A homeless transgender woman who was the subject of transphobic ridicule on social media in Puerto Rico on February 23 was murdered in a community near San Juan hours after she was falsely accused of “peeping” on others in a women’s bathroom.
Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, also known as Alexa, was spotted at a McDonald’s restaurant talking to a police officer after someone said she was snooping on others in the bathroom — a claim that was later dropped.
But it was too late. The false claim made its way to social media platforms and immediately went viral, prompting some on the island to go after Ruiz. Within hours, a group of males found her, spouted transphobic rhetoric, and shot and killed her in Toa Baja in a disturbing scene that was caught on video and circulated widely.
“Her picture was shared and they said she was accused of peeping,” Pedro Julio Serrano, an LGBTQ activist in Puerto Rico, told Gay City News in a phone interview. “The video showed killers saying, ‘We’re going to kill you.’”
Police apprehended one suspect at the airport as he tried fleeing the island and three others are under investigation, according to Serrano, who said he heard law enforcement is moving quickly.
At this point, Serrano said it is his understanding that authorities are investigating the case as a hate crime. Governor Wanda Vázquez, who rose to power last year after former Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned in disgrace in the wake of his homophobic and misogynistic chats leaking to the public, said in a tweet that the case would be handled with sensitivity and diligence.
Lambda Legal joined in on efforts to encourage authorities on the island to probe the case.
“This is a horrific murder, one that by all appearances was motivated by bigotry and transphobia,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal. “A transgender woman in Puerto Rico was mocked, harassed, and then murdered for the simple act of using the women’s bathroom — the one consistent with her identity. We must recognize: Bigotry kills. Transphobia kills.”
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan and a gubernatorial hopeful in this year’s election, praised Serrano in a tweet for his efforts at spotlighting Ruiz’s murder and stressed that the lives of transgender individuals must be valued the same as anyone else.
The community’s response to the murder has been swift. Dozens of organizations huddled together for a press conference on February 25, where advocates called on authorities to investigate the case as a hate crime, demanded that fundamentalist religious leaders stop perpetuating transphobic narratives about bathrooms, and asked politicians to step up and address the problem.
“We need to stop,” Serrano said. “This is violence against our community. We are LGBTQ people as human beings like anyone else and we deserve to live with dignity.”
Serrano said that Ruiz’s former neighbors in Carolina, a community just east of San Juan, recounted that she suffered from harassment and mistreatment by her family, who kicked her out of the house leading to her homelessness.
Ruiz is the latest transgender woman to suffer a violent death under circumstances that are not uncommon among trans women of color in the US. The Human Rights Campaign tallied 26 documented violent murders of transgender individuals across the nation last year, most of them trans women of color, and at least two, including Ruiz’s, so far this year.