#SayHerName: India Clarke

Updated 7:38 AM ET, Thu July 7, 2016

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John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. This column contains offensive language.

Tampa, Florida (CNN)India Clarke was a teenager when she got the tattoo near the corner of her eye. The image was so faint, blue ink on black skin, that her family barely could make it out at first. It was a symbol of metamorphosis. "She said butterflies are always flying away, always free," a friend of hers told me. And this butterfly hinted at life beyond her body.

Back then, India was a recent high school graduate from Tampa, Florida. She wore a black tux and shiny green vest to prom. She played high school football, posing for a team photo wearing twisty braids and a goofy smile. Only later would she tell her father she played the sport simply to try to impress him -- that all she really wanted was to be a cheerleader.
This was 2008 or so, a time when everyone called India Clarke by the name her mother, Thelma Clarke, had given the child at birth: Samuel Elijah Clarke, or Sammy.
It was her father's name -- given to a "miracle baby." Thelma Clarke told me she'd had her tubes tied before becoming pregnant with India. Yet somehow her daughter struggled into the womb and lived. It was like she "was supposed to be here," Thelma Clarke said.
    From that beginning, it was a life that never would be easy.
    Thelma Clarke, left, and her husband, Samuel, at their home in Tampa, Florida.
    About 18 years later, that butterfly tattoo, so faint on her face, so mysterious to those around her, would start to make visible something India had been trying to hide: She was a young woman trapped in a body others saw as male. It always had been that way. At a young age, the child known as Sammy wanted to play with dolls, not trucks. In middle school, a sister, Brittany Shellman, saw her sibling fit a grocery bag to her chest like it was a halter top.
    Back then, it didn't make sense to the family.
    India struggled with this reality as well.
      Friends told me she used to beg God for it to be any other way.
      "I would say, 'You can't rush it,'" Quantisha Henley told me, referring to India's transition. "She was like, 'Friend, I'm a girl. If I could find whatever switch to turn it off I would, but I can't.'"
      "This is in me," she told Henley. "I was born like this."
      India Clarke's metamorphosis, like those of so many transgender people, should have been cause for celebration. She was blossoming into a vibrant young woman. She showered friends and family with "I love yous" as if they were confetti. She lip synced to tough female rappers like Nicki Minaj and Trina, loved doing hair and dreamed of working in a salon with her mother and cousin. Her anime eyes and cutting wit wowed friends and strangers alike.
        But India Clarke wasn't always celebrated -- not in life.
        Her death would come far too soon.

        'You can say her name all day'

        After India's body was found here in Tampa on July 21, 2015, it didn't take long for the outrage to swell in certain corners of America. Celebrities, including Laverne Cox, the transgender actress known for her role on "Orange is the New Black," and who India's friends say she idolized, launched a social media campaign asking all of us to #SayHerName.
        "[T]his week the 10th Trans Woman of Color to be lynched this year was found ... in Tampa FL," Cox wrote on Instagram on July 22, 2015. "She was only 25 years old and clearly into all things beauty hair and makeup just like me. I can't help but feel like I'm next. That's why I do the work I do because the [average] life expectancy for someone like me is only 35 years old."
        "We must #SayHerName," the actress wrote. "#IndiaClarke."
          Nearly one year after India's death, friends and family still ache from her absence, their eyes welling with memories of a person who was both life of the party and a confidante, both sassy queen and a doting aunt. "I just wish my baby was here with me," her mother told me. "Every day, a part of me is gone. I am not the same. I know life still goes on, and I'm trying to make the best of it, but I miss my baby. I know my kids love me, but India showed the most love. Not only to me, to everybody ... she was always telling me, 'Momma, I love you.'"
          India's killer "really took someone special from us, you know?" said India's cousin, Lakischa Hicks. "People can say, 'I love you,' but showing someone you love them is different. [India] always did that."
          India Clarke's body was found in this park in July 2015.
          The rest of us, however, have forgotten her.
          I attended a recent LGBT pride parade in St. Petersburg, Florida, across the bay from Tampa. No one carried a sign bearing the words "India Clarke." While some people did remember India and told me they were moved by her death, many LGBT people, including a few transgender women, told me they didn't recognize her name or story. The pride parade opened appropriately with people carrying the names of 49 people killed in the June 12 massacre at a gay club in Orlando, which is about 1½ hours by car from Tampa. But the name of India Clarke, hometown girl, killed at age 25 apparently for being who she was, was absent.
          Signs at the playground where her body was found don't mention her.
          "No Bicycles, No Alcohol, No Soliciting."
          Her grave in Tampa is yet to get a headstone.
          Yes, there was an arrest in the case.
          But these deaths are far too familiar.
          LGBT Americans are "far more likely" to be the victims of hate crimes than any other minority group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The nonprofit organization analyzed data from 1995 to 2008 and found LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be attacked as Jews and African-Americans, with Jews being the second most likely group to be victims of violent hate crimes. LGBT people are more than four times as likely as Muslims to be targeted, and have nearly 14 times the risk of Latinos. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the rate of hate crimes against LGBT people remained about twice that of those against African-Americans, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
          In other words: This was happening, with little alarm, before Orlando.
          Transgender people, especially black transgender women like India Clarke, are at particular risk for violence. Between 2013 and 2015, the year of India's killing, at least 53 transgender people were killed in the United States, according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition. Forty-six were transgender women, and 46 were transgender people of color. A congressional task force has called this underreported trend an "epidemic of violence." And LGBT advocates named November 20 Transgender Day of Remembrance in an attempt to sear the names of the fallen into our brains.
          It's critical to remember the names of the dead, but that's not why I'm telling you India Clarke's story. Frankly, that's not why her friends were so passionate about sharing it, either.
          "You can say her name all day and that's not going to change anything," India's friend Charles "Rainbow" Thomas, 31, told me on my visit to Tampa.
          Our collective amnesia is sad.
          What's tragic is that India Clarke is dead.
          And that prejudice helped kill her.

          'Silent truth'

          India Clarke's metamorphosis began slowly.
          Her friend Mimi Davis was there to watch it firsthand.
          The two friends would try on dresses in Davis' apartment, or they'd go driving around Tampa dressed as women. Davis, 26 and also transgender, said they never had to explain themselves to one another, which was rare. "It's a silent truth we had between each other," Davis said.
          They experimented with being themselves in public -- at first only at night, feeling safe under the cover of darkness. Getting ready was a frenzied affair. India loved MAC brand makeup, and she applied it with such tornadic enthusiasm that it coated bathroom sinks and walls. "She would not go out that door without her MAC," said Henley, a friend who met India shortly before she came out as transgender. "She would lose her mind without that MAC."
          It wasn't about being glam, or not only that.
          India needed to see herself -- her true self -- in the mirror.
          She emerged as a kaleidoscope of beautiful women: wearing jet-black bangs on some occasions, a bright blond bob on others. In 2011, she started posting selfies almost daily on an "India Clarke" Facebook page. In the images, she plays with scrunching her chest to create breasts, wearing tight shorts and long, feather-duster eyelashes.
          Perhaps the photos were a sign she finally was feeling at home in her body.
          "I love me," she posted on New Year's Eve 2011.
          By that point, however, India knew how unloved some LGBT people in the United States could be. Kids at school had called her "faggot" when she was only 10 or 11 years old, according to Thelma Clarke. India was "called that throughout" her life, her mother said.
          She worked a few jobs -- at the airport, at Burger King -- dressed "as Sammy," Davis said. But by 2011, India had made up her mind to present herself full-time as a woman.
          There was no turning back.
          Like many trans people, she would face hardship for being so honest.
          In 2012, she took a job at a Tampa convenience store. She stuffed her long hair up into a hat, according to Hicks, her cousin. But family and friends say a supervisor told her she couldn't wear makeup and women's clothing to work.
          She quit, Davis told me, because she insisted on being herself.
          That sparked friction between India and her family, too. Thelma Clarke told me she was in denial at first about India being transgender and presenting herself as a woman. Only later would India stand on her parents' doorstep in a dress and insist on being accepted.
          Her father, Samuel Clarke, 64, told me he once yelled at India for wearing "booty shorts" in his home, shorts that he wouldn't have been happy to see on any female relative. This was before she'd come out as transgender to him.
          "'Not even my wife wears nothing like that. And you're my son coming in here with that s***?'" Samuel Clarke recalls telling India. "'Don't ever let me catch you wearing that s*** and coming in my house no more.'"
          Three of India's friends -- Davis, Thomas and Princess Jones -- told me there were periods when India said she was not welcome at home. That's an accusation her mother denies.
          India "called me crying on the phone (saying), 'I can't come home,'" Davis told me.
          "She was on her own but that was by choice," said Hicks, her cousin.
          Whatever the cause, India ended up living off and on with friends, Davis and others told me, and stayed at least a couple of nights on park benches. She did rent a room or an apartment on at least a couple of occasions, but her housing situation was not stable.
          Friends described her as functionally homeless.
          India felt increasingly isolated.
          "When you lay down at night and it's just you, the reality sets in," Davis told me. If "I'm not here ... who's going to miss [me]? That comes to mind. You're scrutinized every day by society and people ... It makes you not want to go anywhere," she said. "We went out a lot at night but during the day you don't want to go anywhere. It's a struggle every day."
          After India Clarke's death, advocates asked the world to #SayHerName online.
          One night, Thelma Clarke told me, she saw India sleeping in a car in a parking lot a few blocks from the family's house. India was wearing a blond wig, her mom said.
          It was the first time Thelma Clarke had seen her daughter in a wig.
          She pounded on the window.
          India woke up, startled.
          She threw the car into reverse and sped away.

          'Utterly crushed'

          To understand the dark turn India Clarke's life took next, the turn that would lead to her death last summer, I visited Room 236 of a motel near an interstate in Tampa.
          Kandie Jackson, a 29-year-old whose gold eyeshadow popped on her charcoal skin, sat on a bed with a tilted headboard; Diamond Jackson, 30, pulled up a chair next to her. Marijuana smoke filled the air, giving the scene a feeling of being stuck in time.
          There was a pile of wigs in the corner, bras by the air conditioner and a water bottle shaped like a penis on the nightstand. Open on the bedspread was a Bible, turned to Psalm 38.
          "Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me," the ancient verse reads, in part. "Because of your wrath there is no health in my body ... I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart ... even the light has gone from my eyes."
          "It just expresses me always," Kandie Jackson told me.
          It's her favorite Psalm.
          The Jacksons say they are half-sisters and have been looking out for each other for about 15 years -- a time when they felt they had no choice but to sell sex for cash. Maybe that's a claim you'd like to dismiss. But consider that Kandie Jackson, like so many transgender women, says she was chased out of her house at age 15 for being transgender.
          "Where did I go?" she said. "To the streets."
          That same year, she told me, she "put on girl clothes and I just decided to go walking."
          It felt liberating, like she was finally being herself.
          An older man saw this innocent moment and thought it was something else.
          He offered her $80 for a blowjob, she told me.
          She did it, and now she's here.
          This life -- living in and out of hotels, doing sex work all night just to avoid sleeping on the streets the next day -- is of course more difficult than almost any of us can imagine. That would be true for most sex workers. But transgender prostitutes face particular discrimination and abuse. Kandie Jackson told me she was raped at knifepoint. She had her face kicked into the sidewalk by three men yelling gay slurs. Her nose is still deformed. And she was chased across Tampa by a friend, a non-romantically involved, non-client friend, who learned she was transgender and became enraged.
          "I want you to tell me one motherf***ing thing," he yelled at her. "Are you a man or a woman?"
          She ran as fast as she could.
          Friends say India Clarke loved MAC makeup because it helped her turn into her true self. Here, drag queen Juicy Sherrington arranges makeup in the men's bathroom before a performance.
          "Baby, it's a lot of s***," Kandie Jackson told me. "We could probably talk about it all day."
          She added, "It's just part of life."
          Did you know India Clarke? I asked.
          Yes, both women told me.
          They said they worked with her for two or three years.

          'Yearning for that love'

          No one knows exactly why India turned to prostitution.
          But it's clear society wasn't doing her any favors.
          She was a black, transgender woman in a world that discriminates against all three.
          "She was crying out to be accepted," said Quantisha Henley.
          "If she was accepted, she wouldn't have went that route. The only reason she went that route was because she wasn't accepted. If she was low on MAC she was going to go to work."
          Records show she was arrested for prostitution and marijuana possession in September 2013. Mimi Davis said India turned to sex work sometime in 2012. It was a year after she'd started presenting herself full-time as a woman, and she was living on and off with Davis during this period. India didn't feel like she was allowed to go home as a woman, Davis said, and didn't fit in elsewhere.
          Thelma Clarke maintains her child was always loved and welcome at home.
          Davis told me India "was yearning for that love from her mom."
          This was especially true while India still was hiding her true identity from her family.
          "The men that she met made her feel like a woman, made her feel complete, made her feel pretty," India's friend said. "She didn't get that" in other aspects of her life.
          The founders of Special for You and Me, an organization that, among other things, aims to help LGBT people who turn to prostitution, reached out to India. Kiala Emmons and Charles Thomas told me too many women follow a similar path -- they try to get work, feel discriminated against, and slide toward the streets. Emmons, a transgender woman who also is an HIV prevention specialist at METRO Wellness in Tampa, told me she started off looking for office work. But interviews were awkward because her legal name was male and she appeared female. "I found myself going to housekeeping positions, and then fast food positions," Emmons said. "It really broke my self esteem down a whole lot. I knew I was definitely capable of having (more than) a job at McDonalds, but that's where I felt like they wouldn't discriminate."
          "You just keep going down and down and down" the spiral toward unemployment, homelessness and sex work, she said. "Some people can't take that."
          The cost of transitioning only adds to the struggle.
          Some transgender women purchase black-market hormones or have household products -- tire repair solution, window caulking -- injected into their faces and hips to make themselves look more feminine, Emmons said. Often this work leaves the women disfigured.
          India took hormones but didn't inject household products into her body, friends said.
          Both Emmons and Thomas told me India turned to sex work quickly -- that it was almost like she had something to prove. "She wanted to show [her family], to show me, to show the world she could make it on her own," said Thomas, who is a former sex worker.
          "She wanted to be everything she became when she died," he said.
          Meaning: famous and loved.

          'Dangerous life'

          When India Clarke stood on her doorstep dressed as a woman for the first time on Father's Day 2013, Thelma Clarke told me her honest, human reaction was to take offense.
          "I was hurt," she told me. "I was very hurt because I knew what I birthed was a boy."
          But she embraced and welcomed her daughter anyway.
          Friends told me India was ecstatic.
          "She just lit up," said Henley. "She had a Kool-Aid smile."
          The family was going to eat at Joe's Crab Shack. India's father, Samuel Clarke, rode in a separate car to try to get his head around the whole thing. Talk to him now, though, and he'll tell you how much he loved India Clarke, how much more understanding he is of LGBT people.
          It was a few months later, in December 2013, according to Davis and other friends, that India Clarke went back to live with her family more consistently. India had fallen sick and was hospitalized, the friends told me. She had called Davis from "her deathbed."
          India would disappear in a rental car for days at a time, traveling to cities like Miami, Orlando or Fort Myers, Florida. Her friends say she was doing sex work. Her mother and cousin say they didn't know about the type of work India was doing. They were surprised by her arrest.
          It became increasingly clear to everyone that India was in danger, though.
          It was almost like she saw her death coming.
          "She was like, "Friend, this (is) a dangerous life that I'm living. She put emphasis on those words," said Henley. "She would cry. She said, 'I don't want to do this, but this is how I eat. ...'"
          On December 29, 2014, Henly got an alarming text from India.
          "Friend, I got shot last night."
          Everyone else thought she was lucky to be alive, but India posted a photo of her arm in a cast on Facebook and bragged that violence wouldn't stop her.
          "Can't nothing and I mean Nothing stop my money flow!!!!!" she wrote. "Tru hustler."
          Perhaps that was for show.
          She took a more reflective tone less than two weeks later.
          "Life too short for the dumb s*** love each other because u never kno when the last time may come," she wrote on Facebook on January 9, 2015. "[M]y family is my life my friends is a part of my life and I just need all of them to kno that even if u dont here from me see me or even here anyone speak of me I'm still here with the same love I have had from day one! Ive had fall outs fights separation from family but my heart still remains the same. Now days people be arguing about the dumbest things for what? Cause the next second ain't promised !!!!"
          "The life I live now yall could never understand!!!!!" she wrote on April 26. "I hide my anger behind a smile and a pretty face why???? Because I still do have faith and one day I'll have my focus back on track I'm not perfect and I never try to be .im just a human that got lost on my journey.my mom always said its NEVER to late and I believe that!!"
          Three months later, on the morning of July 21, 2015, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department says deputies found India Clarke's body near a playground in north Tampa.
          Their report says she had been shot in the head and arm.
          A tall concrete barrier stands at the edge of the park, too high to climb.
          India's mom wonders if India was backed up against it.
          "It was as if [she] was trying to get over that wall."


          Local authorities charged Keith Lamayne Gaillard with first-degree murder.
          They say Gaillard, now 19, killed India Clarke and Tyrone Davis five days later.
          Davis' family told local news media he was gay.
          Near India's body, authorities found a 2013 Chevy Malibu she'd rented. In the back seat, according to authorities, was a used condom. They said the DNA matched Gaillard.
          No one knows exactly what transpired that night. The public likely will learn more when Gaillard goes to trial on both murder charges, and he has pleaded his innocence. But India Clarke's friends and family say she died for being a black transgender woman in America.
          I can't help but sympathize with this view. The discrimination India Clarke faced for being transgender helped land her in increasingly sad and dangerous situations. Henley told me India attempted suicide several times because she felt so judged and unloved in a world that couldn't accept her. All the awful circumstances she faced -- the teasing, the name calling, the violence, the rejection in various realms of her life -- help explain why 41% of transgender people report attempting suicide, why 20% to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and why transgender people are twice as likely as others to be unemployed.
          There's nothing wrong with them.
          There's everything wrong with how the rest of us treat them.
          We need to say India Clarke's name, sure.
          But if we truly want to honor her memory we would support programs to help transgender people change their names legally and seek shelter from a life on the street. We'd enact laws that explicitly protect LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace and housing market. Florida would add gender identity to its hate crime statutes; it's woefully missing.
          Juicy Sherrington, 26, smokes a cigarette before a performance at Club Skye.
          I spent hours talking with Emmons and Thomas, the friends trying to get condoms, counseling and housing to transgender sex workers like India. They have no funding. They've held support groups in their own homes for these women but are depressed when the women ask, "Where can I live if I'm not making money from sex?"
          They don't have answers.
          Mainstream LGBT rights groups, which do fine work and have been under incredible stress in the wake of the Orlando massacre, are doing too little to help poor, transgender women. They must make this issue a priority and should receive funding needed to do so.
          Yes, there are transgender executives and celebrities. Yes, incredible progress has been made for the LGBT community as a whole. But, in a twist of irony, this visibility also brings danger.
          We're failing to protect the most vulnerable among us. And that's what we're talking about here: Black, transgender women are arguably the most vulnerable group in modern America.
          Similarly, I can't help but be frustrated with advocates who championed India Clarke shortly after her death but have done little to learn her story or ensure others do, too. Equality Florida did hold a vigil for India after her death. But few seem to be saying her name these days. Why isn't anyone helping raise money for a headstone to be placed at her burial plot? Why is there no memorial at the site of her killing? How is it possible that an LGBT pride parade held shortly before the first anniversary of her death would not bear her name?
          How quickly we forget.

          'Hating who you are'

          Finally, and most importantly, we need to take a hard look in the mirror.
          Do we see the people we really are -- really can be?
          If so, why do we treat people so awfully just for being different?
          I asked several people I met in Tampa what they believe lies at the root of India Clarke's death, and what might help explain the violence against LGBT people that flared in June in Orlando.
          "Hate," Charles Thomas told me, plain and simple.
          "That's the only thing I can think: hate.
          "And not only hating other people but hating who you are."
          The second point struck a chord with me.
          I'm gay, and one of my greatest shames is the anti-gay remarks I made when I was growing up in Oklahoma and terrified of who I was. When an acquaintance in high school came out to me and asked for my honest opinion of the brave step he'd taken, I told him we would still be friends but that I thought homosexuality was a sin.
          It's what everyone around me -- at church, school -- had taught me to say. And, more to the point, it was easier to say that than face my own sexual orientation.
          Friends and family remember India Clarke nearly one year after her death. But it's clear others have forgotten her. Here, a friend, Juicy Sherrington, performs in Tampa.
          Today I believe with every fiber of my being that coming out as LGBT is cause for unqualified celebration. When I came out, I remember how hurtful it was when friends told me they were "praying for my soul."
          I know such comments may seem small.
          But they can leave a mark on a vulnerable person.
          Nothing will bring India Clarke back into this world.
          We can, however, choose to act differently because of her story.
          And, in doing so, ensure that other transgender women don't suffer her fate.

          'Just as we were getting closer'

          I want to leave you with a few words about Thelma Clarke, India's mother.
          India and her mom had their share of conflict.
          But they'd been trying to patch up the relationship in the year before her death.
          After India moved back home, Thelma Clarke did her daughter's hair, according to both Davis and Thelma Clarke. India had re-enrolled in a beauty college hoping she could one day work with her mom in a salon she co-owns with a cousin. And her mother even met India on her turf, at a local club called The Interstate, to dance with a daughter in a yellow skirt.
          "He was just dancing, dancing," Thelma Clarke said, referring to India. "He said, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this. Mom, you're coming here to hang out with me?' He just started crying. Tears of joy ... He just could not stop telling me: 'I love you so much mom, I love you so much.'"
          India's parents still struggle with the pronouns. They call India he as well as she. And they slip up -- they know it's a slip -- and call their daughter "Sammy" sometimes.
          But they respect her metamorphosis.
          They loved this fragile butterfly.
          So much they buried her in a dress.
          Hicks, India's cousin, told me the family had to call several churches to find one that would bury India as a woman. That was important to Thelma Clarke, Hicks said.
          "They're human, too," Thelma Clarke told me, referring to LGBT people. "You cannot seek God and try to judge somebody else. ... Who am I to judge? That's what I'm trying to say.
          "Who am I to judge?"
          "Just as we were getting closer and closer," she said, "this had to happen."
          Kimberly Puryear, 28, performs during a drag show in Tampa, Florida.
          After getting a knock on the door from a law enforcement officer on the morning of July 21, Samuel Clarke found his wife at work to deliver the news.
          She ran out of the building, hysterical and in tears.
          "It felt like my heart was so heavy, like someone laid a big brick just right on top," she said. "And now all I can do is just look at his pictures and think about him -- our good times."
          How India Clarke is remembered is important to her friends, and to me.
          Friends and transgender advocates took deep offense, saying the misgendering of India revictimized her. She'd lost her life for being who she was. And then that identity was stolen.
          You get a sense of how India's parents remember her by standing in their living room.
          The couple has a large image of their fallen child above the TV.
          It features two India Clarke selfies, side by side.
          In both, she's dressed as herself, long lashes and lip gloss.
          On the left, a toothy smile.
          At right, closed lips.
          Underneath the image are these words: "#SayHerName."