Tatiana Labelle (lefthand photo) and Elise Malary (righthand photo, on left). Credit: Labelle's family and Angelina Nordstrom

Angelina Nordstrom describes local trans activist and organizer Elise Malary as “angelic” and “quietly fierce, yet bright, and vibrant.”

“I actually met her as we both began transitioning,” Nordstrom says. “We both began the journey within the same couple of months, and over the years, our sisterhood evolved, and became a lot closer. She’s been a best friend of mine.”

On March 19, after Malary had been missing for more than a week, Evanston Police recovered her body from Lake Michigan. In the days leading up to her recovery, groups of friends and supporters formed to distribute flyers or look for her themselves. Evanston police say no foul play is suspected in Malary’s death, but no cause has been released.

Many who loved Malary described her as a soft-spoken but mighty and courageous advocate for her fellow LGBTQ+ people. Malary was a board member of the Chicago Therapy Collective and worked with organizations including Equality Illinois and AIDS Foundation Chicago. Malary also briefly worked for the Chicago Reader in 2019 in our sales department. 

“What I saw from her was someone who felt all that pressure and anxiety from society, from working hard to earn acceptance, but was able to thrive in the face of it all,” says Patti Flynn, who was close to Malary. “[She] was able to stand up and advocate for other Black trans women. And I am honored that I was able to watch her grow into that woman over our years of friendship.”

Flynn served as sales director for the Reader from 2018 to 2020 and was the person who brought Malary onto the Reader.

Elise Malary worked at the Reader in 2019. Credit: Patti Flynn

The news of Malary’s death sent shockwaves through the trans community. After her body was identified, hundreds attended an Andersonville vigil in her honor. Her sister, Fabiana Malary, organized a gofundme to raise money for funeral costs.

Malary was a well-known and fiercely admired activist for the local queer community, and her death also elicited a heartfelt response from public officials, including Attorney General Kwame Raoul. At the time of her death, Malary was employed in the civil rights unit of the AG’s office. 

“Elise was a valued member of our Civil Rights Bureau who, as a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ community, was passionate about her work,” Raoul said in a statement after Malary was found. “Her kindness and infectious smile will be missed by those who worked with her. The Attorney General’s office has lost a member of our family, and as an office, we are heartbroken.” 

Alderwoman Maria Hadden paid tribute to Malary on social media and state rep Kelly Cassidy, who represents the area where Malary lived in the Illinois House of Representatives, spoke passionately about her as a rebuke to the transphobic rhetoric of another lawmaker, state rep Thomas R. Morrison, who represents Palatine and Inverness.

“Elise was a shining example of what we want people to do and be in our community. She was dedicated to uplifting the people she lived and worked with every day,” Cassidy said. “She is one of too many Black trans women whose lives mean nothing to the man on the other side of this room.”

The same day Malary’s body was located, Chicago police found the battered body of another Black trans woman, Tatiana Labelle, in a trash can in Chatham. 

“Right now it’s just unbearable pain because of the way they did her and disregarded her body and put her in trash like she was garbage,” says Shameika Thomas, Labelle’s sister. “Like she didn’t have family or people who love her.” 

But that couldn’t be further from the truth, Thomas says. 

“She definitely was loved and she always knew that she could call me,” she says. “So she definitely had people who care for her. And I definitely want justice and I’m not gonna let up on the police or anything.”

An undated photo of Tatiana Labelle. Credit: Courtesy Labelle's family

Like Malary, Labelle had been missing for several days when her body was found. Thomas says Labelle was unemployed and staying with a friend at the time of her death. 

While the search for Malary was prominently covered in local media, reporting about Labelle’s death has been mixed, and reflects how class and community connections can influence missing persons cases.

Though local outlets reported accurately that Labelle was a woman, many used her deadname, the only one provided by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. ProPublica has reported that such misgendering and misreporting can impede the search for answers in cases like Labelle’s, and adds insult to injury for their loved ones. 

Block Club reported last year on trans activists’ claims that the Chicago Police Department and other city officials were misgendering victims of violent crime.

The deaths occurred weeks after the Reader exclusively reported that CPD’s liaison office to the LGBTQ+ community was facing internal crisis and allegations that it was a public relations ploy for the city. 

Trans people interviewed by the Reader shared feelings of numbness and deep grief at the thought of not one, but two Black trans women being found dead in the city on the same day. The deaths also once again bring the epidemic of violence perpetrated against trans people, and particularly trans women of color, close to home.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least six trans people, most of whom were Black and Brown trans women, have been killed in the U.S. in 2022. HRC also says 2021 was also the deadliest year on record for anti-trans violence, with at least 50 deaths; but experts say those numbers are grossly deflated in large part because of misreporting the victims’ gender identity and names, as happened in Labelle’s case. 

“Folks don’t often see and talk about the struggle,” says Precious Brady-Davis, a Black trans woman who is running for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Brady-Davis would be the first openly trans woman of color ever elected in Cook County. 

“Even as a trans woman of color, I often don’t broadcast the struggles that I face, the harassment that I face,” she says.“That takes a toll on one’s mental health, on the ways in which I navigate space, the ways in which I can show up in the world.”

How Malary died is not clear, but trans people interviewed by the Reader say that no matter the outcome, Malary’s death alongside Labelle’s reflects the difficult life many Black trans people are afforded. 

“No matter if it was at someone else’s hand, or her own hand, neither thing is good,” says Flynn. “And both things lead back to how trans people are portrayed in the media.” 

Stephanie Skora, associate executive director at Brave Space Alliance, says the deaths represent “the unfortunate reality of the situation that we live in, where even in a place like Chicago, that prides itself on being inclusive, that prides itself on having good policies for our community, Black trans women are always at risk.”

“We are just in a state of constant emergency for Black trans lives in the city of Chicago, where people in our community are being murdered, or are losing their lives,” Skora says. “And we are having to as a community pick up the pieces ourselves, because the powers that be are not equipped to properly serve us or have chosen to not properly serve us.”

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Black Ensemble Theater’s first play back since the pandemic, an original from founder Jackie Taylor (she wrote, produced, directed, and choreographed), is exactly what the title states—an out-of-body, communal experience that creates the physical “togetherness” we’ve missed for so long. It’s an energizing and participatory homage to the Black church experience, which as the cast…

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.