TAMPA — There was nothing quiet about Jenny DeLeon.
No matter the occasion, no matter the company, she would fill the room with her loud voice, loud personality and even louder clothes. She was bubbly and over the top, a person who was born to break silences.
“All she wanted to do was have fun, be happy and say silly stuff to make you laugh, make you smile or, even better, make you uncomfortable,” said Lucas Wehle, a mentor to DeLeon in her younger years.
“She was just living for the moment with this very free, light-hearted spirit. She never seemed stressed out. She never worried about her future.”
Yet that future was cut short on Nov. 2, when Tampa police detectives say DeLeon was murdered. She was 25.
Her body was found about 6 a.m. in Tampa’s Sulphur Springs area, outside a home near 9th Street North and Fairbanks Avenue. Tampa police have yet to release more information on her case, or announce any leads in their investigation into who killed her and why.
DeLeon was the fourth transgender woman murdered in Florida this year, and among at least 49 transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States killed by violence this year, according to records kept by the Human Rights Campaign.
That number makes 2021 the most violent year on record for the U.S. trans community since the organization, recognized as the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group, began tracking violent killings in 2013. Last year set the previous record with 44.
Still, the group stresses the real numbers are almost always higher, as such fatalities are frequently underreported.
When news spread of DeLeon’s death, those close to her — friends and mentors she met through local LGBTQ support groups — grappled not only with shock, but also the agony of knowing their worst fears had come true. For many, it had been several years since they had heard from DeLeon, Wehle said. They knew she was living on the streets, and they wished they could have taken her in and protected her. But they also knew that wasn’t what she wanted, he said.
DeLeon wanted independence and the freedom to create her own life.
“I think that’s really what hurts the most,” Wehle said. “You know, she survived for a long time on her own. She went out and found her freedom. But it’s just really devastating that this is the reality of the world we live in, even in the town I grew up in, where we’ve created so many resources and so much change. This is still the ending for so many people that I knew and loved.”
In Hillsborough County, court records show DeLeon had been arrested 23 times in her life, starting with a felony battery charge when she was 16. Those who tried to keep up with DeLeon say she was living on the streets, and continued her transient lifestyle until her death. Arrests for selling drugs to undercover officers, trespassing, driving without a license and stealing $20 worth of merchandise from a Publix would land DeLeon in jail for a month or so, providing food and shelter but creating a mountain of debt in unpaid court fees. She frequently talked back to arresting officers, which would earn additional charges for resisting arrest. Once, she ripped up a citation and threw it on the ground while laughing, which earned her another criminal charge for littering.
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“For lots of trans women of color and Latinx trans women like Jenny, survival is tough,” said Nancy Desmond, who along with husband John founded the Tampa branch of LGBTQ support group PFLAG. “Jobs are hard to come by, homes are hard to come by, and survival sex is a real common way to get food in your mouth.”
She was 19 the first time she got caught in a prostitution sting near the intersection of Nebraska and E 93rd avenues.
That arrest was one of eight that sent DeLeon to county jail on prostitution-related charges. Because she was transgender, and because none of her legal documents were changed to reflect her female identity, she would be housed with men under the name given to her by her estranged Guatemalan parents. It was a name she began to abandon in high school, when most of her friends knew her by the nickname “Putty.” At 19, she rebranded herself as “Tiffany DeLeon,” then “Rosetta,” then “Genny.”
In court records, DeLeon would list her home address as the El Rancho Motel on Nebraska Avenue. Her last arrest was the day after Thanksgiving 2020, in her mother’s home. They were arguing and DeLeon spat in her mother’s face, starting a brawl. When Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies arrived, DeLeon fought her arrest. Eventually, she was tased as deputies tackled her to the ground.
Calls and Facebook messages sent to her mother and sister by a Tampa Bay Times reporter were not returned.
When DeLeon first went to a PFLAG Tampa meeting, she was about 16 and had yet to come out as transgender.
The Desmonds had just begun partnering with Wehle, at the time a Metro Inclusive Health trans services employee, to launch a youth program. DeLeon quickly became a mother hen to other quiet, insecure teens in their group. It was only a few months before she came out to the group as transgender.
Despite her effervescent personality, though, DeLeon rarely talked about what her life was like when the group hangouts were over, Wehle said. On paper, she was a student at Leto High School and was living with her mother. But PFLAG and Metro leaders always sensed her family relationships were strained, and after she came out as transgender, she told them she had been kicked out of her home.
A gay couple in the PFLAG group quickly took DeLeon in, and for roughly a year she found some stability, Desmond said.
“But Jenny was incredibly independent, and she wanted to go off on her own,” Desmond said. “She really needed to be her own person, so that’s what happened. Jenny left and afterward she came sporadically to a few PFLAG meetings, but then we kind of lost track of her over the years. But we never forgot her.”
Like anyone, DeLeon had her challenges. She was stubborn and knew how to ruffle feathers, Wehle said. She never seemed to worry about her future, even when loved ones did. But DeLeon was also compassionate and kind. She was confident in her own skin no matter how many people would stare at her high heels and floor-length gowns. Even when she faced rejection from loved ones, DeLeon never carried her anger, Wehle said. No matter how much time had passed, no matter what that past was like, she was a friend.
“She was a survivor and just a really beautiful person,” Wehle said. “For the world to lose her like this, it’s just really devastating.”
Anyone with information about DeLeon’s death can call the Tampa Police Department or CrimeStoppers Tampa Bay at 1-800-873-8477.