Who Cares About Islan Nettles?


By Tim Murphy

What happens when a young trans woman is murdered in the street, opposite a police station?

Photography by Alessandro Simonetti

The weather in Manhattan on January 30 was bitter, frigid — not the kind of day you go out into if you don’t have to, least of all to a windswept plaza in the shadow of the bunker-like headquarters of the New York City Police Department. But that afternoon, a bundled-up crowd of more than 100 people, about half of them transgender women of color, massed there for more than an hour, holding signs that read "Transgender Lives Matter And Justice For Islan Nettles". In the crowd was Janet Mock, a former People magazine editor who was about to publish her memoir, Redefining Realness, about her life as a transgender woman. She was with Melissa Sklarz and Madison St. Claire, the trans women who were advocating for trans rights in New York City years before boldfaced names like Chaz Bono, Chelsea Manning, and Laverne Cox helped thrust the issue into the spotlight.

Suddenly, a woman in outrageous red cat’s-eye sunglasses, a cobalt coat, pink scarf, and black tights came stalking toward the crowd, shouting, “Trans lives matter!” It was a local transgender actress Daisy Lopez. Her peers began whooping. Lopez looked at the wall of NYPD cops there to patrol the rally in their dark blue uniforms, expressions impassive. “You fucking saw it!” she screamed at them. “Everybody saw it! Do your jobs!”

“Do your jobs!” the crowd started chanting. Despite the freezing cold, the rally was on.

Its ostensible purpose was to demand a full account and update from the NYPD and the office of New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. on the investigation into the death of Islan Nettles [pronounced élan], a pretty, young, transgender woman from Harlem. Shortly after midnight on August 17, 2013, Nettles, finally in possession of her own apartment after periods of homelessness and newly embarked on a career in design, was walking with friends in Harlem when what apparently began as flirting with a group of young men took a bad turn as the men realized the women were transgender.

According to several accounts, one young man struck Nettles to the ground and beat her unconscious. Some accounts say that police, summoned from a nearby station by Nettles’s friends, had to pull the young man off of her. Nettles was taken to Harlem Hospital in an ambulance and declared brain-dead four days later.