A Tragedy Worth Conversation

By December 10, 2019 No Comments


By Pittsburgh Current Staff


Earlier this year, local media 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. Her sudden, unexpected death understandably left people concerned both for the loss of her as an individual and the implications for the larger trans, Black, and LGBTQ communities. 

It is not unusual for coroner reports, especially bloodwork results, to take weeks or months to be finalized. In this case, the report was released on November 1. 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.

City of Pittsburgh Police spokesperson, Chris Togneri confirmed that the official cause of death is accidental overdose, asking anyone with information to suggest otherwise to please bring those concerns to the police. 

When asked about the Fentanyl, Togneri told me:

“Yes, there is great concern. In late September, three people died after ingesting cocaine mixed with fentanyl. Recent news reports have shown multiple other cases of fentanyl being mixed with drugs in other areas without users being aware. Large drug busts occur on a regular basis in the city, and fentanyl is often recovered alongside other drugs. Police always caution against illegal drug use — the user simply does not and cannot know what was put into the drug. But with fentanyl regularly being added to products, it is more important now than ever to be extremely careful.”

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 to our transgender neighbors. It is not inconceivable that Elisha’s death should be put in that context as should our community response to support 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 abuses alcohol, once or multiple times. 

I bring up Dakota James because I suspect some people will view the coroner’s 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 this 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 – a conspiracy or cover-up is no less possible than the Smiley Face 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.

There is no arguing that the deaths of young white men, gay and straight, receive a disproportionate amount of media attention. Dakota’s story generated many media stories along with a podcast. I don’t anticipate any local media outlet investing in a podcast or special investigation segment centering Elisha Stanley, regardless of the clearly newsworthiness of the circumstances of her life and death as well as the larger context. 

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 overlook our opportunities to provide adequate resources and supports for Black trans women to address the challenges they face and empower them to direct their own solutions.

We are failing our Black trans sisters and neighbors. That’s the only clear conclusion from this report.

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