'Grieving hearts and crying eyes': Family calls for justice after Black transgender woman murdered in Milwaukee

·5 min read
Brazil Johnson is seen in this undated photo.
Brazil Johnson is seen in this undated photo.

When Bernitha Gildart remembers her daughter, she wants to picture her smile and hear her laugh.

She wants to remember her daughter’s dreams to design video games and open a bakery.

She wants to remember the times her daughter devoured her cheesecake.

She does not want to think back to June 15, the day everything came crashing down, the day she had to look at a photo of her daughter’s body and identify her.

Her daughter, 28-year-old Brazil Johnson, was a Black transgender woman. She was found shot to death in Milwaukee. No arrests have been made in her killing.

“It was like my whole world stopped and went in slow motion," Gildart said in an interview.

Johnson’s death comes amid a rise in anti-LGBTQ, and specifically anti-trans, rhetoric and policies nationwide.

She is at least the 17th transgender person fatally shot or killed by other violent means in the U.S. this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

In 2021, the advocacy organization tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents – a total of 50 – against transgender and gender non-conforming people. The majority of those people were Black and Latinx transgender women, as had been the case in prior years.

Milwaukee police have not determined a possible motive and have released few details about the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Johnson’s body was found shortly before 7 a.m. on Teutonia Avenue, near Garfield Avenue.

Police continue “to seek unknown suspects,” according to a department statement released Monday.

Gildart said her daughter was shot multiple times, apparently from close range.

“I’m still in the dark. She didn't deserve this,” Gildart said, later adding: “I feel it was a hate crime.”

As a teenager, Johnson was a community health promoter for Diverse & Resilient, which serves the LGBTQ community. Staff there remembered her as sweet and kind, and pledged to continue their work to support trans people.

Brazil Johnson is seen in an undated family photo.
Brazil Johnson is seen in an undated family photo.

“We failed to protect Brazil as we have failed so many other trans woman of color who are murdered every year,” a statement released by Diverse & Resilient.

“It is not enough to say ‘rest in peace’ when this happens and move on with our lives,” the statement says. “We need to remember Brazil as a human, as a community member, and as a beacon of living in one’s truth.”

Johnson loved cooking, poetry and video games, her mother said.

She graduated from Rufus King High School and Milwaukee Area Technical College. She held jobs as an assistant manager at Cousin’s sub shop and in the kitchen of a local Applebee’s.

Gildart said her daughter came out to her as transgender when she was about 21.

"We had those conversations about it and she said she was born this way, that’s how she always felt, and I accepted that," she said.

Her loss is being felt across the wider trans community in Milwaukee.

"Black trans women are women. Our lives matter," said Elle Halo, an LGBTQ health equity advocate. "Seeking justice and holding community accountable for us matters. Our mental health and healing matters."

The last time an identified Black trans woman was murdered in Milwaukee was in 2010. Chanel Larkin, 26, was fatally shot. Her killer was sentenced to 11 years in prison and was released on extended supervision last year.

In that case, like Johnson's, the medical examiner's office, police and some media reports including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used an incorrect name and pronouns to identify her.

"People don’t empathize and connect with our struggles and our trauma, and they also participate in it by doing thing that are anti-trans, by dead-naming, by making jokes and misgendering," Halo said.

"Those things affect an investigation and also make it so that people when they are being predatory believe ... there won’t be consequences for the things that they do, whether it’s something small or something tragic," she continued.

When Black trans women are killed, people often victim-blame and make assumptions based on debunked stereotypes, Halo said.

"We know that, just like in interpersonal and domestic violence cases, women including Black trans women, most of the time when they are killed, it is by people that they know," she said. "It’s not usually by strangers."

Johnson's family is calling for justice in the case and help solving it.

“If they saw anything, heard anything, know anything, come forward and tell us and tell the police,” Gildart said. “There’s a lot of grieving hearts and crying eyes.”

How to help

Advocates have planned a public memorial for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Teutonia and North Avenues in Milwaukee to call attention to violence against transgender women.

Brazil Johnson will be laid to rest this week at a private funeral service. Her mother has started a GoFundMe fundraiser to help pay for the services, which can be found at https://bit.ly/3noyxcx.

Anyone with any information about her homicide is asked to contact Milwaukee Police at (414) 935-7360 or to remain anonymous, contact Crime Stoppers at (414) 224-Tips or P3 Tips App.

Diverse & Resilient offers trauma-informed support for the LGBTQ community statewide. To talk to an advocate, call or text the statewide warmline at 414-856-LGBT (5428).

Contact Ashley Luthern at ashley.luthern@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aluthern.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Black transgender woman Brazil Johnson murdered in Milwaukee