The Murder of Layleen Polanco and the System’s War on Transgender Women



Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, was sent to Rikers Island, the notorious jail in New York City. She was due to be released on June 13. But now her family is preparing a funeral after Polanco was found dead in her cell on June 7. The cause of death hasn’t been announced. But what is clear is that the workings of this system caused Polanco’s death. 

In April, Polanco was arrested after an altercation with a cab driver. Back in August 2017, a bench warrant had been issued after Polanco missed a court date relating to misdemeanor charges for prostitution-related offenses and a lowest-level drug charge. So when Polanco was arrested in 2019 on charges for which she should have been released, the judge outrageously demanded a $500 bail which she could not pay.

Polanco was initially put in a transgender unit, but then, after reportedly getting into an altercation with another inmate, was sent to a restrictive housing unit. When she died, Polanco had been in what is basically solitary confinement for at least a week

Polanco had epilepsy, a serious seizure disorder. Her attorney, David Shanies, says the Rikers staff knew this. And he said, “She certainly was not in a condition where she should have been left alone, unmonitored to die alone in a cell.”

Remembering Polanco, Speaking Out in Anger

Hundreds gathered in Manhattan on June 10 to remember Polanco and protest her death. They demanded answers and justice. They demanded the shutdown of Rikers, where so many, especially Black and Latino people, have been brutalized and killed by guards.

Friends and family say Polanco was a caring mentor to young transgender women, embraced by her two families—the one she was born into and the community of transgender and gender nonconforming people. Melania Brown thanked her sister’s transgender family for supporting Polanco when her blood relatives had struggled to come to terms with her gender identity. And she condemned those responsible for Polanco’s death, saying, “They treated my sister like she was nothing for how she decided to be happy.”

Indya Moore, who stars in the TV show Pose, spoke at the rally. She knew Polanco from when they both worked at the Xtravaganza ballroom, which was featured in the 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. Moore recited the names and details of the nine known violent deaths of Black trans women this year and told the crowd, “Our community is literally dying to live. We are literally dying to be visible in peace and harmony with you all... We aren't safe anywhere.... If you don’t like the way we are fighting for ourselves then fight for us or get the fuck out the way because you will not silence us and you will not rest in peace any longer."

Workings of a Murderous System

“It starts with the family. You have an identity as a trans person, you might be coming to grips with. You start expressing that as a child and your family starts to say things about you, call you names, or they start rejecting you. You go to school, and school is basically torture because that’s where you’re called even more names and made to feel different. School authorities aren’t helpful. So you no longer want to go to school, you don’t finish school, you grow up. Let’s say you assert your trans identity. It’s hard to find a job because no one wants to hire you because of their own feelings about trans people. They’re not going to put you doing customer service, so then you’re driven into an underground economy that’s criminalized, and you wind up in the system.”

—David Miranda, public defender in NYC who has represented homeless youth overwhelmingly identifying as LGBTQ

Patriarchy is a defining feature of capitalism-imperialism. It involves the subordination of women to men; it is interwoven with and reinforces traditional and oppressive gender roles; and it necessitates the structures and reveres the sanctity of the family. And it means the violent suppression of anything that departs from or challenges all this, including the harassment, demonization and oppression of LGBTQ people. And this is all being ratcheted up now under the fascist Trump/Pence Regime, with its Christian fascist agenda and program.

Transgender people face all kinds of discrimination and more than this, are tormented, terrorized and treated as less than human by cops and gangs of homophobic bullies. All this acts together with the oppression of people of color. Since 2013, there have been 136 murders in the U.S. of trans people, the majority people of color. And there have been at least ten trans women murdered just this year. Six Black trans women murdered in just the past month: Chanel Scurlock, Chynal Lindsey, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle Washington, Paris Cameron, and Zoe Spears.

The death of Layleen Polanco shines a light on the murderous workings of the system: There are the oppressive social relations, the policing and criminalization targeting those who challenge or “transgress” traditional gender norms. Then there is the criminal “injustice” system, with its cash bail system, which puts people behind bars just because they are poor; with its solitary confinement, even though this has been internationally condemned as cruel and unusual punishment; and with its jails and prisons where people face the most inhumane conditions and are routinely brutalized and killed by guards. With this whole setup and more—the very working of this system led to Layleen Polanco becoming the seventh inmate death at Rikers since 2012.

The death of Layleen Polanco should call forth and intensify people’s anger at how at every level and in every corner of society this system harasses, discriminates against, brutalizes and kills transgender women. And it should deepen our understanding that such crimes, along with so many other Amerikkkan crimes around the world, can only be ended by an actual revolution.

Layleen Polanco



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