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Monica Roberts had no predecessor. Before her groundbreaking blog, there were few news sites for Black transgender women like her.
And before Monica Roberts, no journalist had painstakingly recorded and reported on the murders of transgender women of color. She took on both projects alone.
“The power of a blog, I’ve learned, to shape events is mighty,” she said while accepting the Special Recognition Award at a GLAAD ceremony in 2016. “It’s even more potent when you walk the walk and back your words up with deeds.”
Through her work with the award-winning blog TransGriot, Roberts provided a blueprint for the national media on how to report about trans people with sensitivity and empathy. She championed Black trans women and men in their triumphs and mourned them in their deaths, often unreported by local or national outlets.
Roberts died in Houston, Texas, this week, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences confirmed to CNN. She was 58.
Officials haven’t released her cause of death, and her sudden passing has devastated transgender people of color who credit her with blazing a trail for them.
She ran a groundbreaking blog
TransGriot got its name from the word “griot,” a term for West African people who preserved the history and traditions of their community.
Monica Roberts was the TransGriot. A one-woman news operation, she began the blog in 2006, years before transgender women of color would be included in the Democratic Party’s official platform.
Then living in Louisville, Kentucky, after spending much of her life in Houston, Roberts wrote a column for a local LGBTQ newspaper. There were blogs for trans people then, she said, but none aimed at trans people of color and the issues most pertinent to them.
There also was hardly any reporting on the killings of trans women of color. She started doing it herself.
“Frankly, I got tired of Black trans women being disrespected by the media,” she told CNN in November 2019.
She’d look for clues in local news reports, like when a murder victim was described as a “man in women’s clothing.” She’d figure out when police had misgendered a victim and then write about that victim on her blog.
Eventually, trans advocacy organizations and national media outlets would notice and cite her work as transgender issues moved further into the mainstream.
She was an activist and political voice
Roberts credits her father, a DJ, for teaching her the importance and power of media. Growing up in a segregated part of Houston, Texas, and transitioning in the 1990s while she worked for an airline, she juggled racism, transphobia and misogyny most of her life, details she shared for a 2019 profile in the Daily Beast.
In her own words, Roberts created TransGriot to “build community and pride in being an unapologetically Black trans person” like she was.
Eventually, the blog widened its coverage to champion transgender politicians, Black leaders like the late Rep. John Lewis, President Barack Obama and, more recently, Sen. Kamala Harris, and her beloved Houston Texans (several of her last blog posts are her NFL picks).
She was already a trans rights activist before she was the TransGriot. During the 1990s, she co-founded the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, according to GLAAD, and started lobbying for trans rights in Texas and Kentucky.
And in her activism online and in person before lawmakers, Roberts has made sure that the killings of Black transgender women were treated like the tragedies they were.
2020 is tied as the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, a tragic milestone made just last week when Felycya Harris, a 33-year-old Black transgender woman was found shot to death in Augusta, Georgia. Hers was the 31st transgender death this year that’s been reported, a record only 2017 has matched, according to the Human Rights Commission.
Roberts hadn’t covered Felycya’s killing on her blog yet. But without her advocacy for covering stories like Felycya’s, major national outlets might not have either.
“We have that world right now,” Roberts told the Daily Beast in 2019. “The world that we talked about and we thought we would never see has actually happened in literally the span of two decades.”
Houston considers her a hometown hero
Roberts covered national and international stories, earning acclaim from contemporary Black trans activists like director Janet Mock, writer Raquel Willis and actress Angelica Ross. But she kept her activism local, too, and Houston officials mourned her as a hometown hero.
“The sudden death of (Roberts) is a huge loss,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted Thursday. “Her fierce advocacy for #trans rights was crucial and admirable. Let’s vow to remember her and stand in solidarity to advance her work.”
Roberts worked closely with Houston police on cases involving LGBTQ+ victims, CNN affiliate KTRK reported. Officer Josephine Jones, LGBTQIA liaison for the Houston Police Department, called her a “true warrior” who helped the department strengthen its relationship with queer residents.
“Because of her commitment and willingness to work with us, today we have a stronger bond in the community,” she wrote. “I stand with you all, now and always.”