Editor’s Note: Watch “United Shades of America,” Sundays at 10 pm ET on CNN.
Dallas resident Stephanie Houston was driving from the store with her teenage son one day six years ago when he blurted out words that changed their lives forever.
“Oh by the way,” Pierre, then 17, told his mom. “I’m going to live my life as a woman now.”
Houston was stunned, but she maintained her composure and tried to keep her eyes on the road.
“I almost wrecked my car. I said, ‘Well, how the hell are you going to do that?’” she told W. Kamau Bell, host of the CNN original series “United Shades of America,” which explores the challenges facing Black trans women in Sunday’s episode.
Soon after, Pierre became a transgender woman named Muhlaysia Booker. In April 2019, she was attacked by a man in the parking lot of a Dallas apartment complex as some people shouted anti-gay slurs, an incident captured on cellphone video.
A month after that, she was shot dead in the street. She was 23.
Booker’s slaying is part of a disturbing trend. Activists say deadly violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people has risen in recent years, and many of the victims were transgender Black women.
Booker was one of at least 27 transgender and nonconforming people killed in 2019 in the US, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Of those, at least 21 were Black transgender women.
Last year, in the middle of a pandemic, at least 44 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed in the US – the highest number since the Human Rights Campaign started tracking data in 2013. Of those, about half were transgender women of color, a majority of them Black.
So far in 2021, the HRC has counted at least 28 transgender or gender nonconforming people killed, the highest number it’s recorded at this point in the year. At least 20 of them were Black or Brown trans women, said Alphonso David, president of the HRC, who added that the number of victims is likely higher because many such attacks go unreported or misreported.
“Fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color because they are at the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia,” David told CNN. “And they, unfortunately, are receiving the brunt of the violence in this country.”
Houston had to learn to accept her daughter
Houston recalls the day in May 2019 she got the call that her daughter had been shot dead.
“I had so much anger. I just kept trying to make sense of it,” she said. “Muhlaysia would tell me all the time (that) … she was willing to die for her respect and her transition.”
Before her death, Booker’s fight for respect tested their relationship in unexpected ways.
Houston shared an example from her daughter’s 18th birthday party, shortly after their argument in the car. Houston was hosting the party at their home when Booker walked in, wearing women’s clothes for the first time in front of her mother.
“I engaged for a little while and then I had to go lay down because it was too much for me,” she said. “I come from a Christianity background. That’s taught to be wrong. And as a parent, I didn’t know who to talk to. This is just stuff you don’t talk to people about.”
But Houston said she also noticed something different about her child. She was no longer the quiet and timid Pierre. As a transgender woman, her daughter was confident, expressive and full of life. She held video sessions on Facebook Live, where fans tuned in to hear her talk about everything from lipstick shades to her braids.
“She had this thing where she said, ‘mom, you gotta start calling me Muhlaysia.’ And I’m like, ‘no – Pierre.’ And she would always be like, ‘Ew, that punk, I don’t like that punk, that boy,’ ” Houston said. “Muhlaysia gave her this boost … this confidence.”
Houston described having an initial tug-of-war with her daughter over her new identity, which led to Booker avoiding coming home. But Houston missed her daughter and eventually persuaded her to come back.
“I started yielding. And I said, ‘OK, if you want to be Muhlaysia, I’ll call you Muhlaysia’,” Houston said.
By then, Booker was part of the local transgender community and even had a bonus trans mother, Tatiana Specks, from the LGBTQ family she’d found outside her home.
“I saw the leader in her. She wasn’t a follower,” Specks tells Bell in this week’s episode of his CNN show. “I was intrigued by her. I wanted to get to know her.”
New state laws are targeting transgender people
While there’s no comprehensive data, David said an estimated 2 million people in the United States identify as transgender or nonbinary – a gender identity that can’t be categorized as exclusively male or female.
Many transgender people have difficulty living full and open lives because of dehumanizing abuse and fear of being assaulted, David said.