The first homicide of 2018 appeared to check off the usual boxes for murders in Buffalo. It occurred near Broadway and Bailey, an area that is no stranger to gun violence in one of the poorest and most racially segregated cities in America. A “35-year-old man,” Buffalo Police disclosed to local media, had been shot to death. The outlier was the date of February 6, late in the year for the city to see its first homicide. In 2017, there were three on New Year’s Day alone.
A day or two later, a bigger picture emerged when the Buffalo News identified the victim as a transgender woman named Tonya, or “Kita,” Harvey. Harvey was described by a friend as a “big staple” in the LGBT community and had performed extensively in Western New York’s “ballroom” and “showgirl” scene.
Harvey’s mother told The Public that while neither police nor medical examiner officials shared information about the nature of her injuries, the funeral director informed her five days after the murder that Harvey had been shot six times “in the head, in the neck, in the butt, in the groin, and back.”
According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Harvey was, at that point, the fourth transgender person to be killed in 2018. As of this report, GLAAD tallies nine, seven of them women of color. Trans advocate Arrie Moore told the Buffalo News at the time that “the hatred, the bigotry, and the aggressive attacks on trans people is almost an everyday occurrence in our lives.”
The office of District Attorney John Flynn released a statement that week saying it acknowledged the disturbing “spike in homicides of transgender people across the country” and would be evaluating evidence as the case is investigated to weigh it as a possible hate crime. Last month, Flynn told The Public that the case would be “looked at potentially as a hate crime, and if it was in fact a hate crime it would be pursued aggressively.” He added, “I have no indication that it is a hate crime as of right now.” This was still the case last week when we asked Flynn’s office for an update.
Asked whether the locations of gunshot wounds on her body might indicate the presence of a hate crime, Flynn stated that “it could potentially be,” or it could mean the perpetrator was a “bad shot.”
Arnester Harvey knew from a young age that her child was different, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. It first came to a head when she was living in the Ferry Grider homes when Harvey was seven or eight years old. Other parents would tell her that her son was gay, but she didn’t see it. “I was, like, ‘He’s a kid, he should be able to do what he want to do,’” she recalled. “You can’t put anybody in a box.” Though divorced, Harvey asked to be referred to by her married name for this story.
But things got worse. “When I saw Boo being bullied and everything, I was, like, ‘I gotta get him out of here,’” she said. “I gotta work hard and get my kids out of the projects.”
“Boo” was the gender-versatile name they used in the place of her given name: “Mark,” after her father.
Arnester got Boo and her little brother by six years off of Donovan Drive, first to an apartment on Burgard Street and then to a tidy home in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood. Harvey has been working as nursing assistant for New York State Department of Corrections for nearly 20 years.
But family stability did not translate into stability for Boo. Her mother and other family members were slow to understand Boo as a teenager. The Boo who snuck out of the house at age 14 to go to Club Marcella downtown, the Boo who started spending a lot of time in a hair salon on Main Street, the Boo who was brave enough to attend Lafayette High School in women’s attire. “I had blinders on, as a mom, now that I look back on it,” Harvey said.
Inside that hair salon, Harvey, known there as “Ace,” started to evolve. A gay stylist took Ace under his wing. Vaughn Mciver, who now owns and operates another Main Street salon called Garth Beauty, remembers a bold, even annoying gay kid in the shop. “Honestly I gravitated towards Kita because so many people in the community kind of did not like her. She was a lot to deal with. At that time, I felt I could take her underneath my wing before somebody really hurts her,” Mciver told The Public.
Ace became what Mciver calls his “first gay child,” the first in a line of younger gay and questioning people with whom he’s developed paternal relationships over the years. Until the end, Kita called him “Dad.”
“A lot of families, they don’t know how to cope with homosexual children,” Mciver said. “I came from a super supportive family, so I didn’t identify with those things. So it was easier for me to talk to their parents and help them understand like my parents understood.”
Mciver had such conversations with Kita’s mother, who struggled reconciling her faith and her daughter’s identity.
“My struggle come in is that I don’t want to be a disappointment to God,” Arnester Harvey said. “I don’t want God mad at me. At the same time, God gave me a child that I know felt like a woman, that I believe deep down inside was a woman.”
It’s something that Harvey and her family still struggle with; they alternate between gender pronouns when talking about her.
Though Harvey was wearing feminine clothing and hairstyles at time, she tried to enlist in the armed services as “Mark” after finishing at Lafayette High School. During the recruitment process, she was met with devastating news: Not only was she not eligible to enlist, she learned she had a potentially life-threatening medical condition.
The show must go on
As a woman, Kita Harvey was “a show-stopper,” and “a beautiful girl, not just on the inside, but on the outside as well,” Ebony M. Johnson told The Public. Johnson looked up to Kita, even though Kita was eight years her junior. Both Kita and Johnson were inspired by seminal 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning about the burgeoning ballroom scene in New York City, and both had spent time in New York City at different periods.
“When I first seen her I was traumatized how beautiful she was,” said Kita’s friend Ealise Watson, who recalled meeting her before her own male-to-female transition at age 15. “She was the epitome of looking like a woman.” Watson said Harvey was more of a “showgirl” than a “ballroom girl,” meaning she would perform in a cabaret style in nightclubs rather than “walk” in a ballroom fashion competition.
In her transition, Kita was a fearless trailblazer. “I talked to her and she gave me a lot of advice on how she started her transition,” Johnson said. “She went to Mexico and when she came back, she set this LGBT community on fire.” To Johnson, she was a sister. They lived together, traveled together, and helped each other to survive.
“Throughout the years she gave me, you know, tactics—what I needed to do. She was a big staple in the LGBT community here in Western New York. She brought back a lot of things, she inspired a lot of young trans women that came out in this community around this time.”
She was bold, and bright, a talented singer, lyricist, and dancer. “Honestly, she was an entertainer,” said Mciver. “She was very good. We used to call her the rig queen because she could rig anything. She could take a T-shirt and turn it into a doll. She was very, very creative, very articulate.”
“She was a great performer,” said Johnson. “She was very talented.”
Arnester Harvey keeps videos of her daughter’s performances and poems saved on her phone. She labored over a short poem she wrote for her daughter’s funeral, hoping to hold a candle to her daughter’s talent.
Watson, who Kita called Lola, treasured the talks she had with Kita over the years, which often turned to spirituality. Kita was religious and unceasingly optimistic. Watson was several years younger than Harvey, and Harvey served as a role model and mentor. Watson described Harvey as an intelligent and gifted writer, that Harvey would turn to writing poetry as therapy while undergoing drug rehabilitation treatment.
Watson remembers Kita’s “loving heart.” “She’ll put you before she put herself,” Watson said. “If she had a shirt and I liked the shirt, she would give me the shirt. She would always look out for me. She would make sure when I didn’t have nowhere to go, when I was going through my downs in my life, she made sure I had a roof over my head, made sure I had somewhere to go.”
Kita loved everybody. Arnester Harvey was amazed at her daughter’s ability to forgive her father, who died several years ago. Mark Harvey struggled with drugs. He would steal from the family to support his habit and was physically violent with the family as well.
According to her friends and family, Kita’s downfall was caused by her own drug use. They saw her less and less as time went on. She lived in and out of the supportive housing, the only thing keeping her from full-time homelessness. No one, including Kita, harbored illusions about her lifestyle and its inherent dangers. No one really knows the people she was hanging with in her last days.
“I asked Boo, ‘Boo, if something ever happened to you, how would you like to be buried?’” her mother said. “And Boo grabbed my hands and held both of them and said, ‘Mom, whatever makes you happy.’”
“She had literally just came into my salon a week before she got killed,” Mciver said. “There is nobody but God that brought her in there. And she just said, ‘Dad, just wanted to say I love you and I need to use the bathroom.’”
Mciver told Kita he loved her, too, and told her to be safe.
Living without a safety net
“It was devastating. That’s the only word. It was devastating,” said Mciver.
“I’m devastated,” Arnester Harvey said at a public event in March. “I don’t know how I can continue to go on. I have so many questions, so few answers.”
Kita’s murder sent ripples through the whole LGBTQ community and beyond. “I mean it’s really scary,” Damian Mordecai, executive director of the PRIDE Center, told The Public. “You hear about this stuff, we know that trans women of color, the murder rate is just—and these are just the numbers that we know about—is very high and it continues to increase year after year. What folks don’t realize is that trans people, because they’re discriminated against in employment and housing, often times they turn to—they have to survive—they turn to survival sex work.”
The lack of a safety net for some of the most at-risk people in our society affects us all, Mordecai said. “Again, when trans people turn to sex work, oftentimes the people that are hiring them are men who identify as straight who may have girlfriends or wives, and if they get any kind of STI or infection, they pass that on or could pass that on to a partner. And so the things that affect my community affect your community. They affect the greater community.”
Johnson is no stranger to the fast money realities of being a young trans woman of color in America, but she’s always had on-the-books jobs. She went through the long and costly process—several hundred dollars for court filing fees, new driver license and passport—of having her government identity changed. “If your name is Charles and you’re looking like Christine, people are not gonna hire you,” she said.
Not having proper ID creates a substantial barrier for trans women seeking employment and sometimes healthcare and basic services. “They get discouraged and they wind up wanting to do the sex work. Then they may indulge in some kind of drug activity, and then it leads into whatever. Nine times out of 10 it doesn’t end well,” Johnson said.
Johnson is hoping to take her message and Kita’s story to young women in the lifestyle. She has approached the MOCHA Center, an agency which assists LGBTQ people of color with health-related issues, to help lead groups for young trans women.
“I used to tell a lot of girls you can’t file taxes being an escort. That type of sex work, it wears you thin. It’s all negativity in it. It might start off well because of the dollars, but in reality it’s horrible. It’s just so horrible. I don’t know, maybe this whole thing with Tonya, maybe it might influence some girls to get their life together. Then there’s others, I don’t know. Drugs can be very addictive.”
“I want her death to mean something,” Arnester Harvey said. “Boo was the type of person that encouraged others that came into the lifestyle, that it’s okay. Her legacy is that if this is the way you feel you have to go, it’s okay. She helped a lot of people accept who they were. That’s part of how Boo was.”
“The transgender community is ostracized, they don’t get the opportunities a lot of us are able to get,” Harvey said at the State of Our City event in March. “They need housing. They need counseling. They need rehab facilities. They need to be loved just as all of us need to be loved.”
Police and justice
Mordecai, of the PRIDE Center, has had often rich engagement with many levels of law enforcement agencies in Western New York, including the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Buffalo Police Department. He’s developed a special relationship with the BPD, assisting in training new recruits.
“Unlike other cities where these kinds of trainings have been kind of forced upon different kinds of departments, this wasn’t,” Mordecai said. “This was, ‘We recognize the value in this and we want to offer this to our officers.’ It’s unique really.”
On the other side, the PRIDE Center recognizes the historical mistrust between the LGBT community and law enforcement. “Our movement started as a riot,” Mordecai said. “I guess at everything that was happening, but fighting police officers.” At large events, PRIDE sometimes has to hire private security because attendees don’t want to see armed, uniformed police.
Mordecai explains this history to law enforcement administration and officers in trainings, and also how trans people are easily drawn into illegal sex work and then feel targeted by police for attempting to survive. The trainings have improved relations, according to Mordecai: Some officers stop in to talk, gather information, or check in after a reported attack on an LGBT person, though he said, to his knowledge, no one from the BPD has checked in at the PRIDE Center about Tonya Harvey’s murder.
“My daughter’s blood is still on Shepard Street in this city,” Arrester Harvey said in March. “I’m very hurt about the justice in this city. I haven’t talked to the police, they haven’t contacted me about any results.”
Harvey later clarified that she had been in touch with Buffalo detectives in the first month after her daughter’s murder, but communication faded and she felt frustrated.
In a phone call, Buffalo police said that they are pursuing leads and that the investigation is ongoing. Asked if anything about Harvey’s murder has indicated that a hate crime had occurred, Detective Sergeant Bill Cooley told The Public, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable divulging some of that information at this juncture because it’s a sensitive investigation and we don’t want to compromise any investigative leads.”
Cooley said nothing about the investigation so far has led him to believe that there is an specific threat to the LGBT community.
Speaking broadly about the low clearance rate for homicides in Buffalo, DA John Flynn said that there were two categories of homicides in Buffalo, that 80 percent of homicides can be classified as gang-related, and for those homicides, the clearance rate is even lower. Flynn declined to categorize Harvey’s homicide in either group.
Cooley also declined to speculate whether Tonya Harvey’s murder was drug- or gang-related.
Meantime, Arnester Harvey ponders justice. “If the killer was there at the [funeral] service, I don’t know, but that’s my message to them. You may be living, but you have to live with the memory of what you’ve done. That has to be a horrible life, to always look back over your shoulder because you’ve taken someone’s life. My baby’s free. Smiling. Magnified more than when she was alive.”
The funeral program cover offered split images of Mark and Kita. On the back was Arnester Harvey’s poem for her child. In her living room, with her daughter’s ashes in an urn on the mantle and also inside a heart-shaped locket she had made, she read it aloud: “Hi my Boo, you go to heaven and get your wings, spread them far so the angels sing. Down on earth they will see they haven’t done nothing to thee. Don’t you know now you’re free? No more pain, abuse and bad names for thee. Rest, yes rest my child and receive your wings. Your mother loves you more than you could ever know. It’s OK my Boo you’re free to go.”
Buffalo police say they are conducting an active investigation into Kita Harvey’s murder. The Buffalo Police Department maintains a confidential tip hotline that can receive calls or texts at 716-847-2255.