Earlier this year, we reported on the September 16 death of 46-year-old Pittsburgh native, Elisha Stanley, who had traveled to her hometown to visit family. Elisha was a Black trans woman and her death was sudden and unexpected so understandably people were very concerned both for the loss of her as an individual and the implications for the larger community.
It not unusual for coroner reports, especially bloodwork results, to take weeks to come in. In this case, the report was released on November 1, but I just received a copy recently. Elisha’s death has been ruled accidental due to “Combined Drug Poisoning of Fentanyl, Cocaine, and Ethanol.” There is no suggestion of any further investigation, even though there certainly are general concerns about deliberate cutting of cocaine with fentanyl without the knowledge of the person using the cocaine. I have asked about further investigation.
While we do know that at least 20 trans neighbors, 19 of whom were Black trans women, died violent deaths in 2019, we don’t often discuss the threats posed by drugs and alcohol, healthcare disparities, poverty, and other threats to their general welfare. There are volumes of data on the dangers posed by alcohol and drug use by transgender neighbors. It is not inconceivable that Elisha’s death should be put in that context as should our community response to support our trans neighbors, especially Black trans women.
We saw a similar pattern emerge in Pittsburgh’s gay community when people refused to acknowledge the potential role of alcohol consumption in the death of Dakota James in 2017, preferring to focus exclusively on the slim possibility that he was murdered by a serial killer. And during that ensuing months in which energy and resources were poured into investigating this possibility, very few were directed to addressing more tangible threats like getting drunk and wandering away from friends or public spaces, much less to friends and families coming to terms with a loved one who has overindulged.
I bring up Dakota James because I suspect many people will dismiss the concerns about the findings in the report. That is, some people will view the coroners findings with skepticism and other people with consider the skeptics to be disgruntled, uninformed, or conspiracy theorists. I want to remind all of us that A LOT of white cisgender gay men and lesbians, as well as heterosexual people, have propped up the conspiracy theories around Dakota’s death even at the expense of the welfare of our community.
If you are going to give the benefit of the doubt to the friends, family, and strangers who firmly believe Dakota was killed by a serial killer, you must give the same to family, friends, and strangers who firmly do not believe in the conclusions of the coroner’s report. To do otherwise is clearcut bias and discrimination.
Now that does not mean you must agree with their interpretation, but given what we know about implicit bias and discrimination in the criminal justice system – it is no less possible than the Smiley Faced killer theories. And battling over who is right or wrong might once again distract us from actually putting resources into solutions that will have a clear impact for the betterment of Black trans woman and other trans and nonbinary individuals.
Elisha’s death is a tragedy, a loss for her personal friends and family, as well as the larger community. The reality that we cannot simply take the response of the criminal justice system at face value is also a tragedy.
But worst of all is that we will continue to tragically overlook opportunities to provide adequate resources and supports for Black trans women to address all of the challenges they face and empower them to direct their own solutions.
There will be no Post-Gazette series on Elisha’s death, no award-winning podcasts. Her death has barely been acknowledged by mainstream media, much less placed under scrutiny.
We are failing our Black trans sisters and neighbors. That’s the only clear conclusion from this report.