Trying to find peace in death for a woman who had little peace in life

A photo of Diamond Williams, who was slain in July 2013: Her remains were left unclaimed.

RUTH WOODS is always polite, but increasingly I've picked up a tinge of dread in her voice when I call.

Hi, Ruth.

Hiii, Helen.

Woods knows why I'm calling. It's the same reason I've called on and off for two years: Diamond Williams, the transgender woman she insists on referring to as her grandson, Mark Woods.

By many accounts Williams did not have an easy life. By all accounts, her last few hours on Earth were hell.

Williams, 31, was killed in July 2013 by a john who used a hatchet and screwdriver to dismember her and then dumped her remains in a vacant lot in North Philadelphia. Charles Sargent, 43, was arrested and is scheduled to stand trial in March.

After I wrote about a vigil for Williams held by the LGBT community in LOVE Park, her grandmother called me.

"I know they are calling him Diamond," she told me then. "But I have to call him Mark . . . Marky . . . because that's who he was."

What followed was a tough conversation with a religious woman with unresolved feelings of shame and grief and denial. Her emotions were raw. She was at once distraught, guilt-ridden and defensive.

She loved a grandchild whom she called Mark. She could not bring herself to love Diamond, the true identity that had struggled for years to come out.

I was sympathetic and appalled at a family who struggled to accept a loved one's sexual or gender identity. I wrote the grandmother's story, uncertain if I had gone too hard or too soft. I'm still not sure.

A couple of months after that column, someone contacted me to say that Diamond's remains had gone unclaimed at the Medical Examiner's Office for more than a year. That couldn't be, I thought. Woods told me that other family members had assured her that they would claim the body and make arrangements for burial or cremation. But, sure enough, when I called Woods, she said it had just been her assumption.

"I thought it was taken care of," she said at the time.

When I sensed her hesitation, I told her that a community of people, of friends, probably would take Diamond's remains. But after giving it some thought, Woods said no.

"I'm going to bring him home," she said, again insisting on using a pronoun that Diamond's friends would frown upon.

And then lately I found myself calling again and pushing again, probably more than I had any right to, when I discovered Diamond had been cremated but that her ashes had not been claimed.

Hi, Ruth.

Hiii, Helen.

This time Woods told me that her understanding was that Diamond's remains had been cremated with others, so she wasn't interested in claiming the ashes "of who knows who."

"I'd have no idea who I was getting," she said.

That didn't sound right to me, and later I learned it wasn't. But I told her I would call to find out. And I reminded her that if she didn't want to claim Diamond's ashes, I would find someone who did.

This time she said yes.

I asked Woods whether Williams' transition had anything to do with her decision. She said no. I wish I believed that.

I didn't know Williams. I was one of many to write about her brutal death, so many of us stumbling over the proper pronoun to accurately and respectfully identify her.

Here's what I do know, and why I kept calling: In life, Diamond went unclaimed by some whom she loved most. It's not right that she goes unclaimed in death, too.

Because even though some high-profile transitions have increased awareness, the reality remains that most transgender women's lives and deaths are overlooked.

Because too often the value of a life is determined by people's beliefs and agendas, not by shared humanity.

Because Diamond Williams mattered.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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