Friends, family remember transgender slaying victim India Clarke

India Clarke's slaying raises questions about awareness of transgender issues.
Published July 22 2015
Updated July 23 2015

TAMPA — The last time India Clarke saw her family was at her parents' house. She laughed at her two nephews wrestling. She bantered with her father, Samuel Clarke, over whether she should close her car windows before it rained.

Before she left for the night, she told her father she loved him.

"I love you, too," he told her.

Three days later, India Clarke was found dead near a playground.

She was the victim of a homicide, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. She had suffered upper-body trauma. The agency initially identified the victim, a 25-year-old transgender woman by the name she was given at birth, as Samuel Elijah Clarke.

Sheriff's officials referred to India Clarke as a male dressed in female clothing who was found Tuesday morning between the basketball courts and playground at University Area Community Park. The local media reported that information.

India Clarke, however, identified as a female. The Sheriff's Office and the local media have since been criticized locally and nationally for misidentifying her gender. Activists called for transgender sensitivity on a broader scale.

"We have to do better," said Nathan Bruemmer, a transgender man and member of TransAction Florida's advisory board. "A lot of the relationships with transgender folks are strained."

Many decried India Clarke's death using social media. Laverne Cox, star of the TV show Orange Is the New Black and a transgender advocate, shared a photo of India Clarke on Instagram and used the hashtags #IndiaClarke and #SayHerName.

Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said it wasn't until the medical examiner made a biological determination that investigators began referring to India Clarke as a man.

"At an investigative stage, labeling somebody one thing or another is not correct," McKinnon said Wednesday. He added that detectives did not immediately know if India Clarke identified as female or cross-dressed.

"For us, it doesn't change our resolve to solve the murder," McKinnon said. "It's a death of a human being."

Gina Duncan, the transgender inclusion director for Equality Florida, said she understands that rationale. But she emphasized that, when in doubt, law enforcement and the media should err on the side of caution.

"If there is a situation they are unsure about," Duncan said, "they should simply refer to the person as a victim."

Advocates say "misgendering" exacerbates the discrimination transgender people face — something India Clarke experienced often, her friends said. Charles Thomas, 27, said she spoke frequently about being a target of harassment and violence.

Family and friends described India Clarke as friendly and confident, someone who loved making others happy, rapping, taking selfies, cracking jokes and performing in drag shows. One of her favorite songs was And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going from the movie Dreamgirls.

"Everything was fun," said friend Brittani Bellamy, 24. "She was always cracking jokes."

India Clarke grew up in Tampa and was the youngest in the family. She attended Hillsborough High School, where she played football, wrestled and went to parties.

"She was enjoying every day," said friend Mimi Redd, 28.

About four years ago, India Clarke began to transition, identifying herself to family and friends as a woman — something Redd said made her happier and even more outgoing.

"It made her stronger," Redd said, "because she was coming into herself."

Her father, Samuel Clarke, said India Clarke and her sister surprised him on June 21 by taking him out for Father's Day. It was the first time the father saw India Clarke in a dress.

Her parents, however, did not use the name she had adopted. They still used Sammy, and she was still close to them. She often ran her fingers through her mother's hair and said how much she loved her family.

"(The transition) didn't change the love we had — that we have — for him," said her mother, Thelma Clarke.

After high school, India Clarke went to cosmetology school on and off. Her mother said she loved doing hair and never went without makeup. Her favorite brand was MAC. Thelma Clarke, who is also a cosmetologist, said India Clarke had been out of school for the past four months but planned to return soon.

"He let hardly nothing get him down," the mother said.

India Clarke's friends and family said she was open about being transgender and spoke out against discrimination. Thomas said India Clarke was involved in a nonprofit he and Redd started to support LGBT African-Americans.

But Redd said India Clarke had trouble finding a job because of her gender identity and eventually turned to prostitution. India Clarke was arrested on that charge in 2013.

"She felt that that was the only way, and named other trans women who started that way, because it's hard to get regular jobs," Redd said. "You feel uncomfortable to be in a classroom because they use your government name, and you can't afford to change it.

"So they resort to prostitution. They felt that's the only way."

McKinnon said detectives have not yet determined a motive in India Clarke's killing. There also hasn't been any indication that her gender identity played any role in her death, he said.

But Duncan said many transgender individuals can face years of discrimination and violence, shaping their lives in a negative way.

Redd said she and India Clarke's other friends want to raise awareness about transgender issues and help transgender women make ends meet without resorting to prostitution.

"We need to tell them there are safe places for them to go," Redd said. "There are safe places for them to live."

India Clarke's friends held a vigil for her on Wednesday evening at University Area Community Center. Thomas said they'll also make T-shirts and may also hold a drag show in her memory.

"She only wanted to be confident," Redd said, "to live at home, to be comfortable like everyone else, to be happy."

Contact Emily McConville at (813) 226-3374 or emcconville@tampabay.com. Contact Katie Mettler at (813) 226-3446 or kmettler@tampabay.com.

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