- LUCIE: Karen Thompson (center) surrounded by photos of her child.
There are some things we need to get out of the way, up front.
First: When she died on July 11, Lucie Hamilton was a woman, but not in the biological sense. ?A little over twenty years ago, she was born as a little boy named David. At age 10 or 11, David came out to his mother as gay. Sometime between junior and senior high school, he told her that he believed he was transgender — essentially a girl trapped in a boy's skin — and that he wanted to live his life someday as a woman.
In talking with Lucie's mother and friends, there is an odd moment when their pronouns flip; when they stop talking about “him” and start talking about “her.” Even for them, it can get a bit tangled. For a straight person with no transgender friends, hearing them talk like that — trying to wrap your mind around the idea that gender might be more than XX or XY — can make you feel like your brain has done a slow and deliberate barrel roll inside your skull.
Along with Lucie's life as a transgender woman, the papers and television shows that have picked up on the story of her death — most of them on the East Coast — have also focused on the way she died: a thousand miles from home, during a Vodou ritual in a suburban New Jersey townhouse (“Vodou” is the Haitian-specific cousin of the more commonly known “Voodoo,” which is primarily practiced in New Orleans). While police in New Jersey have so far been tight lipped on details of her death, the one thing that is known for sure is that during a weekend of ritual baptism and ceremony, Lucie Hamilton — for whatever reason — laid down to sleep and never woke up.
As many of her friends have pointed out: The words “transgender” or “Voodoo” alone would have been enough to get reporters sniffing around. As it stands, Lucie's death was a sensationalist's double whammy. Before her body even made it back to Little Rock, Geraldo Rivera's people were calling Lucie's friends, looking for an interview.
In speaking with those friends, however, the thing that comes up over and over again is not Lucie's gender or her interest in Vodou or even her death. What comes up is how much has been lost without her. The gay and lesbian community in Little Rock is a little town within a city, and the transgender community is still tinier. And it is clear that a fierce light in that sky has gone out.
David Hamilton was born on September 30, 1988, the only child of Karen Thompson. His father was out of the picture early, Karen said, only visiting to see the boy two or three times in his life before moving to Mexico and falling off the radar. From the time he was a toddler, Thompson said, she could tell there was something different about David. Though he was fascinated by animals, he never wanted anything to do with what most little boys like to play with — trucks and cars and plastic army men.
“We always had girl toys,” Thompson said. “We also had farm toys because there was the whole animal aspect of that, but it was always things like My Little Pony and the dolls and the clothes. That was from two or three.” Thompson suspected David might be gay long before he came to her in middle school and told her he thought he might be; long before he could have ever made a conscious choice one way or the other.
“In her head, she always knew that she was going to grow up to be a woman,” Thompson said. “I don't think people understand that [being transgender] is not part of gay/lesbian. It's gender. Who you are, versus who you're attracted to sexually.”
Even though she came to realize that fact, Thompson — who was brought up in the Nazarene Church — admits that hearing David say he was gay was a scary moment for her.
“That's a hard sticking point for a lot of parents who have been raised in church,” she said. “You think: ‘My kid is going to hell, and I'm going to hell for accepting him.' But on the other hand, you're thinking: Some churches say that it's OK to feel gay, but it's not OK to act on it. That condemns them to a life without love. “
With time, Thompson came to accept the idea that God loved her son, and made him the way he was. Then, in junior high school, David came out to her again, this time as transgender. In coming years, he would find a doctor in Little Rock to prescribe the hormones he needed to grow breasts and soften his angular, muscular frame and face into the softer body of a woman. Eventually, he started talking to her about the possibility of getting sexual reassignment surgery someday. Learning to accept the idea of her son as a woman was, Thompson said, “a process.”
“To me, it kind of feels like your child has died,” Thompson said. “It feels like the child that you raised has died, and they want you to accept this other person. That's really hard at first.”
Before that acceptance, however, Thompson's first thought was fear. She had accepted the idea that her son was gay. But transgender was different. This was Arkansas, and a pretty boy in a dress might be too much for a violent homophobe to bear.
“Your fear is that somebody is going to hurt your child,” she said. “There is so much violence, and people are so threatened by [male-to-female transgenderism] that they will kill you for being different sometimes. That was always my fear.”
Though that fear never came to pass, becoming Lucie was clearly an ordeal for David. Occasionally during his transition from David to Lucie, he would go to school dressed as a girl. When senior pictures were taken, he wore the wrap instead of the tux. The amount of harassment David's friends say he took on a daily basis is an example of the difference between how society accepts gay as opposed to how we accept transgender.
Asher Stobaugh was a few grades behind Lucie at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School in Little Rock. Stobaugh, who came out as female-to-male transgender at Lucie's wake, said that though Parkview is more open-minded than most high schools, Lucie still took a lot of grief there. “I think she had a hard time, but it was better than it could have been,” Stobaugh said. “Living in Arkansas and living in the middle of the Bible Belt, you're going to get that — all the bullying, all the slander. It's going to happen. But Lucie saw past that and didn't care. She had the attitude of: I AM Lucie Hamilton, and you will not mess with me.”
Jeana Huie is another of Lucie's friends. She said that there were times when the abuse was so bad in high school that Lucie considered dropping out. “She hated school,” Huie said. “A person can only take so much, and what the rest of us can put up with in a year, she got every single day — people making comments and throwing things, making faces…. It was really rough for her. I'm absolutely amazed that she finished high school. It's definitely a testament to how strong she was.”
While Huie said that the transition from gay to transgender was a “natural progression” for Lucie — “from a teenage boy with pretty fingernails, to a drag queen, to not really a drag queen, to transgender” — the thought of coming out as transgender for most can be almost intimidating as coming out as gay or lesbian, even if a person is comfortable in the gay community.
“It's a lot harder for people to come out as transgender, because there are fewer transpeople,” Huie said. “There are a lot of gay people and gay community groups where, as a transperson, you would be completely ostracized. It's not necessarily in writing, and it may not even be intentional.”
Randi Romo is the director of Little Rock's Center for Artistic Revolution, which often supports gay and lesbian issues in Arkansas. Lucie was a member of CAR's mentoring program for young adults, Diverse Youth for Social Change (DYSC). Romo said that for many transgender people like Lucie, living life as the opposite sex comes at a cost. Doors for employment, housing and medical care are often closed, and harassment becomes a common occurrence.
“Transpeople, once they make the decision to be true to themselves, the whole societal script just flips,” Romo said. “There's a little more tolerance for gays and lesbians, but transpeople are considered to be ‘out there.' ”
Nevertheless, Little Rock's gay community seems to have embraced David and later the boisterous Lucille Hamilton. In addition to the friends Lucie won there, another place she found solace was in religion. From an early age, Karen Thompson said, David was fascinated with faith. In grade school, he delivered a report on Judaism that went into so much detail about Jewish holidays and rituals that, for a time, teachers and administrators at the school assumed his family was Jewish. Growing up, Thompson said, David collected books on religion, and later became a Catholic. After seeing the image on a necklace, Lucie had Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on top of her foot.
Through Catholicism, Lucie became interested in Santeria and Vodou (pronounced VOH-doo). Both are Caribbean; mixtures of the African tribal religions slaves brought with them to the New World and the Judeo-Christian faiths they had forced upon them once they arrived. Vodou originally arose in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and is still practiced there by a large segment of the population as their primary religion.
Coming from a conservative Christian background, Karen Thompson said that when Lucie told her about her interest in Vodou, she was again afraid for her child. “I'd been brought up with [the idea that] this was Devil worship and it was evil,” Thompson said. “But she didn't get in there and try to do harm to people. She wrote things down as prayers, and she would light candles and things. To me, I just thought: Everybody is searching for God.”
Jeana Huie said that if you knew Lucie and how her mind worked, her interest in Vodou might be more understandable. “One thing Lucie didn't do is dabble,” Huie said. “If she was going to look at it, she was going to jump in up to her neck. There was none of that, ‘I'm going to read a book about Santeria and see if it's interesting.' It was: ‘I'm going to practice Santeria and find a priest to do it.' That's just how she experienced things.”
True to form, Lucie became a practicing Vodouisant — as much as that can be true in Arkansas. She practiced with a few local devotees, did rituals in her bedroom, and built small altars in friend's homes. When a friend got pregnant, she ritually cleansed the nursery before the baby arrived.
This fall, Lucie planned to go to UALR to complete her college degree. A milestone like that called for a ceremony to ensure good fortune in her new pursuit. For that, she needed a Mambo or Houngan — a priestess or priest of Vodou. With a little online research, she found such a ceremony to be held in New Jersey in mid-July, led by Houngan Hector Salva.
Until he took down the website for his Gade Nou Leve Society a few days after Lucie's death, Hector Salva — Houngan Hector to his followers — was one of many Vodou practitioners offering their services to devotees of Vodou faith online. One ritual Houngan Hector offered was the Lave Tet.
From the French “Laver Tet,” meaning “to wash the head,” the Lave Tet ceremony is a series of ritual baptisms with herbed and consecrated waters, after which the subject is placed in a sacred room. According to the website of the Roots Without End Society, one of the major Vodou sites on the web, the Lave Tet is meant to be, “a purification and consecration of the head using traditional herbs and other substances.” The website goes on to say that the ceremony — among other things — clarifies thought, promotes health, removes curses, improves finances, and “harmonizes the energy the person brings into daily activities.” In other words, it's the perfect ceremony for a young Vodouisant looking to do well in her upcoming college career.
After finding Houngan Hector's website, Lucie signed up for the three day Lave Tet ritual scheduled for the weekend of July 10-12 in Gloucester Township, New Jersey. In order to make enough for both the plane ticket to get there and the fee for the ceremony — $621 according to the Camden County prosecutor's Office — Lucie began squirreling back money from her job at Arkansas Flag and Banner, where she worked in the call center. Finally, on July 10, her plane tickets bought, a friend took her to the airport and she flew out for Philadelphia, where Houngan Hector had made arrangements to have her picked up and ferried to his townhouse at 432 Loch Lomond drive in Gloucester Township, New Jersey. When she landed in Philadelphia, Lucie called her mother to briefly check in. It would be the last time they spoke.
The Gloucester Township Police have refused to comment on Lucie Hamilton's death until toxicology reports are in from the autopsy performed the day after she died. Transcripts of a 911 call published in Philadelphia area papers have a caller in a near panic as he reports discovering her body. “We had a visitor come to our house,” the man on the tape says. “She was sleeping in a room, and we didn't hear nothing from her. Now we go upstairs to wake her up to eat, and she's dead.” Quizzed by the dispatcher, the person on the line said that the group had last seen Lucie alive two and a half to three hours before.
At around 3 a.m., Arkansas time, two Little Rock police officers knocked on Karen Thompson's door. She said her first thought was that someone was having a loud party in the neighborhood, and residents had assumed the noise was coming from her house. Lucie had drawn the ire of neighbors with loud music before. The police officers asked if she was the mother of Lucie Marie, the name Lucie sometimes went by online.
“Then they said, ‘I'm sorry to inform you that she has passed away,' ” Thompson said. “It's 3 a.m., and your stomach absolutely drops to your knees. You're thinking: It must be somebody else. It must be somebody else.”
Answers to the questions surrounding Lucie's death have been slow to come. While Thompson has since been in touch with a detective with the Gloucester Township Police, most of the information she knows about the case has come from the news media in the area. One perplexing bit of information quickly arose: After paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive Lucie, Hector Salva, the other six people involved in the Lave Tet ritual and several children who were in the house at the time were taken to the hospital as a “precaution.” All were later released.
Jason Laughlin is a spokesman for the Camden County, New Jersey, prosecuting attorney's office. “We are not specifying what the reasons were other than investigators wanted them to be checked out,” Laughlin said. “We're not getting into the details of the observations that were made.”
For Lucie's friends, however, the implication of the decision to take everyone to the hospital is clear: It would seem that paramedics suspected that those involved in the Lave Tet ritual at Houngan Hector's townhouse had all eaten or drunk something — the same something that had killed Lucie Hamilton.
“We still don't know,” said Lucie's friend Randi Romo. “We find it highly suspicious and highly questionable that they took everybody in the house to the hospital as a precaution. It's like my mom had a heart attack. They didn't take all of us to the hospital as a precautionary measure to make sure we didn't have heart attacks. That's not standard operating procedure… I don‘t find it hard to believe that [Salva] might have given them something to make sure they had an extraordinary spiritual experience.”
Repeated attempts to reach Houngan Hector Salva for comment were unsuccessful. In an interview Salva granted to the Philadelphia Daily News on July 27 and a phone call he made to Karen Thompson the week after Lucie died, he stressed that Lucie hadn't ingested anything during the ceremony more potent that a sip of rum. He told the reporter for the Daily News that he was “100 percent confident” that there had been no wrongdoing on his part, saying that Hamilton's death had been “God's choice.”
Kathy Grey, known in the Vodou community as Mambo Racine Sans Bout, has been a priestess of the Vodou faith for more than 25 years. The head of the Roots Without End Society, she splits her time between a home in Massachusetts and her Peristyle — a community temple where Vodou followers gather — in a tiny village in Haiti. Grey initiated Hector Salva into the Vodou faith, but says he was removed from her “house” after only two years for not following the rules and trying to get ahead by maligning her online.
Grey said that as it is normally conducted, the Lave Tet ceremony never involves drugs of any kind. “We never, ever use any type of drug in our ceremonies except alcohol, which is drunk by the spirits and then shared by the participants, none of whom drink to the point of sickness,” Grey said. “But, hallucinogens or anything like that? Depressants? Stimulants? No. We don't do that.”
The days between Lucie's death and the funeral are a blur for Karen Thompson. When asked about specific details of that time — who she called and what she did — she often can't quite remember. Lucie's wake was the day before Thompson's birthday. Her funeral was the day after. No one wanted to make her relive the pain of losing Lucie every year on her birthday, so the burial was postponed.
For many of Lucie's friends, a lot of those early days were spent on the phone, either teasing out crumbs of information, or setting reporters straight on Lucie's gender.
The early stories published and broadcast about the case have a definite salacious tinge to them, often referring to Lucie as a man living as a woman. Technically, yes.
But to Lucie's friends, who knew how committed she was to her new life, it was a slap in the face. Some online reports suggested that Lucie had sought out the ritual in order to be cleansed of her transgender sexuality. At least one called her interest in Vodou a “fatal obsession.”
“They were writing this horrid stuff,” said Randi Romo. “ ‘Arkansas man dies, Lucille Hamilton.' I think that we were able to set the tone for what came afterwards. Now [in news reporting] you see almost across the board, ‘An Arkansas woman, Lucille Hamilton.' It‘s still ‘dies in Vodou ritual,' but I think we changed the tone.”
With the funeral behind her, Karen Thompson is now awaiting the toxicology reports from Lucie's autopsy, which prosecutors have said should be available in the next two or three weeks. She is hoping that the results will provide some answers. Most of the information she has now came from online newspaper articles, and those can be frustratingly vague.
“For the longest, they were saying it was not a suspicious death,” she said. “The first couple of reports were: ‘This is not a suspicious death.' I'm thinking: A 20-year-old does not go to sleep and not wake up and it not be suspicious.”