On Jan. 6, Dana Martin was found dead in a ditch after a vehicle crash in Hope Hull, Alabama. The 31-year-old Black transgender woman had suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head, and since then, no arrests have been made in connection to the killing. The media ceremoniously dubbed her murder the first of the year for transgender women, continuing a sensationalizing trend of reporting over the last few years of increased transgender visibility.
While media outlets were reducing her to a statistic, the larger LGBTQ+ community was in mourning online yet again. It's become customary for reports on murdered trans women to gain a slight bit of traction with jarring headlines -- only to be forgotten about the next day. In response, initiatives like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) are rethinking how they deploy information about slain trans victims, specifically in defining them by more than just tragedy.
"I started seeing her narrative being erased like so many other times when something happens involving a trans woman's death," says LaLa Zannell, lead organizer for NCAVP's New York City chapter. "I was thinking, 'Where's her justice? Where's the people who loved her at? What does their support look like? What does her burial look like?' Because so many of [the families] have to start a GoFundMe or have a parent come in and take over and not respect their gender."
Martin's father, Orlando, was deeply affected by the coverage, revealing that he wasn't a fan of how his daughter's death was being portrayed. "What I would like to see, instead of all of this stuff about 'the first transgender person in Alabama,' is a focus on who [killed her]," he says. "Let's not focus on [her] being dressed as a woman. I don't think the police misidentified nothing. I'd never seen [her] dressed like a lady. [She'd] done it away from home."
It isn't uncommon for grieving parents of slain trans people to have different relationships to their identities. Coming to terms with a loved one's identity is a different process for everyone, and tragedies like these often illuminate the complex ways in which the victims navigated their lives. While Orlando insists he wasn't as familiar with Martin's gender identity, friends like Cruz Burnett knew a different side of her.
"As close as we were, I'm still a little bit confused about [her relationship with her parents]. I thought they knew [she was trans] ... You know how it is," he says. "People love who you are, but they don't accept it fully. Like they trick their own minds -- you see it for what it is, but that's just not what you want to take it as."
Burnett and Martin were close friends for nearly 12 years. The two met in their late teens when she started dating one of his friends. After their brief relationship fizzled, the two remained close. From listening to Aaliyah and watching Martin's favorite movies like Friday and The Player's Club, Burnett has nothing but fond memories to share of her.
"She was a very private, sweet person. Dana didn't bother nobody, period," he said. "Everybody liked Dana and the people that didn't like her just didn't know her. Dana was very quiet and reserved for the most part, very easy to get along with and mild-mannered."
Martin's childhood friend, Demarcus Simmons, is also holding onto the warm moments they shared. He says they met in fourth grade at Fitzpatrick Elementary School in Montgomery, Alabama. In high school, they drove around in her gold Maxima blasting Pretty Ricky's Bluestars album and the Ying Yang Twins on their way to hang out at the mall or Walmart. "We had very fun times. My grandma would even take [her] in as one of her grandkids," he says. "That's just how much time we spent together. [Her] mom was cool. We just had really good times together."
The duo experienced some of their most formative experiences together, like leaning on each other when they both came out as gay in seventh grade. Simmons shares that there were people who would sometimes say derogatory things, but they never experienced being "bashed." He assures the same was true when Martin began her social transition.
"[She] never really said [she was trans]. [She] just did it. [She] was gone one day and the next day came and said, 'This is me,'" he offers. "But all through school, Dana had always looked like a girl, has always been mistaken as a girl. There was never a time when people didn't ask, 'Are you a girl or a boy?' I think it made it easier for [her] to just be like, 'transgender is my thing.'"
After years of living in her authentic identity, Martin was injured in a shooting incident in fall 2015. Simmons said Martin was shot in the back of the head by a guy (who family and friends have decided not to name) she was hanging out with, possibly after he panicked when they encountered someone who knew both of them. After waking up in Birmingham Hospital, she learned that she had lost an eye. Burnett says Martin, who was 28 years old at the time, never seemed to completely recover.
"I don't know if -- because she was shot -- that changed things, but she kind of started to regress," he says. "She was still going to do the transition thing, but [there was] just so much going on. She could never really find herself again after she got shot the first time."
In the time between the first shooting and the second fatal one, Martin's friends report that the initial assailant was tried and served three years in prison. (Montgomery Police Department spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt told Out that the department can't disclose about the initial shooting because it didn't result in a death.) Still, Burnett shares that the man who attacked Martin the first time was released just several days before she was found dead in a shot-up car off the side of Brewer Road in Montgomery, Alabama.
"It's hard to say [if the instances are connected], but I do find it very coincidental that the boy has only been out a week and my friend is dead the next week," he says. "It does seem very weird to me. From the way that I heard the car was shot up, it seemed like they were thinking, 'I'm going to finish the job this time.' Those are my true feelings."
Burnett isn't alone in his assessment. Both Simmons and her father agree that there may be a connection between both incidents. Orlando has "a strong feeling" and hopes MPD will "look into that as well." Despite their intuition, Martin's friends and family have a long road ahead with this investigation, if past cases of anti-trans violence are to serve as precedent. Jazz Alford, a Black trans woman from Alabama, was murdered in September 2016 and her assailant wasn't indicted until nearly eight months later.
"At this point, the circumstances of Martin's homicide remain under investigation; the death is confirmed as a criminal homicide," Earnhardt said in an email to Out. "As in each homicide investigation, MPD will continue to pursue all leads in order to determine the circumstances of this homicide and will seek all avenues of prosecution once an arrest is made. MPD's release providing preliminary information about the death is attached. At this point in the investigation, no additional information is available for release."
While the investigation continues, family, friends, and activists are continuing to seek justice and respect for Martin. On the morning of Jan. 19, they made one last final gesture with a well-attended homegoing service at Oak Street A.M.E. Zion Church. "It wasn't a sad funeral; it was very nice. The pastor was very well-spoken," Burnett says. "They put her away really nice. It was like she was at peace."
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 334-215-STOP, Secret Witness at 334-625-4000 or MPD at 334-625-2831.