How a Murder Mobilized Detroit’s Ballroom Community

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Kelly Stough was a Detroit native, a lover of fashion, a beauty enthusiast, a Black trans woman, and a member of the legendary House of Ebony, an international ballroom house. She was known for her joyous attitude and her creativity. Her mother, Jessica Williams, said Stough loved singing in the church choir, and her aunts said she used to take friends in when they didn’t have a place to sleep. 

In December 2018, a Detroit pastor named Albert Weathers shot Stough in an area of the city known for sex work. According to his pre-trial testimony, Weathers was in the area looking for a gas station when Stough jumped into his car demanding money. He claims he acted in self-defense, saying Stough tried to rob him and came at him with something sharp. And then, he says, he accidentally fired his gun at her. But friends of Stough’s testified that Weathers frequented the area as a client of local sex workers. He denies this, saying he’d never met Stough before. 

A witness in a nearby car at the time testified that he saw Weathers kick Stough out of his car onto the street and drive away. Weathers did not report the shooting until an hour later, after he’d clocked in to work at the Great Lakes Water Authority. Stough died on the street. She was 36. 

Weathers has been charged with murder, but Stough’s family and community are still awaiting a trial date. Weathers and his lawyers declined a request for comment because the case is ongoing. 

Year after year, headlines declare new records for trans murders. According to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking fatal violence against trans Americans since 2013, 29 trans and gender-nonconforming Americans—that we know of—have been killed so far this year. In all of 2020, the deadliest year on record, there were 44 murders total. Every year, the majority of these killings are of Black and brown trans women. And according to HRC, somewhere between 44 and 74 percent of all reported killings of transgender and gender-nonconforming people since 2013 were committed by someone the victim knew, sometimes a person they’d been intimate with. 

Still, accurate data on trans people is hard to come by. As the HRC states on its website, it is unclear how precise these numbers are, because reporting of these fatalities remains inconsistent and infrequent. 

In “Love Us in the Light,” the first episode of Transnational, VICE World News traveled to Detroit to tell the story of Kelly Stough and the people who are keeping her memory alive. Immersing within the Detroit ballroom and activist communities, we fellowshipped with local leaders like Lilianna Angel Reyes and Jenyce Poindexter, and learned how their efforts to honor Stough’s memory have also become a fight to keep their community safe. 

VICE World News’ series “Transnational” follows trans journalists around the world as they tell stories in places including Detroit, Mexico City, and Lagos.

This series is supported by Target. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.

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