Advocates and the trans community remember the life of Tierramarie Lewis

Tamika “Devinty” Jones was rolling a cart piled with groceries through the light-filled lobby of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland in June when she heard Tierramarie Lewis calling after her.

Lewis was a member of the center’s Trans Wellness group, which gathers weekly for fellowship, support, and resources. 

The open-hearted Lewis had the drive to be one of the group’s success stories—Jones knew it.

In recent months, though, Lewis had hit some bumps. She was temporarily without a place to live and had been napping in the lobby.

“Hey, I need a hug,” Lewis said. “Can I get a hug from you?”

Jones wrapped her arms around Lewis and then released her embrace. But Lewis held tight. 

“I whispered in her ear, ‘It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be alright,’” Jones recalls the moment, her eyes closing slightly, like she was watching the scene replay in her head. 

When she looked up, she saw a tear drop from one of Lewis’s wide brown eyes. 

Three days later on June 12, Cleveland police responded to a call for gunshots on a residential section of East 79th Street and found Lewis, face down on the ground. She had a faint pulse, and officers gave her chest compressions, but she died at the hospital of a gunshot to the right side of her chest. She was 36 years old.

A police report initially listed her as a “John Doe.” 

Lewis’ death is weighing on the hearts and minds Jones and others who tried to help her avoid the fate of far too many Black transgender women in Ohio and across the county. 

“She was in our care, if you will, and she’s gone because of the systems that failed,” Jones says. 

Lewis was at least the 30th transgender person killed in the United States this year, according to Eliana Turan, director of development at the LGBT Center. 

That number is what human rights advocates have been able to record in 2021, based on news reports and the community. It’s surely an undercount. 

Homicides, suicides, and overdose deaths of transgender individuals are often invisible because they are misgendered by law enforcement, medical examiners, and on death certificates.

If the center hadn’t been connected with Lewis, it’s unclear her murder would have been included in that count at all, says Turan, who penned a piece last year that dubbed Cleveland as the American “epicenter” of a growing trans murder crisis. 

Lewis’ murder wasn’t covered by local news outlets, aside from a single post on the online Cleveland Ohio Remembrance page. 

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office has Lewis listed under the male name she was given at birth—despite the fact her name was legally changed, which was reflected on her state identification card. 

A spokesman for the medical examiner’s office said that fingerprints identified Lewis as Tierramarie, her chosen name. But on her death certificate, a document prepared by the funeral home, the family provided a different name and that became the official record linked to her death.

“We do not overrule families regarding the death certificate,” says medical examiner’s office spokesperson Christopher Harris.

An online obituary uses both names and “they” pronouns. Her family declined to talk for this story. 

A fresh start 
Lewis came to Cleveland for a fresh start last year, hoping that affirming programs could help her break away from sex work and to recover from addiction. Lewis had most recently lived in Columbus but was born in Coshocton, a rural and mostly white city 60 miles northeast of Columbus.

“She was tired,” Jones says. “She was just ready to turn her life around.”

The first time Jones met Lewis, they sat in a quiet room at the center

“She pretty much was showing her heart, like really showing that ‘I really am focused. I really am trying to do right,’” Jones said. 

The LGBT center helped Lewis find a sober house, but it wasn’t a good fit. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) tried to help her find temporary shelter, too. Lewis left several shelters due to conflicts—one time after staff at a women’s shelter had a problem with her wig and another time after a security guard at a shelter taunted her for being transgender.

“It was just like a chain of events that happened,” Jones says. “And so, of course, why would you stay somewhere where this is happening?”

The setbacks put Lewis out on unfamiliar Cleveland streets to survive. 

“This girl came from somewhere else to get help and resources that we were supposed to have,” says Jones. “And we failed—miserably.” 

For a while, Lewis was in the YWCA Norma Herr Women’s Shelter on Payne Avenue. When she was transitioning to Front Steps Housing and Services, a program to help her find permanent housing, many of her belongings were tossed out. It was the middle of winter, and she didn’t have a phone, which compounded the difficulty in helping her, says Carey Gibbons, a community outreach coordinator for NEOCH.

From there, Lewis had brief stays in a number of shelters and sometimes slept in the entryways of apartments. 

Months later, Lewis was moving into The Cleveland Hostel, which was temporarily housing individuals experiencing homelessness. 

When Gibbons arrived to drop off some of her bags and asked for Lewis, a security guard remarked, “You mean the tranny?” Gibbons was horrified and said so. But the security guard continued to refer to Lewis with a male pronoun. “That was how she was treated,” said Gibbons, who works with youth, young adults, and transgender individuals.  

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries (LMM) operated some of the temporary shelters where Lewis stayed in partnership with the Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services

A spokesperson said LMM was “very disheartened” by her death. 

“At times, Lewis struggled with significant barriers and behavior that made it challenging for her to remain sheltered in the program,” Jessica Starr, LMM director of communications says.
 
Though LMM didn’t provide the security at the shelter where Gibbons said the slurs were made, Starr says the agency strives to consistently train its staff on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices and will be attending a Trans Affirmation training provided by the NEOCH.

Some of what Lewis was going through—struggling with sobriety, trying to get the right mental health help, and medications—are things that people who work with marginalized individuals should expect and understand as part of a process, Gibbons says. Lewis was a person who had significant trauma, and that can surface in many ways.

In some cases, staff saw her as hostile, Gibbons says. “Instead of asking, ‘how can I support you,’ It was ‘No, get out.’”

Lewis was aware that she had maladaptive behaviors and she was working on them. Each time she was dismissed from a shelter, she was resilient. 

Finding shelter care for LGBTQ+ individuals is a systemic problem, Turan says. “We’ve had people come in here beat up or robbed.”

While some agencies have a commitment to affirming services for individuals under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. that doesn’t always mean the frontline staff is properly trained or held accountable for those standards, says Jones.

It’s not like these organizations are turning people away, Jones says.  “It’s the people that worked in those places that we referred [Lewis] to that were not doing what they were supposed to have done and ultimately cost her life,” Jones points out.

‘She only gave kindness’
If there was a place that Lewis could find the support she needed, it was at the LGBT Center’s Trans Wellness program, which Jones and the center started two years ago to provide a social support network for transgender and nonbinary individuals. 

“We talk about our stories,” Jones says, “we share our journeys.” 

Lewis participated in the sessions, which also include education and access to resources, like vouchers to pay for new birth certificates, help with resumes, job leads and clothes for interviews, HIV prevention medications, bus tickets and food, which Jones delivers when making “house calls” to check on people from the group or others she has met while doing street outreach. 

About a dozen members regularly attend the twice-a-week meetings, which were held virtually during the height of the pandemic. 

During a recent session, the group hosted a speaker on domestic violence and then discussed their own experiences. A few people tuned in virtually, via social media. 

Lewis was a colorful and loud participant—her voice carried throughout the open hallways of the center.

“She commanded attention,” Jones says. “She was tall, like me, and she was a spirited girl…. One day she would have purple hair, one day pink hair, and always an outfit to go with those colors.” 

Within the group, she was open about the struggles she’d faced in her life, she could be vulnerable.

I just really respected her for the fact that she walked through so much,” Turan says. “And she still shined such a light. She only gave kindness.” 

It would have been understandable for Lewis to have a “what-do-I-care” attitude that can emerge from years of degrading treatment. 

“It’s easy to get in that mentality,” Turan says. “And she never brought that mentality.” 

Lewis also showed immense gratitude when people helped her out—whether it was someone buying her a chicken sandwich when she was hungry or giving her a new razor, Jones says. 

“You’d be like, ‘oh, girl, it’s a disposable,’” Jones says. “And she’d be like, ‘thank you, thank you’ and you knew that was coming from a genuine place. She wasn’t overbearing or anything like that, she just was a sweet girl, you know? You just wanted to help her.”

Lewis had the intuition to help others in the group, too.

One time, the center received a shipment of donated shoes perfect for some of the group members who struggled to find shoes in larger sizes. There was a pair of high heels Lewis had claimed, Jones recalls. 

But another group member shared they had never worn heels before. 

Lewis said, ‘Girl, you can have them. You’ve never walked in heels before. I have.’ 

The other group member slipped the heels on, marching all around the center in them. 
Lewis’ small act of generosity? “It made a difference to her,” Jones says.

A violent summer 
After Lewis was killed last month, word spread quickly among the members of the Trans Wellness group, who started calling and texting Jones and asking, Is it true?

Trans Wellness group members met in the parking lot of Twist Social Club, an LGBTQ+ affiliated night spot on Clifton Boulevard, for a moment of silence and to hug, cry, and support each other.

“When something like this happens, it affects your psychology,” Turan says. “People felt that they really knew [Lewis] and then she’s just gone. And unfortunately, she’s not the only one who’s been suffering from violence. This has been a violent summer.”

At first, Jones had trouble getting basic information about Lewis’ death and the investigation. It confused Jones and the center’s staff why she was being misgendered by police since her name was legally changed. Turan says that even without a wig, Lewis, who had received hormone therapy, had unmistakably feminine features. 

One of the case detectives continuously referred to Lewis with male pronouns and seemed to dismiss from the start that her death had anything to do with her being transgender, Gibbons says. 

Cleveland police policy related to transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming individuals does not specifically address homicide or death investigations, but requires officers to use the names and pronouns preferred by transgender or nonbinary individuals.

Eventually, Jones was able to reach one of the Trans Wellness group members, who is also a city employee. “He made a couple of calls and got us all the information that we have,” Jones says. 

Cleveland police homicide detectives narrowed in on a suspect swiftly and on June 28 a grand jury indicted Duane Lunsford, 25, of Cleveland in Lewis’ death.

Lunsford pleaded not guilty to the aggravated murder and felonious assault charges.

‘Utterly brokenhearted’
More than a month later, Jones and Gibbons can’t shake how deeply personal Lewis’ death feels. 

Her life will be remembered at 1 p.m. on August 12—two months following her murder—at East 79th Street and Cedar Avenue. 

“I am utterly brokenhearted about it,” Gibbons says. “How can we show the public that transwomen are women and how can we have spaces where they can just lay down their heads? Why is it that we can shun this particular population with no thought to the consequences?”

Jones said she didn’t have the support that she’s now able to give others, which is why she makes food deliveries and occasionally lets folks crash on her couch for a day until they can get into a shelter. 

The thing about me is I’ve been there, I’m a survivor,” Jones says. “I am a survivor from a lot of the things that they’re going through, and I made it through.”

One action Jones is taking is enlisting Equality Ohio to help members of the Trans Wellness group complete legal documents that spell out their choices or allow someone trusted to make decisions for them if they get injured or killed. That way their identities are respected, which didn’t happen for Lewis.  

But that’s not enough. That isn’t a better chance at survival.

“There’s no 40 acres and a mule and a white picket fence house—that American dream is done when it comes to trans people,” Jones says.  “It’s just, can I make it past 30? Can I make it to 30?”

This story is published with permission from The Buckeye Flame, where it originally ran on Wednesday, Aug. 4.

Rachel Dissell is a Cleveland-based journalist and a board member of The Buckeye Flame.