Nettles was 21 years old, a talented fashion designer who was just beginning a position at H&M and aspired to launch her own line. She had just moved into her own apartment in Harlem. In the New York Times, Daequan Andino, her friend and fashion mentor, said, “She was finally going to start living her life. Every time I saw her in the street, I was like, ‘Girl, you are doing it.'”
But as her destiny began to shine, it was stolen on August 17, 2013, after she was harassed and pummeled into the ground in front of a police station. Days later, she was taken off life support. Nettles was murdered — not only because of her gender expression, but because she navigated a world conditioned to violate her and people like her.
In the same year, other Black trans women, such as Milan Boudreaux of Metarie, Louisiana; Eyricka Morgan of New Brunswick, New Jersey and Kelly Young of Baltimore were murdered. Though the news of Black trans women’s murders was was not new, 2013 marked a record year for making these losses more visible. In response to Nettles’ murder, the Trans Women of Color Collective was founded in Washington, D.C.
“This sends a message that these crimes won’t keep going unpunished as they were in the past.” –Cecilia Gentili, coordinator for Apicha Community Health Center’s trans health program
In Dixon’s case, and in general, we Black trans women recognize that Black cis men are our biggest terrorists. His plea deal, along with his reduced sentence, is a reward that erases the severity of his crimes. First, this was murder, not manslaughter. Dixon allowed his fragile masculinity and the teasing received from his friends that night to walk a backwards tango in his unwise and sexualized attraction to trans women. His uncomfortable feelings led to an intentional killing.
Second, he should have also been charged with a hate crime. Every single Black trans woman murdered, homicide or suicide, has lost her life because of hatred.
Dixon’s punishment is unsatisfactory for several reasons. There is no accountability or rehabilitation for his transphobic prejudice and transmisogynistic actions and language. His plea deal came about because of conflicting statements he made during the murder investigation. Nettles’ murder is one of very few to be brought to a courtroom. The number of Black trans women murdered in America over the last few years gives us no choice but to name it a genocide. Victims’ families have not seen the killers of their daughters, sisters, and friends arraigned, let alone convicted.
When he completes his sentence, it is unlikely Dixon will leave prison a changed man, for there will be no resources to remove and rewire his problematic and terroristic behavior. It leaves open the possibility that he will become violent again.
“I don’t care about what they do. I just don’t wanna be fooled. My pride is at stake.” –James Dixon
Dixon is like many Black cis men, most of whom remain complicit in their transphobia and refuse to dismantle their own violent shackles. He is a pawn for white supremacy, meaning his actions in court played out well for the corrupt American legal system. In exchange for murdering another Black person, also a trans woman, he will be given a lighter backpack to carry in prison and will still leave a jail cell at a young age. That is the destructive game of white supremacy, which says none of us should be here. The existences of Black trans women are not for the gaze or approval of cis Black men. That is the destructive game of white supremacy, which says none of us should be here. The existences of Black trans women are not for the gaze or approval of cis Black men.
We have a strong history of taking back our narrative and developing the resistance and joy needed to survive in a society historically armed to discard us. Because of this wrongful alignment, many of our abusers roam freely. On that August night, Dixon was not alone. He was accompanied by seven men, all of whom are just as guilty. All of whom felt “fooled” and disturbed, all of whom did nothing. They stood as voyeurs, watching Dixon act in confidence on something they wished their fists and legs could do.
Black cis men have nothing at stake. They do not have automatic access to our bodies or companionship, or the right to reduce us to sexual service. They must accept the responsibility of unlearning abuse and terrorism.
“It pains me that young men in our society are still being conditioned to measure their manhood based on antiquated standards steeped in homophobia, transphobia and misogyny and their ability to violently dominate others.” –Beverly Tillery, Executive Director of the Anti-Violence Project
Black cis men are inherently transphobic. What does this accountability look like for them? What work can we do to prevent attacks and murders towards women like us? Black trans women can continue to be the leaders, activists, artists, and healers that we are. We can hold space for ourselves and other trans people in love, resistance and defense because it is impossible to kill and harm every single one of us.
Our Black cis brothers must undergo a re-education, not just to support their “cis-ters” but ALL of their sisters and to establish brotherhood and inclusion to Black trans men without question. It is for them to understand that gender is simple and complicated, violence is cowardly and deadly and that call-outs are mandatory to become better brothers, fathers, friends and, for some of us, partners.
Lastly, it is Black cis men’s duty to comprehend that our chains are all interconnected, held by a Paul Revere in the sky. When their voices call for freedom and the abolition of our systemic circumstances, it isn’t just for them. If that’s their intention, those things will never come. The voices of Black trans women have always held power. These same voices chant the name of Islan Nettles and others who have perished. These same voices uplift our Black trans brilliance. These same voices call for Black cis men’s liberation, too, so they might as well drop the hypermasculinity and fight with us.