Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Chanelle Pickett



In November 1995, Chanelle Pickett, an African-American transsexual woman, was strangled to death at age 23. At her service, Chanelle's twin sister, Gabrielle, also a transsexual woman, remembered her as a vibrant person, "full of life... high-spirited... with many goals."

Chanelle Pickett's murder illustrates why we fought so hard to stay in ENDA. When we say having gender identity language as part of ENDA is a life or death situation, we ain't kidding. Chanelle's murder graphically illustrates the connections between violence and pervasive employment discrimination.

This tragic story begins in 1994, the year prior to Chanelle's murder. The sisters and New York natives were both working steadily at NYNEX in Brookline, MA, (now Verizon's Northeast Bureau) until they were outed in November 2004 as transsexuals. The outing made both of them targets for harassment.

Chanelle sought help from a supervisor for relief but was ignored. She transferred to a different department, but the harassment continued openly and unabated until she and Gabrielle were terminated six weeks later in February 2005 because she got fed up and started standing up to co-workers who subjected her and her sister to gender harassment.

Stunned, unable to find work, feeling hopeless and desperate, having exhausted their options for legitimate employment elsewhere, and free falling toward a desperate poverty, Chanelle finally turned to the risky and dangerous last resort for young and beautiful transwomen trying to survive: Prostitution.

All because she and her twin sister were harassed out of a good job.

Then came the fateful meeting at Playland with William Palmer, a 34 year old computer programmer. Prior to that November 20 night, according to Newsweekly, Chanelle told Natoyear Sherarrion, her friend of eight years, that she had been having nightmares that someone was going to hurt her. They were similar to the fears that another transmurder victim, Amanda Milan would express five years later.

Playland, which opened in 1937 was one of Boston's original gay bars. Until it closed in 1998 it was located in the Combat Zone on Essex Street and had evolved to include a multicultural crowd. While William Palmer tried to deny that he knew Chanelle was transsexual, or that he enjoys the company of transsexuals, he's as familiar to the Boston transgender community that frequented the bar as Norm from Cheers was. He not only knew what and who a transsexual was, he frequently dated them.

Chanelle and Palmer had been seeing each other for some time and they had met at Playland on a number of occasions. Friends say that she really liked Palmer and wanted to have a more serious relationship with him. Palmer had written a letter to Chanelle not only expressing his affection for her, but had promised to help her get back on her feet and to take care of her.

On this particular night Chanelle, Gabrielle and Palmer went to the twins Chelsea area apartment first after leaving Playland and spent 90 minutes trying to convince them to have a three way with him. For some reason Chanelle agreed to go with Palmer to his home in Watertown, MA where he strangled her to death in the early morning hours on November 20. Palmer slept for six hours with Chanelle's dead body lying beside his bed before he turned himself in to a lawyer who informed the police.

According to the coroner, Chanelle's body was found with "bruised face and lips," and her "brain was badly swollen, the neck muscles were bruised, and there was hemorrhaging in the eyes."

With this overwhelming evidence, the letters to Chanelle and being seen in the company of her and other transwomen prior to the murder, Palmer's defense attorney came up with a then new variation of the 'homosexual panic' defense. He claimed that he'd never met Pickett until the night of the murder and because she didn't reveal her transgender status to him, he was overcome with such an uncontrollable rage that he killed her.

In other words, what he was arguing was that his attraction to Chanelle, and Chanelle's very existence as another human being on this planet, upset his white-collar sensibilities to the point where her death was both justifiable and necessary.

Psychologists, the denizens of the Playland, who corroborated the fact that Palmer was their version of Norm from 'Cheers' and the evidence debunked that, but the defense is designed to stir up whatever anti-GLBT feelings are in the juror's minds. In addition to that race reared its ugly head in this trial.

Palmer was portrayed in the Boston media as an average white-collar guy who was an upstanding member of his community. On the other hand, they saddled Chanelle with all the negativity directed at African-American transwomen. They never once pointed out her side of the story or thought of her as a human being who was a valued member of society.

One Boston Herald front-page story at the time described Palmer as a polite, clean-cut preppy. The article went on to describe the murder sympathetically as the only natural reaction any self-respecting, red-blooded, heterosexual man would have.

Despite the strong physical evidence against Palmer, unbelievably the 'trans panic defense worked and he was found not guilty of murder in April 1997. Palmer was convicted only of assault and battery. He received 2 years of jail time, a longer sentence than the prosecutor had requested, with Judge Robert A. Barton acknowledging the particularly "vicious" nature of the killing.

On the heels of the May 15 Deborah Forte strangulation killing and what happened to Tyra Hunter only three months later in August 1995, the verdict outraged the Boston and national transgender communities. Prior to the sentencing a month later, about 45 demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse and handed out leaflets that read "Jury Upholds Death Penalty for Transexualism" and carrying signs with pictures of Chanelle and saying "Justice: A Rich White Man's Game" and "End Violence Against Transgenders". The judge requested a copy of the flyer by courier, and was accommodated by the activists on the scene.

The judge sentenced Palmer in May 1997 to 2 years incarceration (2 1/2 years with 6 months suspended) and 5 years probation. In delivering the sentence, Judge Barton commented bitterly to the defendant "Mr. Palmer should kiss the ground the defense counsel walks on." Judge Barton also cited the gruesome pictures of the victim which, by his own ruling, the jury did not see, leading some observers to speculate that the judge had made an error in not allowing the jury to see the photographs.

Gabrielle Pickett gave moving testimony to the judge, saying "it's hell being transsexual", and "Chanelle wasn't just a sister, she was my best friend. We grew up together, took hormones together, transitioned together..."

While William Palmer successfully avoided contact with the press, outside the Middlesex County Courthouse, Gabrielle declared to reporters, "This isn't the end of it. I will continue to work to end violence against transgender people." She later told reporters outside the courtroom "There was some satisfaction in the sentence, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the verdict was only assault and battery."

Then GenderTalk radio host and activist Nancy Nangeroni told the reporters gathered outside the courtroom, "The judge, by this sentence, has made an unmistakable statement about the injustice of the verdict."

It's a theme that we have seen far too many times in this community. The discrimination that transgender people face leading to loss of employment that exponentially amplifies their vulnerability to violent crime.

Chanelle's sudden fall from life with a steady job and a bright future into poverty, desperation, and violent victimhood is a shocking story that is faced by far too many transpeople, and especially too many transwomen of color. The ever growing Remembering our Dead list and the TDOR's have depressingly pointed out this fact over the years.

Sherarrion sums it up in her comments to a Newsweekly reporter when she said, "She was a good, sweet, loving person. She didn't get her chance to shine. God didn't take my Chanelle, he [Palmer] did...and he won't get the punishment he deserves."

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