Family, lawmakers mourn trans woman killed in Minneapolis

Raelynn Stillday speaks at the state Capitol about her cousin, Savannah Williams, a transgender woman who was killed on Nov. 29. Williams’ family members joined lawmakers in a press conference drawing attention to transphobia on Dec. 7, 2023. Photo by Madison McVan/Minnesota Reformer

December 7, 2023

Family members and friends of Savannah Ryan Williams, a transgender woman killed in Minneapolis on Nov. 29, gathered with lawmakers at the state Capitol Thursday to remember Williams and call attention to transphobia.

A 25-year-old man, Damarean Bible, has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Bible told police he shot Williams in the head after the two had sex in a courtyard in the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis, according to the charging documents.

Williams’ siblings said Thursday they don’t want their sister to be remembered for her tumultuous life, but instead for her outgoing personality and generosity.

Williams was a beloved sister; one of her brothers was homeless, and anytime Williams ran into him, she’d “give him the shoes off her feet and go barefoot,” Williams’ sister Gabrielle Stillday said.

“She was a very kind, loving person,” she said. “My kids and my nieces … that was their favorite auntie because she always was good to them.” 

Savannah Williams. Courtesy photo.

Williams’ killing was the second highly publicized attack on a trans woman in Minneapolis this year; in February, three people robbed and assaulted a trans woman at a Lake Street light rail station.

Transgender people are more than twice as likely as cisgender people to be the victim of a violent crime. Of the 41 transgender and gender-nonconforming people whose killings were documented by the Human Rights Campaign in 2022, more than half were trans women of color. Williams was Indigenous and Cuban, according to her family.

“In a national landscape where our place in public life is being actively challenged, where hateful rhetoric and the threats of violence continue to escalate, we must speak up,” said Kat Rohn, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, an advocacy group for LQBTQ Minnesotans.

Advocates at the press conference Thursday said affordable housing and workplace discrimination are issues faced by Minnesota transgender people.

Williams, who would have turned 39 this month, struggled to find housing and employment because she was transgender, her youngest sister Kelly Stillday said.

Amber Muhm, who knew Williams through a peer support group for transgender people, said Minnesota should decriminalize sex work and ban the so-called trans panic defense.

The trans or LGBTQ panic defense is a legal strategy in which a person charged with a violent crime argues that their victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation provoked the attacker or forced the attacker to act in self-defense. At least 18 states have banned the use of the LGBTQ panic defense, but Minnesota is not among them.

Across the country, trans people have also faced a wave of hostility from right-wing political activists and legislators. Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws limiting access to gender-affirming care, requiring trans people to compete in sports categories aligning with their biological sex, criminalizing drag performances and more. The number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures has grown exponentially in recent years, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker.

The DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature joined other Democratic-controlled states in taking the opposite approach, passing a “trans refuge” bill spearheaded by Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, the first transgender member of the Minnesota House. The law protects people from other states from being arrested for giving or receiving gender-affirming care, even if another state has made the care illegal.

But Thursday’s press conference by lawmakers and Williams’ family was also a stark reminder of the limits of public policy.

“We will do everything we can to protect our family, but laws are not enough. In these conditions, policy cannot save us,” Finke said. “Our communities will not be safe until every one of our neighbors sees our humanity, celebrates our individuality and embraces this beautiful community that loves and is worthy of love.”

Her family and friends said no matter her personal circumstances, Williams always found a way to bring gifts for her siblings, nieces and nephews.

“She always reminded me that she was my big sister, and big sisters take care of little sisters,” Gabrielle Stillday said.

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