Editor’s note: This article references suicide and alleged anti-trans violence, and may be unsettling for some readers.
When Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in May, video footage of the murder set off a global wave of protests against police brutality and racism—protests that are still continuing in many cities, including Portland. In addition to demanding justice for Floyd, the protests have also brought renewed attention to other instances in which police officers have appeared to not value Black lives.
That includes the story of Portlander Titi Gulley. Gulley (whose name has also been spelled “TeTe”) was a homeless Black trangender woman whose body was found hanging from a tree in Rocky Butte Park on May 27, 2019. After examining Gulley’s body and interviewing two people from the homeless camp where Gulley was living, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) quickly determined Gulley’s death was a suicide.
But Gulley’s family disagreed with PPB’s conclusion. They heard from Gulley’s friends and acquaintances that there were rumors of foul play swirling in the Portland homeless community, and that possible video evidence existed of Gulley’s death. Many of the rumors centered on the theory that Gulley was killed by a man she’d had a sexual relationship with, who killed her because he wanted to keep his relationship with a trans woman secret. (Gay men and trans women are often killed by their romantic partners for this reason, a practice that is called “gay panic” or “trans panic.”) This man is named in the police report as the person who found Gulley’s body.
Gulley’s mother and two siblings told the Mercury last year that they felt Gulley’s identity as a trans, Black, homeless person prompted PPB to not apply a high level of scrutiny to its investigation.
“You know they treat a lot of homeless people like they don’t mean nothing to this earth, right?” said Richard Bryant, Gulley’s brother, in an interview with the Mercury last year. “So in the homeless community, other people are willing to do hurt to more people, because they know their voices won’t be heard. They’re just homeless.”
After the Mercury and other local news outlets reported on the family’s concerns, PPB briefly reopened its investigation. The police report associated with Gulley’s death, recently obtained through a public records request, shows that the investigation was opened for an additional 16 days (from June 12 through June 28). It involved interviews with fewer than 10 people—two people alleged to have information about Gulley’s death, and a handful of people who lived in Gulley’s homeless camp at the time of her death.
The report shows that police officers attempted to contact a few other people who were with Gulley in the days before her death, or were believed to have additional information. But PPB officers gave up after not receiving calls back from those people.
“No evidence indicating Gulley's death was a homicide has surfaced,” wrote PPB Detective Brendan McGuire in the report. “It appears that the spreading of unsubstantiated rumors and misinformation... are the primary causes behind those questioning the original findings.”
The report also notes that residents of the Rocky Butte Park homeless camp said Gulley had attempted suicide in the past, before her death in May 2019.
Kenya Robinson, Gulley’s mother, said in a recent interview with the Mercury that she didn’t feel the investigation was very rigorous, even after it was reopened. Over the last year, Robinson has continued to receive tips from people who don’t believe Gulley’s death was a suicide—and Robinson doesn’t think so, either.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Robinson said, “that the police department will listen, that the police department will get off their butts and do something… instead of thinking about somebody’s life like it doesn’t matter.”
In the month since Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Robinson has seen her child’s death be reported on by national news outlets, and get renewed attention on social media. In Portland, protesters have included Gulley’s name in their list of Black people they demand justice for. Her name often appears next to the names of Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, two Black trans women who were killed in the same week in June 2020. Milton died in a robbery, while Fells’ death is being investigated by police.
The bodies of other Black people have been found hanging in trees in the last month in California, New York, and Texas. In those cases, police have also declared the cases to be suicides. But the deceased’s family members tend to disagree, noting that the image of a Black person hanging from a tree has a specific context rooted in the United State’s history of racist lynchings. Gulley’s story is often mentioned alongside the more recent incidents, prompting people to reach out to Robinson.
“Since George Floyd died, a lot of people have been hitting me up,” Robinson said. “Trying to ask questions and giving me information… It’s just been one person after another.
That renewed attention in Gulley’s case has also resulted in a new wave of donations to a GoFundMe Robinson initially set up to cover her child’s funeral costs last year. Robinson said she now plans to use those funds to establish a cash reward for relevant information about Gulley’s death, and to place a billboard on Southeast 82nd Ave—one of the last places Gulley was seen alive—asking for information.
“I think the best way to get help with what’s going on—because I can’t get help from the police department—is to just start raising money,” she said.
Robinson said it’s been difficult for her and her surviving children to grieve and find closure in the last year, because she doesn’t believe all the facts about Gulley’s death have come to life. Robinson’s been hospitalized due to panic attacks in the last year, and she’s often flooded with memories from Gulley’s childhood—Gulley dancing with her sister; Gulley being a cheerleader for her high school despite being bullied for it; Gulley sucking her thumb so much as a young child that it became calloused.
“Those hands were so soft, except for that one thumb that was calloused,” Robinson said. “I can still feel them.”
Robinson said she sees Floyd as a “donor,” whose death she hopes leads to a more just policing system for people like Gulley.
“I don’t know which way this is going to go—maybe this is an open door,” she said. “I’ve been reading a lot of stories on the internet about lynchings, about what Black people have been going through. About riots, about what the police have been doing. I believe if [Floyd] had not died, these stories wouldn’t have been open for this… He was a martyr for the world, that’s what I think.”
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.