TRANSCRIPT: Lives At Stake, Melania Brown on ‘Trans Day of Remembrance 2020’

Imara Jones: So from kind of the hope and the power of trans people being displayed, but so far we’re moving on to what is one of the hardest and the most difficult parts of Trans Awareness Month, and that is Trans Day of Remembrance tomorrow. One of the things that has happened, as I mentioned before, at the top of our program is that 2020 is the year in which more trans people have been murdered than any other year on records.

There’s so many reasons for that, but one of the things that is clear about the fact that so many people are not longer here is that they leave behind friends and loved ones, and so often in the way that the deaths of trans people of color are covered, we never are able to hear the voices of those loved ones, meaning that we don’t really fully see them as humans, which of course contributes to how those people are no longer with us in the first place. 

And that’s why I wanted to speak tonight with Melania Brown who is the sister of Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx woman who died in custody at Rikers Island last year, last June. I first interviewed Melania last year and wanted to sit down with her one year later to talk about her journey of the family, her family’s journey, and what she’s just learned about trans people in America. Thank you, Melania, for joining us tonight. I really appreciate it.

Melania Brown: Thank you for having me and sharing your space with me once again. I appreciate it.

Imara Jones: Of course. Sharing space with you is easy. First, I’m wondering if you can just remind, first, if you can just remind us of Layleen’s case. What happened to her last June?

Melania Brown: So Layleen, she was Layleen Polanco. I’m Layleen Polanco’s older sister, Melania Brown. My sister, she caught a seizure while being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Rikers know about her medical condition. She even caught several seizures before they decided to place her back into solitary confinement and, you know, against all medical objectives of keeping her out, Rikers still decided to place her in solitary confinement, simply because of her gender identity. It was nothing else. Now that I can speak more on the case, there was evidence brought up that they, emails were going back and forth, that they didn’t know how to house my sister. So, that cat is out of the hat. So my sister basically died for just being who she was, being true to herself. It cost her life. My sister died last year on June 7th, 2019.

Imara Jones: One of the most excruciating things about her death and why it’s so illustrative of why we have so many trans people who aren’t with us right now is just how callous the guards were at Rikers about her. They were callous about her medical condition, callous about her seizing, and callous about her in death. You know, not being properly respectful of her and her life.

You mentioned how that, seeing that and knowing that on top of her death put a huge hole for your family, and I’m just wondering if you can just talk about how that’s impacted your family still one year later, and how everyone’s doing? How are you doing? How are Layleen’s nieces doing? How’s your mom doing?

Melania Brown: We’re ticking. I mean, crying is our new norm. Rollercoaster emotions, not knowing how you’re going to wake up the next day is our new norm. My daughters, you know, They dealing with the emotions. They miss their aunt. They were very… Those were her best friends. Like, they weren’t even, like, had that aunt and niece relationship. They were best friends. They miss her very much. My mom, you know, she’s broken. Crying for her is normal now. Seeing how the video was released and watching those correctional officers, laughing while she was taking her last breath, was very disturbing, and it was out there for the world to see, to see our pain and to share what we were going through, and yet nothing happens.

The state hasn’t done anything. The government hasn’t done anything. The only thing that we’d received were broken promises from the mayor. I’ma call them broken promises because those were promises that he made as far as ending solitary confinement, and we’re in October and he used my sister’s name in vain to push it out there and grab the people’s attention. Because at the time, everybody, my sister was, she still is a big movement, you know, which I also would like for her not to be just a movement, because she is a human, but he used her name. He used her platform to grab people’s attention, and he has yet to do anything about that. So my family and I, we’re not okay. I don’t think we’re ever going to be okay. 

Layleen was like the rock. Usually, you know, you always have a rock in the family that keeps the family piece together and she was that rock for us, and we don’t have her no more. So it’s a big, big hit for, you know, all of us. We’re still grieving. We miss her. We’re always going to miss her. Yeah, so I take it day by day, and I’m trying not to cry, but it’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s really hard because I don’t care, like, what they needed to understand is, however they viewed her, that, first of all, was an opinion, their own personal reasoning of how they viewed her, but she belonged to someone, you know? And she was our human, she was our person. Like, it’s not okay for you to rip people out of other people’s lives because you’re not okay with the way that they’re living their own life. It just makes no sense to me to this day. So we’re still going through it.

Imara Jones: What do you have to say to people who say or act as if trans people aren’t connected to people who love them, you know? They, you know, somehow aren’t human. I’m always struck by, in so many of these cases, when you read about perpetrators, that the perpetrators don’t think that they did anything wrong. They don’t think that there’s anybody who loves the people that they have taken, and I’m wondering, what do you have to say to that? Like, if you had to say something to those people, what would that be? Because it’s common.

Melania Brown: Yeah. I mean, I will say that it is very, just the way of their thinking is very inhumane. It’s not humankind. You know, these are humans we’re talking about. Like, scratch everything else. We’re talking about a human being’s life, you know? And, like I said, these are our loved ones. Like, you know, you have loved ones out there. Like, it’s not okay because you feel some type of way, and I’m going to be honest. I feel like a lot of people that attack the LGBTQ youth is because they’re not comfortable in their own sexuality. They’re not comfortable to come out. So they hate on those that do have that strength because it takes a lot to be truly yourself.

It takes a lot of strength to be exactly who you are meant to be, and I felt like these other people out there, hurting, you know, the community and stuff like that, I feel like you need to stop. Like, they’re humans. Like, you’re hurting. Like, look at me. Like, they took my sister away from me, and she was big in my life. Like, you know, she was my little sister, but I looked up to my little sister. She was my little sister that was my big sister. Like, stop it. Like, you don’t have to like it. You don’t have to be around it but you will have to learn to respect it, respect other people’s space. Back off. It’s not your life. Like, let people live, and let people be who they’re meant to be.

Like, I just feel like, you know, if any of these people are listening, which I’m sure a lot of them tune in to things like this. Like, just back off, go drink your water, and mind your business. Whatever other people do in their life is not affecting you. 

Whatever they decide to do with their own temple, because these are our bodies that God, Allah, gave to us. I’m Muslim. Allah gave me this body. And this is my temple. Who are you to tell me or anyone how to live their life? Like, there has to be something very mental, something really going on in there, something really bad that you need help, that you need to go out your way to hurt someone that’s not doing anything to hurt your life. Like, just stop. Like, enough is enough, and I had enough, and I’m sure a lot of people had enough, you know?

And this goes to a lot out there which I want to also put out there because there’s a lot of, you know, that I’ve noticed this whole time of doing this activism work, you know, a year and a half after my sister’s passing, that I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of hypocrites, a lot of them out there, because they’ll go out there and they’ll scream, black lives matter, right? Black lives matter, black lives matter, but what about black trans lives? Like, what about them? They’re freaking black, too. They’re black. So you want us to go out there and scream to help you, but you’re doing exactly what you don’t want people to do to you. You can’t scream, help, black lives matter, and yet you’re hurting another life. Another life. Like, it makes no sense whatsoever to me. It makes no sense.

Like, you guys need to back off. You guys need to, like, accept life for what it is, and we all live where our truth and we are all gonna, you know, live by it and die by it. If it’s not affecting you, mind your business. You don’t have to be around anything that you don’t like. You don’t have to be around any conversations that you don’t want to be around, but guess what? You do have to respect people’s space, and that’s what I have to say. Like, I can say a lot more about it.

Imara Jones: “Enough is enough,” I think is all we should ever have to say. One last question is about your activism. There’s so many ways that we can respond to grief and to pain, but one of the ways that you have responded to tragedy in your family is by standing up for trans people, for demanding changes in the criminal justice system, to an end to mass incarceration, to an end to solitary confinement, and I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about your activism and why you chose that, because honestly, not everyone who loses someone, even as tragically as you did, does that, and that’s what you’ve done with your life since last June.

Melania Brown: Well, honestly, I was never a type of person, like, to speak in front of big crowds or even be around them. Like, you know, I’d get very nervous and I shut down, but the first time, my first rally that I had, it was with the Anti-Violence Project. They got in contact with the family, and three days later, I had a mic in my hand and I was very, you know, I was very nervous. I was very scared. I had Eliel, you know, by my side the whole time which he has been helping me develop, you know, and I still have a lot of more work to do, ’cause this is all new to me, but he has helped me develop into, you know, this activist, and he’s still teaching me how to express myself.

To me, it helps me. It helps me grieve. It helps me, you know, just going out there, and just when I go out there, and I’m getting goosebumps. When I go out there and I speak, and I see so many humans, this community come together, and so much love and so much hugs and so much like, just, it’s just like, it’s so… It just feels so right. Like, you know, and just to have all that love, that helps me to know that I’m out there, spreading my sister’s story, which can help many other, you know, women. It helps me, like, just knowing that, you know, her death didn’t go in vain and good things. You know, it was horrible what they did to her, but if good things could come out of it, and her death didn’t go in vain, then that helps me.

To me, it’s a grieving thing. Like, you know, when I come together, and I see such a community that comes and they stand up for what’s right, and they come out to hear my sister’s story, and it just feels like, I was just telling my therapist this last week. It feels like a safety blanket. Like, I’m home. Like, they got me. Like, I could fall here and I’m okay. Like, they hearing me, like, you know, and a lot of people that come out, you know, they’re going through these things themselves. 

They’re going through, you know, the same things that my sister went through. Like, you know, they’re still going through it, or they’ve been through it. And, you know, just if I could, if I could be that… To me, because a lot of the conversations that come out, you know, like, throughout the whole year, I got called cisgender. I didn’t even know what that was until, you know, until I started, I didn’t even know. I’m like, okay, I didn’t even know what it was, but I’ve been called things, like, you know, but to me, it’s okay.

If you want to call me, I don’t really, like, I don’t really, you know, talk about my gender identity or what I do with my personal life, because I am me. Like, you know what I’m saying? And everybody’s different, but if I can be that… That little line of hope between this world that we’re trying to get to understand that we are all humans and we’re all in the same human race. If I could be that, you know, that little line, like that little, that could bring everything together, to me, that’s more than enough. To me, that’s healing. To me, that’s helping me. Not only am I helping heal, but it’s helping me. Like, I can’t, I don’t even know how to describe it. 

Honestly, it’s like a whole bunch of emotions, but I do know that I love what I do, and I love going out there. I love screaming to the top of my lungs, marching down the city. Like, it just helps me release so much anger, because at first, honestly, my mind was everywhere. Like, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to, like, go after whoever did whatever to my sister, like, you know, normal human thoughts when you lose someone that was very close to you, and then I started learning that, why would I do that? No, I’m going to let you do what you do. I’m going to sit back. I’m going to observe, and I’m going to come with a stronger strategy. I’m going to knock your whole, your whole show down, your whole plan down. I’m not going to hurt you. I could hurt you, in a way that’s legal and you can’t do anything about it. Like, you know, like just my activism work. I’m very grateful. I’m very grateful for the Anti-Violence Project.

I’m extremely grateful, because it has helped me so much. Honestly, if I didn’t have this, I probably would have been, like, in a mental Institute right now. Like, I have my moments. I had multiple mental breakdowns. I don’t even know how I could still, you know, speak and talk and function as a human after so many mental breakdowns, but I’m extremely grateful for my work, and I’m here. This is just me. This is my path.

This is a purpose that my sister gave me, and like I always say, they took my sister. They killed my sister because my sister didn’t die. They killed my sister, but my sister knew I needed love, and my sister made sure that she sent a whole community my away, and I’m loved. I’m loved, and you guys are loved by me, and you know, and I’m going to continue to fight. I’m going to continue to do what’s right.

Imara Jones: Well, thank you so much for joining us tonight. I know I speak for everyone where we are thankful for you and your work and grieve alongside of you the loss of your sister, and are sending you and your family all the best for what is going to be another hard holiday season, but I’m so grateful that you came on tonight, and for any time that I get a chance to talk with you. Thank you so much, Melania.

Melania Brown: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Imara Jones: Of course. Bye, good bye. That was Melania Brown, who is the sister of Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx woman who died in custody at Rikers Island, the nation’s largest jail, last year. We’ll be right back.

You can watch this full Lives At Stake event here: https://youtu.be/LXSeqrvSsVU

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Learn more about TransLash Podcast with Imara Jones.

Read transcripts from other interviews and Lives At Stake events here.

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