The Crying Game

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Soos' body was discovered by hot-air balloonists, lying in the middle of Jomax Road near Cave Creek. She had been beaten, run over several times by the car in which she was picked up, and left for dead.

Phoenix police have since determined that both Lucero's and Soos' unsolved murders were hate crimes. But they've found no link between the two.

"We did not determine that they were related. That's not to say that they aren't, but there was nothing similar about the two other than the lifestyle of the victims," the homicide detective says. "It's been my experience in 25 years of law enforcement that transgenders are targeted, period. A guy gets a six-pack of beer under his belt, picks up a hooker, and when he finds out the hooker is actually a man, he gets angry."

But girls like Tionne insist there's a pattern of homicides committed specifically against Native American transgenders.

"The cops," she says, "they don't care about us. They don't investigate enough."

According to the anonymous homicide detective, many of the girls Tionne suspects of having been murdered were more likely to have overdosed on drugs, or simply moved back to the reservation.

Phoenix Police Detective Tambra Williams agrees. "We're going to treat every homicide the same as any other," says Williams, the department's liaison to the gay community. "So many of the girls, and their families, may want to place blame. They don't want to know that their friends and relatives OD'd."

But, Williams admits, the Native American TG community is a target for violent crimes.

"When you have that much of your community homeless, on drugs, abusing alcohol," she says, "you've got such a huge propensity for violence. And when that community is gay or transgender, those who would commit those violent acts see them as weak individuals."

She adds, "They see them as easy targets."

Trudie Jackson was once like Francessica, yearning for an urban environment where she could blend in and disappear.

She moved to Phoenix from Shiprock, a small town on the Navajo reservation. And then she was just like Raymond Soos or Alejandro Lucero. Only, unlike them, she somehow survived the streets -- for 15 years.

"I was jumping in and out of cars to make my rent money," says Jackson, 38, a heavyset transgender with shiny, dark brown hair and plump hands and fingers. "That was my survival. I was out there cleaning house, and my friends [also working as prostitutes] got jealous."

About eight years ago, those same so-called friends -- envious that Jackson pulled in as much as $1,000 on a good weekend working on Van Buren -- stabbed her in the chest twice, she says, leaving her to die on the street with a punctured lung.

Then she was busted on possession charges coming out of a crack house in downtown Phoenix, according to police reports, with three "8-balls of rock" clenched in her fists. She spent nine months in the Arizona Department of Corrections in Florence.

In prison, Jackson quit drinking and drugs. When she got out, she found the Two-Spirit Shields Project. Run by the Native American Community Health Center, the program -- with an average annual budget of about $75,000 -- was funded by federal grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It targeted Native American transgenders who were at risk for HIV/AIDS.

According to Dennis Huff, NACHC's behavioral health director, Native American TGs and "risky behavior" go hand in hand.

"The girls have been shunned by their communities on the reservation," Huff says, "and they believe the only hope they have is to work on the streets."

After its first CDC grant ran out in 2002, the Two-Spirit Shields Project was reincarnated as the Native American Pathways Prevention Project. To this day, it's still the only program of its kind in the country -- expanding its role (largely thanks to Jackson's efforts) to include educating local tribes like Pimas and Yaquis on what transgenderism actually is so that straight Natives are more tolerant. The project also hosts weekly group meetings at the NACHC, with as many as two dozen TGs attending each session.

When Jackson was first hired by NACHC three years ago, she was working as a janitor. Now, she's the outreach coordinator for Native American Pathways.

In the past year, Huff says he's noticed Jackson's confident swagger. Like most of the T-girls, she can't afford sex-change surgery but gets hormones for free from the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. She's developing breasts, and her voice is up at least an octave without much strain on her vocal cords.

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Joe Watson