Hundreds of people gathered in New York City on Monday to demand justice and accountability for the death of Layleen Polanco, also known as Layleen Xtravaganza.
Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latina trans woman, was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island on June 7. A beloved figure in the city’s ballroom scene and member of the House of Xtravaganza, Polanco had been held at the Rose M. Singer Center women’s jail on a $500 bail for misdemeanor assault since April. She had also been placed in solitary confinement as a punitive measure, according to the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which allegedly left her alone and unmonitored at the time of her death despite a pre-existing health condition that caused her to have life-threatening seizures.
Speakers at the June 10 rally, organized by AVP with the support of over 30 other organizations, repeatedly honed in on these facts surrounding Polanco’s death, arguing that cash bail — which will no longer be used for low-level offenses in the state of New York after this year — the use of solitary confinement, systematic neglect, and other facets of New York’s criminal justice system all contributed to ending her life when it did.
“The fact that we don’t have her here right now pisses me the fuck off, and the fact that they left her and neglected her is not right,” said Gisele Alicea, also known as Gisele Xtravaganza, a model, actress, and the Mother of the House of Xtravaganza. “They [knew about Polanco’s seizure disorder], and they paid it no mind. Why? Because she’s not valuable enough? Because her life does not mean anything to you?”
Alicea’s measured but palpable anger at the system that treated Polanco as if she were disposable reflected that of many other rally speakers, including activist Cecilia Gentili, Sylvia Rivera Law Project Director of Outreach and Community Engagement Kimberly Mckenzie, Out Executive Editor Raquel Willis, Pose star Indya Moore, and Layleen’s two daughters from the House of Xtravaganza. This wasn’t the first time that any of them had been at a rally mourning the unnecessary death of a trans woman of color, whether she was killed at the hands of another person like Islan Nettles or at the hands of the state like Johana Medina. Their patience for justice running thin and their weariness with the ongoing epidemic of violence against their communities mounting, many of the speakers implored the 600-plus attendees and thousands of others live-streaming the rally from the other side of their phone to do something about it.
“Showing up here today and throwing your sign in the trash can does not fix the problem,” said activist and writer Hope Giselle. “How do you show up for Layleen after today? Find out who’s making the laws, and change them. Find out who’s doing the bad things, and fix them. Don’t wait until another one of us dies. We all have a job. Layleen has given us a job, and it’s time for us to start working.”