BOSTON — Jahaira DeAlto, a longtime advocate for the transgender community who fought for marginalized communities in the Berkshires and beyond, was among two people slain Sunday in a Boston apartment.
“She was an incredible orator, and spoke often of being a women of trans experience, about making the world better for those of us who are trans,” said B. Bradburd, the LGBTQ+ and management consultant for the Elizabeth Freeman Center. “She was a force to be reckoned with.”
DeAlto, 42, was a graduate of Berkshire Community College, and advised and worked for the Freeman Center before moving back to Boston to study social work at Simmons University, where she was enrolled at the time of her death, according to President Lynn Perry Wooten.
She was described as an unflinching advocate for trans visibility and rights, an empathetic listener and a mother to trans folks who was revered in the ballroom community as a member of the House of Balenciaga.
DeAlto was stabbed fatally Sunday at her Dorchester apartment. Another woman, 27-year-old Fatima Yasin, who was the suspect’s wife, also was killed. Prosecutors said Monday that Yasin’s two children, ages 7 and 8, were at the home at the time and were not physically hurt. A dog was found stabbed but survived after receiving a blood transfusion.
Marcus Chavis, 34, was arrested at the home after calling police on himself, prosecutors said. The Boston Globe reported that a prosecutor said Chavis, Yasin and the children had been living with DeAlto.
DeAlto had allowed them to stay with her, the paper reported, and Rachel Rollins, district attorney for Suffolk County, said her office was trying to determine DeAlto’s connection to the family, though friends and neighbors told The Globe that DeAlto and Chavis had been close and she “was like a mother to him.”
Chavis was arraigned Monday in Dorchester District Court on two counts of murder and one count of animal cruelty. He pleaded not guilty and was ordered held without bail before trial. At the hearing, Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum said Chavis told authorities he was taking medication for mental health issues.
According to Human Rights Campaign, at least 17 trans or gender nonconforming people have been shot or killed by other violent means in 2021.
“She was such a rock. I never thought that she was going to be on that list, and now I think we are all determined to make sure that she is not just a number, because she lived such a full life, and that should be how we remember her,” said Berkshire Pride Festival organizer Kelan O’Brien.
Her advocacy work stretches over two decades. She was a “loyal friend, a fierce advocate, and a mother to many” who helped launch the first Transgender Day of Remembrance and Berkshire Pride Festival, according to a statement from Berkshire Pride.
“Her unconditional love was felt by all who met her and her kind and funny spirit left its mark on the Berkshires — from the classrooms at Berkshire Community College to the offices of Elizabeth Freeman Center, from helping launch the first Transgender Day of Remembrance and Berkshire Pride Festival to ‘being all the things,’ as she liked to say,” the statement said.
DeAlto was a keynote speaker at the Live Out Loud Community Conference in 2018, the same year she served as the keynote speaker for the Transgender Day of Remembrance at BCC. She won The Creative Writing Award from the BCC Falconer and Program Awards ceremony in 2019.
O’Brien met DeAlto in 2018. He described the years that DeAlto spent in the Berkshires as a “journey of really finding opportunity for herself, and getting closer to a place where a woman who gave so much to others was able to invest in herself.”
“She set the foundation in place to actually build the community that we have now,” O’Brien said.
DeAlto was passionate about her education, said her friend, the Rev. Nakeida Bethel-Smith, who described the woman she would take with her to services at Price Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church as an “authentic warrior woman.”
“I want people to know that she wouldn’t want them to lose the fight,” said Bethel-Smith, who met DeAlto through the Freeman Center and bonded over their shared ties to Brooklyn.
DeAlto served on the advisory board for an ongoing initiative at the center that placed LGBTQ+ advocates in each of the organization’s Berkshire County locations, and went on to work for the center as an advocate at the emergency shelter, while also fielding calls to the center’s emergency crisis line.
In March of this year, she appeared in an “Alumni Story Hour’’ hosted by BCC, her alma mater, when she was interviewed with fellow graduate, Michelle Hill. She described spending much of her life in Boston before she fled an abusive relationship, and was placed at the Freeman Center’s emergency shelter in Pittsfield — a city she hadn’t heard of before arriving in Western Massachusetts, she said.
Hill was doing her internship at the center at the time, and said she was mesmerized by DeAlto, ultimately insisting that DeAlto enroll at BCC. DeAlto said Hill asked her why she hadn’t gone to college yet, a question DeAlto said she never had been asked.
“I come with a great deal of intersectional identities, and there’s a lot of overlap in all that comprises me,” DeAlto said. “I thought that college was for people who were richer, and whiter, and cis, and all that I was not.”
DeAlto proved that notion wrong.
She enrolled in BCC, earned a scholarship for students who have overcome obstacles in life, and graduated in 2019 with an associate’s degree and certificate in human services. Ellen Kennedy, president of BCC, said DeAlto became a spokesperson for the state’s Credit for Prior Learning, which allows community college students to complete a portfolio about their lived experiences for academic credit.
Frederic MacDonald-Dennis met DeAlto when he joined in 2018 as director of BCC’s TRIO center, which provides support to students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds. DeAlto was the first point of contact for visitors to the center, and helped develop a peer-mentorship program, he said.
He described her as having a magnetic presence and was someone whose humor kept those around her entertained. At the same time, DeAlto was serious and engaged people in deep conversations, particularly about social justice.
DeAlto, MacDonald-Dennis said, spoke about the loved ones she lost in her life, including a friend who also was trans.
“She saw a lot of that in her life, and wanted to make a difference,” he said.
DeAlto was a voice for marginalized communities on campus. Kennedy said the college was better for it.
“She left a huge imprint on who we are as a community, how we think about things, and the language we use,” Kennedy said.
She spoke at the 2018 Transgender Day of Remembrance at St. Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, which honored the life of Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, a North Adams trans woman who was killed by her husband that year.
“Queer people are at higher risk for these types of violence than the general population, and what is so heartbreaking is, we know that viscerally in Berkshire County because we lost Christa a few years ago, and now we’ve lost Jahaira,” Bradburd said.
In the Berkshires, DeAlto pressed for access to appropriate health care for transgender individuals and their right to use public accommodations that align with their gender identities.
Misty, a participant in a Berkshire Eagle feature coinciding with Pride month in 2019, said DeAlto made them proud to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m proud of all the work that my drag friends put into the community: the fun, the education, the love and laughter. And I’m especially proud to be a part of a community that has been blessed with Jahaira Dealto in its life,” Misty wrote. “That woman is not only a voice for the people, she is smart, hardworking, dedicated, passionate and hilarious.”
She believed it was important to be visible, once saying, “The more we humanize ourselves for those who don’t think they’ve encountered a transgender person, the more we’re able to remove the stigma and fear surrounding the perception of what trans people are.”
Bradburd, of the Freeman Center, said DeAlto recognized that “to survive, the LGBTQ community, and particularly trans folks, we need safety — but we need community and we need joy as well. I think she brought those things in abundance.”