Kenneth Bostick, a transgender person killed in Chelsea this month, was a quiet and unassuming presence with a penchant for Wayfarer sunglasses and wool beanies, no matter the weather, those who knew him said. And the 59-year-old’s death on May 7 has sparked an outpouring of grief and outrage from transgender rights groups.
Bostick was struck in the head with a metal object, in a seemingly unprovoked attack, on April 25, according to descriptions offered by prosecutors. After the attack, the Daily News reported, the suspect “walked away but turned back a second later and shouted, ‘Someone stole my bag.’ Bostick stumbled for a block before losing consciousness.”
Bostick reportedly lay on a sidewalk for nearly thirty minutes before help arrived. He was alive when he was taken to Bellevue Hospital but succumbed to his injuries twelve days later, prosecutors said.
The suspect held in Bostick’s death, Joseph Griffin, 26, is also homeless, according to the Daily News. He was charged with manslaughter and criminal mischief on May 19, at a court hearing where he “appeared nervous” and was “rocking from side to side.” Law enforcement officials described the attack as spontaneous. “There is no evidence to support the fact that the victim had stolen the defendant’s backpack,” a prosecutor said, according to the paper. Reached by phone, Griffin’s public defender, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, declined to comment.
According to the National Center for Trans Equality, “one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives,” and transgender people account for up to 40 percent of homeless youth according to the group’s statistics. Widespread discrimination in housing accommodation contributes to those realities, the group says, with more than a tenth of transgender people having been evicted because of their gender identity.
While the NYPD says they don’t believe bias was a motive in the attack, advocates say that Bostick, as a black transgender person struggling with mental illness, was a member of some of the most marginalized communities in society. He is at least the eleventh trans person killed in the U.S. in 2017, according to GLAAD.
“It breaks my heart that anyone would try to hurt him,” a social worker who grew close to Bostick told the Voice. “I cared about him very deeply…and I’m deeply saddened that this was the end of his story.”
It’s hard to say, though, where Bostick’s story began.
(In initial media accounts Bostick was widely identified as Brenda, and since then, some advocacy groups have chosen to identify him with they/them pronouns. Because no next of kin could be reached, the Voice is opting to use he/him pronouns when referring to Bostick, based on interviews with people who knew him, including social workers and residents at the shelter where he stayed, who said these were his preferred pronouns.)
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Bostick was raised mostly by his grandparents, both of whom have passed away. He was homeless for much of the past decade, though he lived for long stretches at Penn Station and was in and out of a shelter on 25th Street for at least the past seven years.
Facing homelessness can pose unique challenges for gender nonconforming people, says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of TransWomen of Color Collective. She noted that it’s not uncommon for gender nonconforming people to switch between gender expressions depending on the situation, in order to navigate a shelter system that can sometimes be hostile to them. Because of that reality, Hunter says, and because of some personal information her group has received, they want to hold open the possibility that Bostick may have had a more fluid relationship with gender. It was something Hunter confronted as a trans woman facing homelessness herself more than a decade ago.
“There was a time when I put on a suit and a tie, to navigate the system and get what I needed to get,” Hunter remembers. “That did not take away from my identity as a trans woman, but I needed to navigate a system with the least amount of harm, and that was the best way for me to do it.”
Bostick’s mental illness made it difficult for him to make strong personal connections. But when he did open up, a social worker who grew close to him recalled, he was warm and gentle, with a quirky sense of humor. “He used to say to me, ‘Slow down. Don’t work so hard. Act like you’ve had some tequila,’ ” she remembered, laughing. “He wanted everyone to just slow down.” She described Bostick as highly observant, brilliant, and more likely to take in the world than to comment on it. He could often be spotted walking the streets wearing dark sunglasses and carrying a handheld radio — cutting a “Dylan-esque” figure, in her description — with a distinctive walk and an air of measured cool about him, he could be playful when he opened up to talk.
“He was just filled with aphorisms,” she said. “Every time I would leave him, he’d say, ‘Well, thanks for stopping by,’ like we’d had tea on the porch.”
Bostick preferred to keep to himself, the social worker said. But he occasionally opened up and talked about what he saw for his future. He used to muse about taking a vacation to some faraway island, and lying out on a beach with a tropical umbrella drink.
Bostick also used to talk about finding permanent housing, and he had plans for that, too. “He wanted a big apartment,” the social worker said, and when he got it someday, his plan was to have a dinner party. He’d invite a bunch of friends and serve them a big catered spread. “But then he’d make people believe that he cooked the food himself. He laughed when he said that. He knew it was a little rascally.”
Jason Rozycki, 31, a dormmate of Bostick’s at the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC) shelter in recent months, said he was well liked and friendly, but again, not frequently social. “Really quiet but super nice, very kind to everyone,” Rozycki said. “Never did anyone any wrong. Never bothered anybody. Just a really nice person.”
At the vigil in Chelsea Friday, May 12, more than fifty people marked Bostick’s life with tearful speeches and a measure of anger. Elizabeth Marie Rivera, a trans activist who helped organize the vigil, told the crowd that Bostick deserved better. “The fact that Bostick lay here, and people walked past them. And paid no attention to them,” Rivera said, her voice breaking. “That is deplorable. It is unacceptable. It is inhumane. And it should not have happened.”
Some of the residents at the BRC shelter felt protective when they heard Bostick was attacked, they told the Voice. They wanted to go out and find the culprit, Rozycki said. “No one deserves that,” he added.
The social worker who was close to Bostick still has trouble believing he’s dead. “I see him on a beach somewhere,” she said, “with his umbrella drink.”