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Forgotten Assault

A brutal attack on two transgender women in 2011 foreshadowed several troubling years of violent crime against the LGBT community in Cleveland, and the city's ill-equipped ability to respond

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Immediately after the violence, they walked. The attack itself was hell, of course, but now the walk was somehow worse. One gripped a stick, the other a pipe. Bleeding and battered, they found a train station and rode east to the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in the early hours of a September morning in 2011.

An hour prior, they had exited MetroHealth Medical Center, where the staff refused to call them a cab and where one staff member pointed them toward a pay phone. "We were just robbed!" they said, changing no one's mind.

And so they walked, with their sole companion on the trek the roiling fear born hours earlier during the violence.

***

Zoë Lapin is seated at the committee table in Room 217 of Cleveland City Hall. She's surrounded by 100 or so heads that bob and shake as she talks on a cold day in November 2014.

"We're just like everyone else. This is about a person's liberation to live their life unapologetically," Lapin says, and the largest crowd this room has hosted in recent memory hoists yellow signs reading, "Thank You." The sizable congregation is present for the debate on public restrooms and whether the city's transgender population may use the restroom that matches their gender identity. The absurdity of the issue — the very existence of a conversation on whether transgender people in Cleveland have the same human rights as non-transgender people — isn't lost on the attendees.

"We contribute and we deserve every right to live our life and live our truth," Lapin says. She's a transgender woman and, particularly, via these last few violent years, a local activist for the community. When she spoke up for Cemia "CeCe" Dove, the people listened. Now, the people are applauding.

CeCe Dove was killed in January 2013. She was beaten, stabbed 40 times, tied to a concrete block and left to sink to the bottom of an Olmsted Township pond.

When news of her death careened into headlines in April 2013, a city's near-total ignorance of the trans community's oppression flared into technicolor. Somewhere, lost in a numb haze, a woman named Zoerella Page took in the news. It was all so goddamned familiar, she thought. The only difference was that she had survived her own brutal assault.

***

First, the bicycle hit the ground. Then came the shouting. Then came the punches.

Zoerella Page, then 41, and her girlfriend, a transgender woman named Jenny*, just a shade over 25, were out later than usual on Sept. 22, 2011, their evening walk extended briefly by a charity event at Pet-Tique on Clifton. Back then, they would go running during the day, so nighttime was reserved for neighborhood walks. They were usually home before dark. (*The woman could not be reached for this story despite multiple attempts and will be referred to hereafter simply as Jenny.)

That Thursday, though, twilight was already descending as the two walked east on the north side of Clifton Boulevard toward their apartment building near Detroit Avenue and the West Boulevard transit station. Traffic was light, so they decided to cross early and jaywalk to the south side of the street. They were getting close to West Boulevard when a group of five black men passed by.

Zoerella heard a bike clatter to the ground. She turned around, thinking maybe someone fell off. Maybe she could help them up.

Then the shouting began.

"Hell no! What are you faggots doing here? What are you faggots doing in our neighborhood?" The words flew out, immediate and angry. The five men approached the girls in a line. One eyed Zoerella's backpack. "What you got in the bag?"

"Run!" she told Jenny. "I'll keep these guys busy. Just run!"

Zoerella couldn't run as fast as Jenny, but she did have a mean right hook. She was a lot of woman back then. Military vet. Did a run in Mogadishu 20 years prior. She dropped her backpack and tossed up the fists, bracing for a fight she had little chance of winning.

Jenny scampered down Clifton, banging on doors without answer, looking for a passing car on what was then an empty street.

Then the punches. "We're gonna fuck you fags up!" The men — some only boys, really — surrounded Zoerella. They pounded fists to her chest, again, again, and someone behind her pushed her to the ground. The circle tightened. Heavy shoes kicked her ribs and head. She'd stumble upward and then get knocked down again. One of the men found a brick and slammed it into her face, breaking her nose. The shouting continued. "We're gonna fuck you fags up!"

Zoerella's survival instinct kicked into high gear as she looked for a streetlight. She had to get out of the dark; she had to get somewhere somebody could see what was happening.

Jim Laule, an off-duty Lakewood firefighter, caught a glimpse of the fracas and stopped his car. Jenny was further down the street by then, blood racing down her arms after she shattered a glass door, adrenaline pumping furiously, while banging for help. Laule scared off the group, most of whom scattered south down the road with Zoerella's backpack.

That should have been the end of the violence. The problem was that things only got worse from there. Provided you don't end up dead, broken bones tend to heal. For the transgender community, it's the system that keeps the pain alive.

***

Dennis Gerencher is drinking an ice-cold Dr. Pepper and talking about that night, three long years after it all happened.

"You don't mind if I smoke, do you?" he says, sitting in his apartment in suburban Medina, far away from Detroit Avenue in Cleveland. This was one of the few places in the area that didn't give him and his now-fiancée any guff when they applied as tenants, he says. They felt welcomed, which was nice.

He lights up, and his voice, already quiet, wavers. What's unfortunate is just how common this sort of thing is nowadays, he says. You don't hear much about this stuff on the news, but it happens all the time. "That whole area is out of control," he says about his former neighborhood.

Dennis purses his lips and begins to recount the story of Sept. 22, 2011. He doesn't talk about the date specifically, simply qualifying time as "before the violence" and "after the violence."

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