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Observers at the Sasha Garden vigil

Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

Observers at the Sasha Garden vigil

A transgender woman was found dead last week at an Orlando apartment complex. Adding deep insult to mortal injury, how it was first reported by deputies and local media was awful.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office says her body, which had signs of trauma, was found at around 5 a.m. behind the Reserve at Lake Buchanan Apartments on Holden Avenue, near Orange Blossom Trail. As of Monday, deputies were still looking for the suspect who killed her.

The woman was identified as Sasha Garden, 27, by her family and friends.

Garden was originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the majority of her family lives, her cousin Yolanda Davis said. Days after her murder, Davis remembered Garden for her love of hard candy and her open heart.

"Sasha was just Sasha," she says. "Her biggest thing was to provide for her family. She didn't take shit. She was always a kind person. Everybody has their mean days – ain't nobody perfect. But at the end of the day she was genuine. She didn't sugarcoat it."

Garden liked to wear her hair long and appreciated the glittery things in life. Davis said her cousin was the only one allowed to touch her hair because Garden was such a talented stylist.

"My baby is gone," Davis says. "We're still in disbelief. I want to know who was angry enough to beat my little cousin to death."

  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

Garden had been living in Orlando on and off for the past two years, according to Mulan Montrese Williams, an advocate for transgender women and outreach coordinator for the HIV/AIDS organization Miracle of Love.

"She was traveling a lot, trying to find a new home and find herself," she says.

Montrese Williams says her house is known as a safe haven for transgender women who are doing sex work – she passes out condoms, gives out water bottles and does HIV testing.

Garden was a sex worker who dreamed of opening her own hair salon, though her current financial goal had been saving up money for transition-related medical expenses, Montrese Williams says. She believes it's likely that Garden was working just before she was found dead.

Montrese Williams used to be a sex worker. This isn't the first time she's had to identify a trans woman killed while doing sex work. LGBTQ advocates say trans women of color, especially black women, face increased levels of violence.

"I know how it is," she says. "You know when something happens, we don't call police. We don't want to be judged by the police. We don't want to be misgendered by officers – they still tell us, 'We have to call you by your government name, what's on your ID.'"

click to enlarge sasha.jpg

Montrese Williams says Sasha Garden was very outgoing but misunderstood.

"She was a firecracker – very outspoken," she says. "She didn't hold her tongue for anyone or anybody. Her womanhood was one of those things she stood up for. She didn't tolerate any disrespect at all."

Montrese Williams says Orange County deputies came to her house around 7:30 a.m. for her help identifying Garden.

"They were very uneducated," Montrese Williams says of the deputies. "As soon as I opened the door, I get, 'I hear a bunch of transvestites stay here.' I had to let them know, I'm a transgender woman and I'm the only one that stays here."

Montrese Williams corrected the deputies' terminology and after identifying Garden from a photo of her body, made sure to tell deputies her name was "Sasha" and that she was a trans woman.

"[The deputy] acted like he couldn't even pronounce transgender," she says.

Despite Montrese Williams telling deputies that Sasha Garden was a trans woman, OCSO sent out a news alert using Garden's dead name and describing her as a 27-year-old man from Jacksonville, who "was wearing a wig and was dressed as a female."

Naturally, after the Orange County Sheriff's Office released their report to the media, Orlando television stations followed suit with headlines that described her with outdated and disrespectful phrases. "Man wearing wig, dressed as woman found dead at Orange County apartment complex, deputies say" was the headline WESH applied to their story, while WFTV went with "Man dressed as a woman found dead behind apartment near Orange Blossom Trail, deputies say."

Garden's friends called the stations, desperately asking them to respectfully issue a correction. They were initially rebuffed.

When reached for comment, the news director for WFTV said they only report what the police give them. WESH had a similar response, admitting that people had contacted them saying the victim was transgender and went by the name "Sasha" and requesting a correction. After they went back to OCSO with this information, the WESH news director said, they decided the station couldn't change the story because while authorities did confirm that Garden was a trans woman, the gender marker on her driver's license said "male."

Local LGBTQ support group QLatinx released a statement regarding the articles by WESH and WFTV, describing them as "flagrant disrespect" and a "desecration of her memory."

OCSO did finally send an updated report, six hours after the original, referring to Garden as "transgender." At that point, local TV stations finally updated their headlines – WESH referred to her as a "transgender woman," and WFTV called Garden a "woman." But six hours in the news cycle is an eternity, and the damage was already done. Stories were already shared. Page views were already logged. The people who read the stories on Facebook or Twitter had already snickered at the headlines.

However, not everyone got it wrong.

Ryan Gillespie's story for the Orlando Sentinel was simply headlined "Body discovered outside at Holden Avenue apartment complex, deputies say." This follows the Associated Press Stylebook guidelines for reporting on transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

OCSO told Orlando Weekly that they currently do not have any written policy for discussing the trans community in crime reports. However, spokesperson Jane Watrel added they do have a trans deputy, Rebecca Storozuk, and the office does have a policy for "providing equitable opportunities in hiring and promoting transgender and gender non-conforming employees."

Three days after Garden's murder, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings finally issued an apology.

"In the early stages of this homicide investigation, the OCSO released details regarding the legal name of the victim as required by state statute, along with other details that might assist detectives in solving this heinous crime," Demings said in a statement. "At that time the Orange County Sheriff's Office did not know the individual was transgender and had only one goal in mind, finding and apprehending a suspect."

Demings said after OCSO public information officers were made aware by family and friends that Garden was a trans woman, they "immediately" began using the appropriate gender and recognized name.

  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

"The Orange County Sheriff's Office did not intend to be insensitive in this effort and I along with agency members apologize for any misgivings our communications may have caused," Demings said. "As Sheriff, I am proud to report that the Orange County Sheriff's Office continues to have a positive relationship and open dialogue with members of the LGBTQ community, and we will seek additional measures to further strengthen that bond in the days ahead."

By contrast, the Orlando Police Department has had a written policy on the matter since 2015.

Degrading Garden's existence by referring to her as a "man who dressed up as a woman" was not only a lapse in judgment from both our television stations and our law enforcement – it also completely erased her identity. OCSO should have known that the report was humiliating to Garden and her survivors, and Orlando's media should have known that provocative headlines don't trump showing respect to the deceased.

At a weekend vigil for Garden at the apartment complex where her body was found, local transgender women said they are still hurt by the way law enforcement and the media had described their community.

"Pardon my language, but I call [the apology] bullshit," says Tiara Kelley, an LGBTQ advocate who helped organize the vigil. "I call it absolute bullshit. Being trans in Orlando is not new. The Orange County Sheriff's Department, the Orlando Police Department, they know about transgender people. For them to call her a 'man in a dress' on television and then correct it eight hours later, the damage is already done. Eight hours later, it's already too late. That gives people the opportunity to make fun and light of this, and that's why we're not taken seriously because of stuff like this. That narrative has to stop."

OCSO urges anyone with information to call the Crimeline at 800-423-TIPS [8477]. Information that leads to an arrest may result in a $5,000 reward.

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