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Layleen Polanco’s Death Haunts a Prideful Celebration

Polanco in a Facebook photo from 2012. Photo: Facebook

At the Flower Funeral Home in Yonkers, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco was surrounded by dozens of friends, family members, and rainbow-colored bouquets of roses. Mourners paid their respects to the 27-year-old transgender woman as “Over the Rainbow” gave way to the thrum of house music. The family wore T-shirts bearing Polanco’s image on the front, angel wings drawn sprouting off her shoulders, and the transgender-pride flag on the back. Her mother knelt before her casket. To the right, a big rainbow-lettered banner read: HUMAN. Most of those attending had not seen Polanco for a long time, at least since April, when she was arrested for misdemeanors and, unable to put up the $500 bail, sent to Rikers. She spent the last nine days of her life in solitary confinement and was discovered unconscious in her cell on the first Friday of June.

June is Pride Month, and this year New York is hosting WorldPride, a celebration of social advancement since the police raid on the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago. The day before Polanco’s death, the city’s police commissioner had apologized for the NYPD’s actions during the raid; the week before, the mayor had announced that statues would be raised in Greenwich Village honoring transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as leaders of that uprising.

As the month progressed, Pride-related events became ubiquitous, with the New York Public Library, draped in Pride banners, hosting Stonewall exhibitions across its entire gallery space; 50 murals that “honor the beauty, struggle, and strides of the LGBTQIA+ community” going up across the five boroughs; the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed at the Tenement Museum; a day of live music, games, and a gender-affirming fashion show for teens at Central Park’s SummerStage; salads and sneakers and mouthwash being refashioned as “proud”; Olympian Gus Kenworthy modeling Ralph Lauren’s gender-neutral, rainbow-flag-inspired capsule collection; Uber running advertisements on Instagram featuring an exuberantly proud asexual “drive-partner” named Heather; Indya Moore, the trans star of Pose, triumphing over Houston Street as the newest face of the #MyCalvins underwear campaign; Mastercard sponsoring a full spectrum of new street signs to complement Gay Street in the West Village because #AcceptanceMatters; banks gone rainbow, from Wells Fargo’s window displays declaring you are empowerful to Capital One’s two-story neon-light show in Union Square; Richard Branson and Virgin Airways throwing a Pride party at the top of One World Observatory; limited-edition Pride MetroCards; and Taylor Swift performing a surprise set at Stonewall. Polanco died less than ten miles from the landmark, practically invisible, and though her immediate cause of death is still unknown, her ghost hovers over all of these festivities.

Polanco was a longtime member of the House of Xtravaganza, a dynasty in New York City’s ballroom scene. Gisele Alicea, the house mother, says she first got the news of Polanco’s death right after coming offstage at a gala for the Latino Commission on AIDS at Cipriani, where she had portrayed Rivera. “I was like, ‘Another one?’” said Alicea, a model and an actress. “Because we’re dying so young. In our 30s, 20s, teens. It’s too much.”

Polanco was determinedly proud of her trans identity, friends say, and offered encouragement and medical tips to young people in transition. Daniel Fernandez, Polanco’s brother in the House of Xtravaganza, said Polanco wished above all to live without fear.

“She just wanted to be happy and not worry about how society looks down on trans people and the statistics of trans people that follow from that,” he said. “Layleen was a beacon of joy.”

Alana Ramos, Polanco’s Xtravaganza daughter, remembers Polanco bounding down Christopher Street to befriend her and wondering how many freckles were on Ramos’s face. She said Polanco loved sushi and house music and hugged every dog she saw on the street. She played Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” on repeat. And she helped other young transgender women on their way. “She believed in me,” she said.

A few days after Polanco’s death, her sister Melania Brown posted a video of Polanco lip-syncing to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions,” her sister dramatically covering her ear for the high note.

“Baby girl, why you?” Brown wrote.

Polanco had been arrested on April 13 after a fight with a cabdriver, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which alleges that she did not pay her $31.30 fare and then bit the driver on the cheek.

Polanco had also been involved in a previous case that had never wrapped up, a prostitution charge stemming from an encounter with an undercover cop at the Empire Hotel in Manhattan. The officer said Polanco had a crack pipe in her pocket, adding a low-level drug misdemeanor to the mix. The case was referred to Manhattan’s human-trafficking-intervention court, a so-called problem-solving court that aims to offer services instead of prosecution to people it deems victims of sex work. The DA’s office said it planned to offer to dismiss the charges, but Polanco missed her court appearances and warrants were issued for her arrest.

When Polanco could not afford bail, her case was referred to a bail fund, a nonprofit that provides financial support to individuals charged with misdemeanors, but it did not pay. (Bail funds sometimes turn down applicants who have a history of missed court appearances.) A few days later, Polanco was ordered released on the taxi assault — the prosecution had not filed a supporting deposition from the driver in time — but the bail associated with the old case kept her inside.

At Rikers, Polanco seemed to struggle. She was hospitalized for eight days beginning on May 16, according to sources, for reasons the medical service, citing patient privacy, has not disclosed. Not long after she returned to Rosie’s, as the women’s jail is widely called, she was disciplined for her role in a fight. Her punishment was a stay in a restrictive-housing unit, a type of punitive segregation for people with some mental-health issues but whose struggles have not been viewed as serious enough to exclude them from solitary confinement.

The RHU offers three hours of group-therapy activities on weekdays, but detainees typically spend the rest of the day and night, including mealtimes, alone, jail insiders say. Polanco was declared dead in her cell barely an hour after an officer noticed she was lying unresponsive, according to the Department of Correction. Detainees in the Rikers women’s solitary unit were moved out amid the investigation.

Politicians say Polanco’s story should spur the decriminalization of sex work, the closing of Rikers, and an end to solitary confinement, cash bail, and drug-war arrests. (“No human being should be tortured by or in the United States. That means NO ONE should be kept in solitary confinement,” wrote Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. “Layleen Polanco was, and now she’s gone — all for $500 bail.”) Activists have cited her death as a reason to distrust law enforcement as the parade weekend nears, and a countermarch to New York’s official Pride parade — called the Queer Liberation March — has banned police and corporate floats. Polanco’s family, meanwhile, has been left searching for answers and finding space, in this busy month of Pride, for grief.

*This article was published in collaboration with THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit newsroom for New York City. It appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Layleen Polanco’s Death Haunts a Prideful Celebration