by Tim Gilmore, 4/12/2016
It’s been 15 years since Terrianne Summers fell dead in her driveway, keys and mail in hand, having just come home from work. Royall calls “the murder scene on Day Avenue” a “significant place in transgender culture,” but the name she usually gives Day Avenue is “Summers’ Day.”
Royall self-identifies as a trans-girl or trans-woman. She wears modest skirts. Her face is elegantly cheekboned, her eyebrows arched. She’s tall, with delicate shoulders. One day her hair is dark, the next day platinum blond. She speaks with a sultry voice. She’s more feminine than most of the girls standing nearby.
I’m calling Terrianne “she,” because that’s how she identified, though the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office cold case file identifies her as W/M/52, and says, “On 12-12-2001, the victim was killed in his driveway at 768 Day Ave.”
Summers was a well-known transgender activist. She supported JASMYN, Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, protested local grocery chain Winn-Dixie’s firing of a transgender truck driver who never dressed trans on the job, and most ironically, she’d recently celebrated the Transgender Day of Remembrance, observed on November 20th each year, honoring trans murder victims.
Summers was also a 22 year Navy veteran, a commander and engineer. As a man, she’d married and had children. In the late 1990s, after decades of inner gender turmoil, he came out to his wife and late adolescent sons. It didn’t go well. They refused to speak to Terrianne.
After retiring from the Navy, Terrianne interviewed for jobs as a man to increase her chances of getting hired, but was fired when coworkers found out she was trans. Finally, she landed an Information Technology job with the U.S. Department of Labor. As Folio Weekly editor Claire Goforth points out in an October 2015 story, Summers “was overqualified for the I.T. job, but it was a paycheck.”
Goforth notes that Summers’s employment difficulties and the diversion of much of her Navy pension to her estranged wife left her with few financial options. She shared the Day Avenue house with a disabled roommate and fiercely fought adolescent drug dealers and small-time crooks in the neighborhood. She confronted them personally about burglaries, vandalism, and assaults, and called
the cops repeatedly when she witnessed drug deals beneath the palms and pines in the unnamed park diagonally across the street from her house.
* * *
Royall visits the 700 block of “Summers’ Day” regularly, looks at the house, a 1958 ranch-style split-level, one of the larger and better maintained houses in this battered district of Murray Hill Heights, between Murray Hill and Lackawanna.
Just three blocks away, the arsonist and pseudo-serial killer Ottis Toole burnt down his mother’s house at 708 Day Avenue just after she died in 1981.
These streets are shaded, the pines tall, and lantana pours across falling fences by the highway, blooming yellow and orange and red.
Royall says growing up transgender was normal, not that she knew the word or thought of herself that way. She just was.
“I grew up primarily raised by a single woman,” she says, “so having my nails painted and playing dress-up was okay for me as a young child. Over time that was less and less acceptable. Around 15 or so I started progressing into my real identity. I’ve expressed myself in non-heteronormative ways since I was capable of expressing myself.”
Royall wants people to understand that being “trans” is not a choice. She wishes that being trans didn’t garner her attention, wishes she could just be herself. She’s a very private person and suffers severe social anxiety. For that reason, Royall says, “I feel embarrassed to be trans. If people call me ‘he,’ I don’t correct them.”
Nor is Royall any stranger to that inner gender turmoil that Terrianne experienced, though she expresses herself outwardly as she identifies inwardly.
“No one has the words to describe what a trans person goes through internally,” Royall says, and that includes transgender people themselves. “As a child I would argue with God in my mind, telling him if he didn’t make me a girl, I’d stop believing in him.”
And though others may find Royall a beautiful person, she says, “I feel like a monster. I just cannot put into words how I feel about my body or my overall appearance. I don’t know if this is ‘normal’ dysphoria for a trans person, or if I’m generally hard on myself and then being trans makes me even harder on myself.”
Royall says she’s “willing to deal with rude comments and harassment,” though I tell her she shouldn’t be. Easy for me to say, being cisgender and straight. It terrifies her, however, to know there are people who’d murder her for being honest with her own identity.
Terrianne’s body was found just more than an hour after neighbors reported shots fired at 8 pm, and her purse and its contents lay next to her untouched. No robbery connected to this murder.
* * *
I park my car the opposite side of Interstate-10 in the old neighborhood called Lackawanna and walk the pedestrian tunnel beneath the highway to Murray Hill Heights, then five more blocks to the driveway where Terrianne died.
“The 700 block is a reminder of the countless unsolved murder cases of transgender people and the lack of justice transgender victims receive,” Royall says.
Terrianne’s case file contains numerous statements by neighbors referring to her as a “sissy boy,” a “fairy,” and a “faggot.” But Royall also sees transphobia, as I do, not only as the viewpoint of one category of person against another, but as an inability to imagine the worth and worthiness of a life different from one’s own.
Royall says, “Terrianne is not a victim of her crime-infested neighborhood. She is a victim of the discrimination and hatred trans-people face in America.”
She places Terrianne’s murder within a larger worldview wherein difference of identity somehow impinges on one’s own honor. “Day Avenue,” she says, “is another tragic memoir of being minority in America.”
Walking back toward the highway, I try to imagine what it’s like to be Royall, and what Terrianne experienced in her struggle to become, in Royall’s words, her “real identity.”
Identity is a process, not a state of being, and only individuals have the right to their own bodies and identities and selves.
Beside me, a Florida sugar maple full of crows caws disconsolately by a faded yellow house and piles of old tires teeter beside a chain-link fence. Above and before me, traffic roars across Interstate-10.
When I emerge from the tunnel beneath the highway, the sunlight blocked by the previous neighborhood’s tree canopy shines bright and warm on my face, and for a moment, I feel like I’ve exited one life and walked into another.