What Cleveland Must Learn From the Murder of Tierramarie Lewis

click to enlarge A memorial for Tierramarie Lewis - Photo by Ken Schneck
Photo by Ken Schneck
A memorial for Tierramarie Lewis


“That’s a pretty name” is what I thought when I first met her.

That was just over a year ago when she first joined The LGBT Center’s Trans Wellness program. A survivor and a storyteller, Tierramarie shared her life with us, and she encouraged others to share their lives with her.

Her life had not been easy. The scars she wore and the words she spoke were proof enough. But through it all, a great kindness shone through her soul, along with an energy to thrive in this world – the same energy that spun her around the room in dance, in laughter, and in smiles. She rejoiced in her life.

Tierramarie Lewis came to Cleveland to build that life here. She brought the talent and drive that we so desperately need in our city and state. She was the “brain gain” that we always talk about – a young person with great drive and many dreams.

As a Clevelander, I want to see my neighbor’s dreams come true. Many of us do.

But, on June 12, 2021 – in the middle of Pride Month – an act of violence snuffed out Tierramarie’s dreams forever. I don’t know why.

From what we’ve heard, the authorities have an individual in custody. I hope that justice will be found, that whoever committed this hate-filled crime will never hurt anyone again. I hope that our legal system will uphold the innate value of trans lives – particularly the lives of Black trans women – and will show that hate crimes have no place in our hometown.

But, I also know that simply convicting and incarcerating a single person will do nothing to fix our broken systems, or to end this evil epidemic, or even to stop her killer from harming other trans people behind bars – just like Lea Rayson Daye last fall.

We must learn through Tierramarie’s tragic loss to see the innumerable oppressions and injustices that exist at the intersections of transphobia, homophobia, racism, and misogyny.

What Tierramarie needed most was a safe place to call home. She tried hard to find that home. Unfortunately, no matter where she went, she could not find a place that protected her from the daily harassments, humiliations, and dangers that trans people face in shelters everywhere. Black trans women especially are routinely beaten, robbed, raped and murdered while seeking safe housing.
It was mostly likely to escape those dangers that Tierramarie ended up back on the streets. Back where she tried to escape from. And it was in those streets where she was murdered.

Sadly, these injustices are not limited to streets and homeless shelters. Such bigotry exists in our households, hospitals, churches, and schools. In our restaurants, courtrooms, jail cells, busses, worksites, offices, and boardrooms.

From stalkers on the sidewalks, to gas-lighting bosses, to demeaning questions at front desks, to uncomfortable stares, to police profiling. And yes, to the multimillion dollar hate groups that have hijacked our democracy through armies of attorneys and PR spin doctors to scapegoat, fear-monger, and demonize our most vulnerable neighbors.

The bigotry even extends beyond life. It extends to the broken reporting system between our first responders, the medical examiners, and our media that systemically mis-genders and dead-names our slain trans neighbors. Not only is this the final indignity, but such misreporting hides the true extent of anti-trans violence.

A year ago, I wrote an op-ed that identified Cleveland as an epicenter of the trans murder epidemic, based on publically available accounts of trans deaths. But those recorded slayings are only the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of trans murders are likely overlooked and ignored by a system designed to do so. The same is true for trans suicides, overdoses, and socially-determined diseases.

The lesson I see from Tierramarie’s murder is that Clevelanders have not ended our epidemic. Instead, we’ve allowed it to only worsen. But, it’s not just getting worse in Cleveland. Already, 2021 is poised to be the worst year on record for trans murders in America, even eclipsing the mass violence of 2020 – the previous worst year on record.

So where does it all end? How many more murders? How many more broken hearts and shattered dreams before we will ourselves to end this evil epidemic? The time to act is now. It is time to educate ourselves about this insidious crisis, and it is time to end it.

But ending the violence won’t be easy. Ending the violence means deconstructing almost everything because the intolerance driving the deaths is almost everywhere. And this is where each one of us is very important because we must all take action together.

Ending the trans murder crisis means taking action wherever we can. It means hiring trans people, paying living wages, and deconstructing the micro-aggressions that drive us away from offices, workplaces, and boardrooms. It means preventing bullying in our classrooms and discrimination in our clinics, housing markets, and places of commerce.

Ending the trans murder crisis means legal equality – both in Ohio and across America – along with putting down the legions of hate groups that oppose such equality. But true legal equality won’t come through one or two bills. Not unless we also take responsibility for the tangle web of state-sanctioned oppressions that criminalize our neighbors who rely on sex work to survive, who struggle with substance dependency, who live with HIV, and who do not have a safe space to call home.

And yes, ending the trans murder crisis means abolishing our demented dependency on mass incarceration. How many trans people have been starved, beaten, raped, and killed in those cages? Far too many.

Ending the trans murder crisis means unraveling where hatred of identity, intimacy, race, and gender knot together, along with replacing an economy of exclusivity with an economy of opportunity. Ending the trans murder crisis means making a better world for everyone.

During Tierramarie’s 36-years in this world, she made it a better place. I wish we could have had another 36 years with her. That’s the least she deserved. But, we can’t give those years back. We can’t efface our collective failure.

We can simply commit ourselves to do better. To save our next trans neighbors in danger, and to honor the memory and legacy of those whom we’ve lost.
Tierramarie, I can’t see your face, your smile, your eyes any longer. But, I can still feel you around us, within us – just as we feel Brandi, Sky, Cemia, and so many others whom we’ve lost. Through the Power of your collective spirit, we walk forward toward a better day, together.

Eliana Turan is Director of Development at The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
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