"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The sky was unusually bright that night, the air humid and sultry, embracing the light. Amanda Milan had pulled a trick for an escort agency, then stopped by Times Square to join an early-morning coffee klatch with a group of transsexuals who sometimes gathered at McDonald’s on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street to trade laments over Styrofoam cups.
Amanda was a tall black transsexual, with a long hair fall that masked the broad cut of her chin and a welcoming smile dabbed with glossy red lipstick. She had ample breasts (with the help of D-cup implants), and much of the time she could “pass” as a woman. But around the Port Authority, people recognized “the girls” who hung out by the Duane Reade drugstore, and Amanda was something of a celebrity in that circle.
Amanda kissed her friends goodbye at about 4 a.m. and then crossed Eighth Avenue, hoping to catch a cab in front of the bus terminal. Her friends watched her go, and continued to watch as a man approached her.
Dwayne McCuller, a 20-year-old black man from the Bronx, had been standing on the street corner for at least an hour, witnesses said. Maybe his plans for the night had fallen through. Maybe he was bored. And maybe, when he saw Amanda pass by, frustration began to swell in his throat. He said something to Amanda that her friends couldn’t hear because of the street noise.
Then one of her friends heard him yell at Amanda, “Get your fucking drag queen ass away from me.” Someone else heard him say, “I know what you have between your legs.”
Amanda was the kind of person who stood up to thugs and people who hurled insults, said friends. If a guy was looking at her funny, she might walk up to him and say, “Do you have a problem?” She wasn’t going to stand there and be degraded. Someone said they heard her challenge him to fisticuffs: “I’m a man too, you want to fight?” Or maybe: “Put up your wife beaters and fight me like a man.”
No one can confirm the exact words exchanged at the beginning of the scuffle, but the event unfolded like this, according to later police reports:
“I’ll shoot you,” McCuller allegedly said, and he may have then backed away. “I have a gun. I ought to punch you in the face and hit you.”
Amanda began to walk away, too. Eugene Celestine, a 26-year old security guard from Queens, N.Y., whom Amanda’s friends say they had seen around the Port Authority, piped up.
“Yo, I got a knife,” he said, according to police reports.
“Give it to me,” McCuller responded.
Amanda was now halfway across the street. McCuller grabbed the knife from Celestine’s hand and ran after her. Her friends, still across the avenue, screamed to Amanda, trying to warn her. But soon he was upon her. As she reached the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, he plunged the knife into her throat. Amanda fell to the ground in front of the Duane Reade, where she began to bleed to death.
A young Puerto Rican man from the Bronx took off his shirt and wrapped it around Amanda’s neck to stop the bleeding. He rocked her in his arms, saying, “Baby, don’t leave us” as others stood and watched. The police arrived on the scene at 4:20 a.m. and rushed Amanda to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Chelsea, where she was pronounced dead on June 20, 2000, at 10 minutes before 5 a.m.
At first, the killing received scant attention in the mainstream media or the gay and lesbian press. The three sentences that appeared in the New York Times only served to confuse those who knew Amanda. “A man was fatally stabbed in Midtown Manhattan yesterday after a dispute with two other men, the authorities said,” read the June 21 news brief. “The victim … was found on the sidewalk … dressed in women’s clothing and stabbed once in the neck.”
But what at first seemed to outsiders like a barely newsworthy event in the sordid lives of Times Square ruffians has become a turning point for transgender activism in New York. Because of the graphic and public nature of the crime — and perhaps because of the powerful mythology that has sprung around the events of that night — Milan’s death struck a raw nerve among transgender people in New York. To outsiders, Milan might have been just another transsexual prostitute killed in Hell’s Kitchen. But to many she was a martyr whose death galvanized the transgender community and instigated change.
“It’s probably very similar to the post-Stonewall response,” said the Rev. Presley Southerland, a Metropolitan Community Church minister who runs a support group called Gender People. “I don’t think that’s an overstatement either. I think her death has had a tremendous impact. The memorial service and the way people came together and reacted was a real watershed moment for trans visibility and trans activism. People who had been in the movement for years and years had never experienced that kind of solidarity.”
This week, the attention turns to the simultaneous trials of the three men allegedly involved in the attack: McCuller and Celestine, who have been charged in connection with the slaying and could face life if convicted, and a third man, David Anderson, 26, who is accused of helping McCuller escape from police after the incident.
Amanda Milan, who was 25 when she was killed, was born Damon Lee Dyer, and grew up as a boy in Chicago. She came out as a transsexual about eight years ago, said friends.
For the past several years, Amanda lived in an apartment at Central Park West and 103rd Street with her dog, Ashley, a Pomeranian. She also traveled quite a bit — to Milan and Paris and London — where she worked as a high-class escort, according to her closest friends, and hung with a fashionable crowd.
“We had other friends who were transsexuals, but models, just one notch from superstardom,” said Patra, a Jamaican transsexual who lived in Amanda’s building on 103rd Street and says she spent a great deal of time with her. “There was Portia, who married a German count, and other girls who were modeling with Naomi and Cindy Crawford. We’re not talking about average-looking girls; we’re talking about bombshell beauties. Amanda was often described as a full-figured Beverly Johnson look-alike.”
Amanda’s two closest friends were Kim, a young Puerto Rican transsexual who worked at Show World, and Simone, an African-American transsexual who worked for a time at Screw magazine. The three were as thick as thieves for about 10 years, said friends. Then, two years ago, Kim went to England and then to Australia, where she was found at the bottom of a cliff, her body mangled. The medical examiner identified the body by the serial number on her breast implants, said Patra.
About six months later, Simone left town with a boyfriend who had invited her to live with him in San Francisco. But less than a month after she departed, word arrived in New York that she too was found dead, thrown from a fifth-story window.
Amanda was devastated by the losses, said Patra. And she began to fear for her own life because, she would say, “things happen in threes.” Six months after Simone’s murder, Amanda was dead too.
Patra said that sometimes late at night, as she and Amanda walked Ashley along Central Park West, they would wonder aloud what it would be like to live their lives as men, so that they could fit in and get “respectable” work, and be accepted as normal. But that approach never sat well with Amanda.
“Her philosophy was, ameliorate yourself from mental slavery, stand up and be who you are, play that role,” said Patra. “She said all of us have an abiding reality and death is the only judgment on how a life is lived. She believed there is no justification in living a life of lies if deep down in your heart you know who you are.”
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of transgender people gathered in overstuffed couches and chairs in the recreation room at the Metropolitan Community Church for a weekly spiritual support group meeting. Some came in looking so sad they could barely raise their heads to meet the eyes of others in the room. Some came in angry, saying they had just been catcalled and propositioned in the street on the way to the church. A few latecomers arrived with lists of political issues they wanted to address.
Jamie Hunter, the day’s coordinator, asked the group to read several poems aloud. The first was a portion of the Bible that mentioned eunuchs, and the group talked about how gender-variant people in other ages were respected, even revered.
As the meeting progressed, Hunter passed around a black binder. Its white pages contained a list of transgender names, and the simple notations in black ink next to each name told a grim tale:
Terrie Ladwig, strangled to death, 1994, December
Tasha Dunn, bludgeoned to death, Oct, 1990
Nikki, Spring 1976, thrown off a roof
Grayce Candace Baxter, choked to death, 1992
Marsha P. Johnson, drowned, July 1992
Maxwell Confait, burned alive, 1972
The list continued for 16 pages. Some people read through it, recognizing names, pointing out their friends. Others just flipped through the pages, their eyes dull and expressionless.
But the days of silent acceptance of these horrors are numbered as more attention is focused on the transgender community through the media and popular culture with movies like “Boys Don’t Cry,” in which Hilary Swank won a best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender woman who was murdered in the early ’90s.
Three weeks after Milan’s murder, some 300 people descended on the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender church on West 36th Street, to attend her memorial service. The Rev. Pat Bumgardner led the service, which was part emotional remembrance, part rousing call to arms. One friend spoke about how Milan had saved her from being homeless and helped her get started in school. Octavia St. Laurent, who was featured in “Paris Is Burning,” the 1991 documentary about New York drag queens, eulogized her friend, demanding that the audience not allow her death to go unnoticed. After the service, others joined the congregation for a march to the site of Milan’s death. At 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, they created a shrine with flowers, photographs and poems.
Although Milan’s death did not have the national impact of the murders of Matthew Shepard or Teena, the murder has become a regional rallying cry. The memorial service attracted the attention of both the gay press and the New York Times.
In response to the publicity and outpouring of concern, the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in downtown Manhattan hosted a town hall meeting focused on violence against transgender people. On Sept. 28, about 200 people crowded into the center for the meeting, called “Violence and Survival: Transgender People Tell Their Stories.”
Peter Rider, a legislative aide to Manhattan City Councilwoman Christine Quinn who handles transgender issues, attended the meeting and said he left feeling that Milan’s death had led to a change. “At the town hall, people had time to translate the initial shock and grieving about her death into the larger picture of the experiences of transgender people,” he said.
Then, at the end of November, members of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy organized a forum on hate crimes at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. At the beginning of the event, the 50 or so attendees were asked to observe a moment of prayer for 17 transgender people who were killed in the past 12 months, including Milan. The discussion focused on amending a state hate-crimes law that was passed in New York in July to include “gender” as one of the protected categories.
Many other states have already included gender in their hate-crimes legislation. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that monitors hate crimes, only seven of the 31 states that had hate-crimes statutes in 1990 included gender as a protected category. Today, 19 of the 41 statutes add penalties to sentences in cases where the victims were chosen because of their gender.
A similar fight is taking place on a municipal level in New York, where six members of the City Council have sponsored a bill that would provide “gender-variant” people with the legal means to fight discrimination in employment, housing and city services. Gender, as defined by the bill, “shall include actual or perceived sex, and shall also include a person’s gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to that person at birth.”
If the bill is enacted, New York would become the 27th jurisdiction in the United States to adopt such a statute. Although the measure was introduced about three weeks before Milan was murdered, her death, and the activism and publicity that it generated, have brought a new sense of urgency to getting the measure passed.
Rider, who helped draft the bill, said that one of the last stumbling blocks is convincing other council members that such protections are needed. “I think the really positive thing that emerged from her death was a refreshed sense of activism in the community,” he said. “It has become a rallying cry, and that show of solidarity and strength has also provided hope.”
Clarence Patton, director of community organizing for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, which monitors bias attacks, said murders of transgender people are nothing new. According to his statistics, which the police did not confirm, there have been at least seven unsolved murders of transgender people in New York since 1992. What made Milan’s death different, he said, was that there were witnesses to the attack. Often the bodies of murdered transsexuals are discovered in dumpsters, in hotel rooms or by the Chelsea piers, and no witnesses come forward to describe the attacks.
There was one element of Milan’s death that was particularly disturbing. No one who was on the scene that night can confirm this detail of the story, but because it has been repeated so often by secondhand and third-hand sources, it has become a significant part of the mythology surrounding her death:
When McCuller allegedly plunged the knife into Milan’s throat, a group of people standing around — cabbies, street vendors, drug dealers — cheered and clapped.
“A woman gets her throat slit and everyone stands around and applauds?” said Kristianna ThoMasleah, 48, a transsexual political activist and photographer. “How much more of this can a community take?”
Evie Evis, 37, a member of the New York Association of Gender Rights Advocates, agreed. “It was almost a public sacrifice to gender oppression,” she said. “It was us as the sacrificial lamb.”
Both McCuller and Celestine have been indicted on charges of second-degree murder and face up to life in prison. The third man, Anderson, has been charged with hindering the prosecution by hiding McCuller in his Brooklyn apartment. He faces up to seven years behind bars.
The police have not classified Amanda Milan’s murder as a bias crime. Detective Carolyn Chew, a spokeswoman for the Police Department, said that “it did not fit the criteria of a bias crime,” but she declined to explain the department’s reasoning. Meanwhile, the trial opened Tuesday in the state Supreme Court under Judge Joan Sudolnik.
Laura Edidin, former director of legal services for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, said the prosecutors’ refusal to reclassify the case as a bias crime is wrong. “This case absolutely merits it,” she said. “We don’t know everything that happened there, but I think the fact that explicit anti-transgender bias language was used makes the argument. Our belief is that when bias is involved, violence escalates more quickly, and that is my impression of what happened in this case.”
All three defendants have pleaded guilty, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Fred Seligman, an attorney assigned to McCuller through New York’s public defender program, said he hasn’t heard anything about the classification of the case, adding, “I don’t see any indication that this is a bias crime.” Beyond that, he declined to comment.
The Manhattan district attorney who is handling the prosecution, Robert Morgenthau, also declined to comment. But according to Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the D.A.’s office, because the murder took place before the state’s hate-crimes law went into effect, classification of the crime as a bias attack would have little effect.
She added that the purpose of hate-crimes legislation is to enhance the penalties in bias-related cases, but in this case, the defendant is already being charged with murder, so no additional penalties could be applied. As she put it, “You simply can’t enhance a homicide.”
But others argue that labeling it as a bias crime would aid future efforts to protect transgender people.
“Even if it doesn’t bear any weight on this specific case, it would lend weight to our argument,” said Pauline Park, co-founder of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, which helped draft New York’s hate-crimes bill. “It would be an example of a hate crime based on gender identity that prosecutors could look at in terms of sorting out ‘gender identity’ from ‘sexual orientation.’ Her case is a case in which specific epithets were hurled at her, and it was not her sexual preference that was hurled at her, it was her gender identity.”
Park said that although the state’s statute covers crimes motivated by race, sex or sexual orientation, it does not cover “gender identification or presentation,” and transgender people are not necessarily gay. NYAGRA is now drafting an amendment to the hate-crimes law to add such protection.
In the meantime, transgender activists are using the death of Milan to promote their cause. “Gays have rights, lesbians have rights, men have rights, women have rights, even animals have rights,” Milan’s friend St. Laurent told the crowd gathered at the eulogy. “How many of us have to die before the community recognizes that we are not expendable?” She ended by declaring, “Death will not be the last word for Amanda Milan.”
Nina Siegal is an urban life reporter for Bloomberg News.More Nina Siegal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)