last night i cried for shelley | adrienne maree brown

image credit: Shadia Fayne-Woods

last week, the burned torso of a young transgendered woman named shelley hilliard, who had been missing for two weeks, showed up under a mattress off a highway in detroit.

shelley was one of the youth who participated in the amazing ruth ellis center, which provides a safe space for LGBT youth to be, learn, dance, and live in spite of the violent conditions most of them face outside the ruth ellis doors.

i do some volunteer work with the ruth ellis youth, and they are these incredible, beautiful, vulnerable children, pushed into surviving in any number of ways that expose them to violence every day – violence from their families, from bullies, from each other, or from those they turn to for basic needs.

and last night i couldn’t get away from what had happened – last night i cried for shelley.

i cried because i couldn’t find any peace in myself around it, i couldn’t find compassion for her killers.

lately i have been actively practicing compassion in all situations, experimenting with radical non-reaction. but last night I couldn’t get there…i was awash with fear and grief, just sitting with the way she died.

i experienced my fear in retrograde, going back through her last living moments, trying to find the instant where she knew there was danger, wanting to rescue her at that moment, even though i know better.

the survivor part of me always wants to be in some gallant army that always shows up to rescue young people from being molested, raped, murdered – sexually hurt in any way.

going back further, i want to find the moment where shelley needed to make the series of choices that put her body in someone else’s power, to destroy.

shelley was destroyed. by other humans.

and I know there is no rescue scenario that truly works to change power…but this murder really raises the question of what is that power, anyway. i believe in claiming power – how can these girls save themselves?

i want to see the solutions, but i can only concentrate on the pain sometimes. i just want to heal the pain, in myself, and heal the wounded people – individual to governmental – who only understand power as the capacity to hurt or kill another.

we have to change the pain, transform it.
we have to practice love wherever pain is, even when it seems impossible.
loved people don’t dismember, burn and discard other people.
i have to believe that.

it’s overwhelming what happened to shelley. and it is only possible because we hold as value-less the lives of transgender women, and sex working, sex-trading people.

if you have never experienced knowing yourself to be something your body does not express, it may be hard to understand the transgendered path. right now it’s an all out war on trans people. the average lifespan of a transgendered person is 23 years old.

even if you don’t get it, if it scares you…how can we cultivate the capacity to love people we can’t comprehend?

similarly, if you have never experienced true hunger or financial need, it may be hard to grasp what leads a young person to see their body as a valuable resource to trade for money, shelter, food…love.

along my path as a facilitator, i learned a powerful lesson from chicago’s young women’s empowerment project: prostitution is as old as capitalism. instead of asking why people sell and trade their bodies, we need to look critically, and eventually evolve beyond, this system which puts value on flesh and makes people compete to live.

people in the sex trade are survivors in this system, not creators of it.
if they survive.

i am so scared for the other girls, here in detroit and around the world – these beautiful transgender girls who are so brave, just being themselves in a world that still denies their existence on most official forms, in most bathrooms, in most spaces of real or perceived power.

why can’t they live?

why can’t we let them live, be on this earth with us?

why can’t we let them be women, or womyn, or wombyn with us? even in otherwise radically inclusive spaces, even in spaces created out of a need for safety, I have seen hate and exclusion boil up against trans people.

the most vulnerable living beings teach us what it means to be human.

it is devastating for me to hear shelley’s story, and to integrate the reality that part of what it means to be human right now is to be consumed by hatred, to be completely numb to the pain of another person, to have no love, to be able to turn off the heart, to cause harm to flesh, to see another being as parts.

all I can do is open myself up to it, which I do rarely these days. like many who are emotionally awake, i can be overwhelmed when it seems there is too much to feel.

when I do open myself up, when it blasts through my protective layers, like shelley’s death did last night, i find myself weeping uncontrollably.

crying for all of us who uphold a trans-phobic society where shelley, and other girls like her, can be murdered. crying because of the economic conditions that pit us against each other, make us oppositional, make us value sameness over difference.

crying for the healing needed in this region, where trans girls are disappearing regularly.

crying for girls who feel they can’t say no, who feel pressed to put themselves on the line between life and death every day, hoping to walk away with one more day to live, create, dance, exist.

i hope it’s safe wherever shelley is now.

Original article posted on the Luscious Satyagraha, November 13, 2011 by adrienne maree brown.

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  1. […] Last night I cried for shelley an older essay from adrienne maree brown about Shelley Hilliard, the transgender woman who was murdered in Detroit after being forced to be an informant for the police. [content note:  graphic descriptions of violence, transphobia] […]

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