Communities

How dream hampton Found Inspiration in a Beloved Trans-Woman’s Tragic Story

by Tasbeeh Herwees

June 29, 2015
Hilliard's loved ones pay their respects in a still from Treasure.

In 2012, New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman published a report called “The Throwaways” in which she detailed the story of Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard, a 19-year old Detroit native who was enlisted by the police to entrap a drug dealer named Qasim Raqib. The police had searched Hilliard’s motel room and discovered half an ounce of marijuana. They threatened to arrest her. But for Hilliard, who is a trans woman, the prospect of being detained and taken to a men’s jail was especially fraught with danger. So when they asked her to become an informant, she didn’t have much of a choice. She called Raqib, and the police arrested him instead.

Many hours later, when Raqib was released from prison, he came after Hilliard. Her dismembered torso would later be found burning on the side of the road. With the help of a man named James Arthur Matthews, Raqib had killed her and disfigured her body. The police, a witness would later testify, had given him Hilliard’s name.

“It was death by proxy,” said former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee in the documentary Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story. The new film, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and at the Detroit Film Theatre this month, tells the story of Hilliard’s life and death. But it also tells the story of her legacy in Detroit’s trans community, and its resilience in the wake of Hilliard’s horrific murder. 

“I do see Shelley’s story as a Detroit story,” says Treasure director dream hampton. “I see her as a black girl from Detroit, who had a very violent and brutal death. Her story is at the intersection of a lot of things I care about.”

A Detoit native herself, hampton has long been involved in anti-police brutality work. Treasure continues this line of advocacy, highlighting the ways in which police target and victimize black, brown and non-gender-conforming youth at disproportionate numbers. The trans youth community, in particular, is vulnerable to exploitation, says hampton, because Detroit police see them as “expendable”. Locked out of other job opportunities, many trans youth turn to sex work to support themselves. Because they are marginalized from other parts of society, they’re at a disadvantage fighting off prostitution and other related criminal charges. For the police, this makes these young people useful informants. In fact, the commander of the sheriff’s Narcotics Enforcement Team said that they didn’t think they were putting Hilliard in any additional danger by using her as an informant.

“They thought it was fine to have her, a 19-year old, do such dangerous work because she was already living ‘a dangerous’ lifestyle,’” says hampton, quoting the commander. “They thought that she didn’t matter to anyone.”

In Hillard's home, a small memorial to her life.

Treasure is a powerful cinematic rejection of that assumption. It’s as much a profile of Hilliard as it is a showcase of the caring community that took her in and the loving family that lost her. It opens with a web camera’s view of Hilliard, lackadaisically lying in the bed, her high-heeled feet in the air, a seemingly carefree teenager. “Hey guys,” she greets her future audience, “hope you enjoy yourself as you look through my pictures and my videos. I’m a very passable girl as you can tell.”

The film features interviews with Hilliard’s mother Lyniece Nelson, who sued the Detroit police for the murder of her daughter, and Hilliard’s sister, Michelle. It also includes footage of and discussions with members of Detroit’s burgeoning trans community, many of whom were touched and transformed by Hilliard’s story.

“I made a decision really early on that I didn’t want this to be strictly a crime story, strictly about Shelley’s death,” says hampton. “I wanted also to have living trans people in the film who were advocating for themselves and for their sisters and their brothers.”

Treasure also highlights the work of Michigan’s Ruth Ellis Center, a community organization that provides a safe space and social services to LGBTQ youth. It’s one of the oldest centers of its kind. In the film, we meet Lakyra Dawson, a dancer and transwoman who served as Hilliard’s “gay mother,” Lance Hicks, a community organizer who assists Detroit’s homeless youth, and Emani Love, an outreach worker at the Ruth Ellis Center who organizes the Trans*Justice program. In many ways, hampton’s film is a love letter to Detroit, and a celebration of its capacity to accommodate a vibrantly diverse community.

“When I found out about [Hilliard’s murder], it activated something in me, because I didn’t really know a lot of trans people and I didn’t know the concept of transgender,” says Love. “But I knew that what had happened to her was something that shouldn’t have happened. I had a desire to ensure that things like that don’t happen [again].”

Love was only a teenager when she first arrived at the Ruth Ellis Center a few years ago. Since then, she’s become a leader in the community, facilitating workshops that help people understand LGBTQ issues, particularly those that affect the transgender community.

“We call Detroit post-capitalist in a lot of ways but that means we’ve been inventive and creative in having to address some of our social needs,” says hampton. “And that includes the trans community.”

Detroit activist and Ruth Ellis Center worker Emani Love.

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How dream hampton Found Inspiration in a Beloved Trans-Woman’s Tragic Story