Trial Begins for James Dixon, Man Accused of Killing Black Transgender Woman Islan Nettles
"It's been a long time coming," Delores Nettles, a Harlem mother, said to reporters on March 3, 2015. It was the day a Brooklyn man named James Dixon was arrested and charged with manslaughter and felony assault in the August 2013 beating that left Nettles' 21-year-old daughter, Islan, brain dead.
Now, the Nettles family and their supporters will have their day in court.
On Thursday, Dixon's manslaughter and assault trial will begin, with dozens of observers in New York City and across the country paying close attention. The case has become a startling reminder of deadly hate violence that still exists in America's seemingly more tolerant LGBT enclaves. Nettles, in particular, has become a symbol of the unique dangers faced by transgender women of color, at least 25 of whom have been violently murdered over the past two years in cities and small towns across the country.
Meet Islan: Like most 21-year-olds, Islan Nettles was eager to start her adult life. And 2013 was supposed to be her best year yet. In the months leading up to that August, she'd gotten her own apartment, landed a job at H&M in Harlem, continued work as an assistant fashion designer at Ay'Medici, a Harlem-based fashion house where she had worked since 2011, and started work on Vanity Rose, her own fashion line. That April, she had even shown her first fashion collection at the National Action Network's annual convening.
"She was well respected in our community," Daequan Andino, Ay'Medici's fashion director, who originally met Nettles as a teenager while teaching fashion at Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Harlem, said in a phone interview. "It was amazing to see how well she was transitioning and how beautiful she was becoming."
On LinkedIn, she described herself as a "fashion forward young individual who is determined, courageous and still learning every day."
That courage didn't only show up in her work. Nettles had been transitioning into womanhood long before she began taking hormones in 2011 — styling her hair, dressing in women's clothes and wearing make up. "People would stop me and ask where he got his hair styled," E'lana Nettles, Islan's sister, said to the New York Times shortly after her death. (Friends and family used male and female pronouns interchangeably to reporters.)
"She's very vibrant, I would say theatrical in a very positive way," Andino said. "She was one of those people where there's never a boring conversation or a boring day."
Fatal encounter: That optimism was often tested. Andino described an instance a few years before Nettles' death when she came into his fashion studio with a badly bruised face. "She came in and had a big lump on her face, her eye was swelled up and black and blue," Andino remembered. "She was with friends in Brooklyn and a group of about 15 guys were pretty much attacking her and her friends," said Andino, who then worked with Islan to keep her busy in Harlem, hoping that a busy schedule would help keep her safe.
It did not. In fact, the incident was eerily similar to the fatal encounter she'd have years later.
Shortly after midnight on Aug. 17, 2013, Nettles walked through Harlem near West 148th Street and Eighth Avenue with a small group of friends. The friends walked by a group of roughly seven men, who began taunting them with homophobic slurs after learning that they were transgender. Soon, the men began throwing punches.
Dixon, prosecutors allege, punched Nettles so hard that she fell and hit her head on the pavement, causing a serious brain injury. Dixon struck Nettles several more times. She was later transported to nearby Harlem Hospital, where she was taken off of life support several days later.
The long road to justice: Less than a week after Nettles' death, mourners held a vigil for her in Harlem's Jackie Robinson Park. A Facebook event for the vigil detailed the community's grief: "Islan Nettles was a vibrant 21-year-old transgender woman who was brutally and senselessly attacked and died from sustained injuries on August 22, 2013. Harlem has lost another one of its beloved children and this vigil will be a celebration of Islan, her love of life and an opportunity for the community to come together in unity and peace."
The vigil was held in the thick of a New York mayoral race, and future mayor Bill de Blasio was there, along with former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
In the chaotic aftermath of Nettles' death, a 20-year-old man named Paris Wilson was initially detained by police for misdemeanor assault and harassment. Wilson was later released on $2,000 bail. In November 2013, New York City Criminal Court Judge Steven Statsinger announced that charges were dropped against Wilson because the prosecution didn't have enough evidence. Nettles' supporters, already outraged that Wilson had only been charged with a misdemeanor crime, were now furious.
Parker Molloy, a transgender rights activist, wrote at the Huffington Post: "Too often, this is what happens when someone dies at the hands of anti-transgender violence. Victims are forgotten, perpetrators are let free, and the world moves on as though nothing happened."
An epidemic of murder: Nettles died amid a seeming onslaught of news about violence aimed at transgender women of color. More than two dozen have been killed since 2013, according to the Anti-Violence Project, a New York-based advocacy group that records such violence nationally. Elisha Walker, 20, went missing in North Carolina before her body was found in a shallow grave. Ashton O'Hare, 25, was found dead in a field in Detroit. India Clarke, 25, was beaten to death at a children's playground in Florida. Kandy Hall, 40, was found dead in a field in North Baltimore. Yaz'min Shancez, 31, was found dead in a garbage bin in Fort Meyers, Florida. Kate Steinmetz wrote for Time that transgender women of color were being murdered at historically high rates. Several people began took it one step further, calling it an "epidemic."
Even when incidents don't escalate to the point of murder, transgender women of color are still disproportionately impacted by violence. Transgender women were 1.8 times more likely to experience sexual violence when compared with other survivors, according to data from the Anti-Violence Project. Transgender people of color as a whole are more than twice as likely to experience violence as their white peers and are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. Help, many say, is especially hard to find when you're trans; transgender women are also seven times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with police, according to data from AVP.
"Across the country, transgender women of color are disproportionately targeted for violence and homicide because of who they are," said Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, in an interview. "Right here in New York City we lost Islan Nettles to this senseless violence. We are here to say that her life matters, that she matters, and this violence must end. That the trial date start coincides with Trans Day of Visibility feels important."
Black transgender people also live in extreme poverty, with 34% reporting an annual household income of less than $10,000 in a 2012 survey conducted by the National Black Justice Coalition.
Which is partially why Nettles' death has resonated so strongly. "It's rare that you see a transgender person working in a common place" like H&M, Andino said. By most accounts, she was beating the odds.
"She was part of that whole trend of transgender [people] being accepted into communities and into America," Andino continued. "She was living in the community as a female and people were accepting her, and it felt like it was a good time where things were moving forward and we didn't have to worry too much."
Her hometown was also supposed to embody that hope. New York, often seen as a bastion of acceptance and the home to the modern LGBT movement, has some of the more progressive laws on the books to protect people from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an executive action that made New York one of a relatively small number of states that have outright barred discrimination in housing and employment based on gender identity.
"Transgendered individuals deserve the same civil right that protects them from discrimination," Cuomo said when he announced his executive order in October.
In the years since her death, Nettles has become a symbol for the deadly violence that faces many black transgender women. Award-winning actress Laverne Cox grand marshaled the 2014 New York City Pride celebration and shared her moment in the spotlight with Nettles' mother, Delores. The two rode through the streets of the West Village together in a slow-moving white convertible, with Delores clutching a photo of Islan as thousands looked on.
"We in the transgender community right now are reeling," Cox later said on Good Morning America. "Your life should not be in danger simply for being who you are. I think the reasons why trans women experience so much violence has to do with employment, housing, health care, etc., so we need to make sure that trans lives matter."
At last, a trial: Dixon, the 24-year-old from Brooklyn, had initially come forward shortly after the crime and admitted his involvement — but police didn't believe him. Witnesses said that Wilson and Dixon bore "a striking resemblance" to each other, which made it hard for them to identify who dealt the most fatal blows. In March 2015, Dixon was finally charged with manslaughter.
But for those who knew Nettles, Dixon's trial is a bittersweet reminder of a life that was cut down way too soon.
"She was one of the pioneers of [being transgender] in Harlem," Andino said. "She was one of the ones where people got to see the transition and see how people are affected by it and see how beautiful and normal a person can still be without them feeling afraid to be who they are."