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Jessica Williams Stough often was amazed at the resilience that her transgender daughter showed facing hostility from strangers and others.

Kelly Stough "never let it get her down," she said. "She never became bitter. 'You're not going to make me feel any less than who I am.' I respected her so much for that."

Now, those who know the 36-year-old Detroiter best are struggling to cope with her slaying.

Authorities announced Monday that a man has been charged in connection with her death. And as loved ones prepare for a funeral this weekend, they question the circumstances leading to the loss of a friendly, outgoing, aspiring designer with friends across the country.

"Her laugh and her smile could brighten up a room," said Kecha Jackson, a longtime friend who first met her in Chicago. "She was a loving, caring person."

A police officer found Stough's body early Friday near McNichols Street at Brush, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement. She had been fatally shot.

Authorities have charged Albert Weathers, 46, in the death. The Sterling Heights resident was arraigned Monday in 36th District Court on charges of open murder. Bond was set at $1 million.

A probable-cause conference was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Dec. 20. A preliminary examination is set for 1:30 p.m. Dec. 27 in front of Judge Michael Wagner.   

The Prosecutor’s Office assigned the case to Special Prosecutor Jaimie Powell Horowitz from the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a collaboration between the Prosecutor’s Office and Fair Michigan Foundation Inc. The foundation helps state law enforcement officers and prosecutors in solving crimes against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. 

“This case reflects the excessive brutality that members of Detroit’s transgender community constantly face,” said Fair Michigan president Dana Nessel, the state’s incoming attorney general, in a statement. "We thank the Detroit Police Department for their efforts to investigate the facts of this tragic crime.”

Stough's death was a shocking end for someone who advocated to ensure other LGBTQ individuals felt more confident, her mother said. "She loved encouraging the younger individuals and inspiring them and letting them know they’re OK the way they are. ... She was like a gentle giant. She wouldn’t hurt anyone and loved people and wanted them to respect people for who they are."

On Facebook, acquaintances posted footage of Stough, also known as Keanna Mattel, performing in the city's ballroom scene.

For years she also participated in competitions across the country that allowed her to show off her poise and charm, Jackson said.

"She loved taking something that society says wasn't beautiful or the norm and she exposed the beauty in it and made everyone else see it," Jackson said. "It was a glow around her. She owned the room."

Born Trishtan Stough, she grew up in Detroit, graduated from Mackenzie High School and later attended college in South Dakota on a football scholarship, said her mother.

After deciding not to follow through, Stough eventually enrolled in the International Academy of Design & Technology in Chicago, where she started identifying as female, her mother said.

Stough dreamed of becoming a designer and fashioned richly woven evening gowns, swimwear and other items, Jackson said. "She was an artist. She was talented."

To honor her memory, friends are planning a fundraiser Wednesday night at the Woodward Bar & Grill in Detroit to cover burial expenses.

A GoFundMe page also has been launched. 

"She meant a lot to us," said Bubb Ebony, a friend who plans to attend. "She’s been a great spirit." 

 

Her death also sparked attention from activists.

“We must listen to her words and address the factors that continue to foster an epidemic of violence targeting transgender people, particularly transgender women of color,” said officials with the Human Rights Campaign in a statement. “It is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects trans women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of necessities to live and thrive.” 

The group recently released a report showing at least 22 transgender people had been killed in the United States since early 2018 but noted “data collection is often incomplete or unreliable when it comes to violent and fatal crimes" against those who are transgender.

The FBI has found that in 2017, Michigan authorities reported 57 hate crimes related to sexual orientation statewide, compared to 59 the year before. There were 15 reported in Detroit, the agency reported.

This year, the state Civil Rights Commission issued an interpretive statement holding that current law offers some protections for gay and transgender residents. Attorney General Bill Schuette said only lawmakers could make that call, but the commission ignored his opinion and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights has continued to investigate complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Julisa Abad, director of transgender outreach and advocacy for the Fair Michigan Justice Project, notes that while her group and other activists work to address discrimination, transgender people continue to be targeted with violence. Part of the problems lies in perception, she said.  “For so long, we weren’t even counted and dehumanized.”

Abad declined to specifically comment on the case, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.

Stough's mother also would not discuss the details, preferring to remember the example her daughter set. "Whatever your likes and dislikes are, they don’t have to (transfer)  over to others," she said. "Just respect people for who they are."

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