And — unlike in some other types of loss — they’re faced with the challenge of finding justice for the person who took their loved one. Staying committed to that cause in the face of personal grief and anguish is a harrowing daily feat for far too many Americans. And doing so on behalf of an out and proud transgender family member is a sight too rarely witnessed, despite the high rates of anti-trans crimes. But one local woman has made a stand against violence on behalf of her transgender daughter and the countless number of transgender victims of violence — teaching the trans community, its supporters and its opponents the meaning and import of unconditional love.
Dawn Maher was shopping with her mother when a family member called to say something may have happened to her daughter, Kyra Cordova.
“I knew something was really wrong and when I arrived home to two police cars and saw the looks on their faces, I knew and I felt it in my heart,” Maher told PGN in the fall.
Cordova’s body was found in the early-morning hours of Sept. 3, Labor Day, in a wooded area off the 1100 block of Adams Avenue in Frankford. She had been shot in the head. Because she had no identification on her, it took police several days to get word out to the family.
Cordova, 27, grew up in Hatfield and graduated from North Penn High School. She had been living in Philadelphia for about five years and worked for a time, first as a volunteer and later as a staff tester, for the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative. She was also involved with relaunching and co-facilitating a trans group at The Attic Youth Center.
Days after the family and the community was notified of the murder, on Sept. 13, trans-advocacy group Blitz organized a memorial at William Way LGBT Community Center. About 400 people attended, including Maher, her sister Rhonda and other family members, who led a candelight vigil.
GALAEI executive director Elicia Gonzales said she first met Maher at the vigil and was impressed by her selflessness.
“From the very beginning, she was just very embracing and friendly and didn’t really think of herself at all in the equation, from early on,” Gonzales said. “People would ask, ‘How are you doing, how are you holding up?’ and she was determined from the beginning to make sure the focus stayed on Kyra and on finding justice for Kyra. That was very impressive.”
Blitz community liaison Tammyrae Barr said she also met Maher at the vigil.
She was struck by Maher’s eagerness to embrace her daughter’s community.
“Dawn exhibited resilience and sought to understand the community that her child was living amongst,” Barr said. “Those that truly know the trans*community of Philadelphia know that we are a highly divided group. Yet here was a parent seeking answers and justice for her child and I for one could not step away.”
Even though Maher had never been a very active trans ally, Barr said her willingness to learn all she could, and quickly, demonstrated “that she does truly care.”
Maher’s pursuance of justice has made her a well-known face to many in the trans and ally community.
She was present at all of this fall’s Justice for Kyra meetings, organized by family, friends and supporters to press for an arrest and to mobilize against anti-trans violence.
Gonzales noted that, even though Maher had to drive an hour to the meetings, she was on time for each one, even bringing food to share with the group. When supporters suggested moving the meetings closer to Maher’s suburban location, Gonzales said she refused, unwilling to inconvenience any of the local supporters.
She went door-to-door in the neighborhood where the murder took place, handing out fliers seeking information.
Maher, her family and Justice for Kyra leaders met with an array of police officials in October, including the homicide captain and Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
Gloria Casarez, director of LGBT affairs, was present for the meeting and said that, while the discussion was spurred by Kyra’s murder, Maher was interested in taking it beyond her daughter.
“What I really respect about Dawn, and about her sister, is that they’re focused on finding who did this to Kyra and why, but also about the next Kyra and about the Kyra before,” Casarez said.
She added that the family was dismayed that police initially seemed to lack an understanding of and sensitivity to the trans community, which Maher addressed.
“Dawn was the driving force behind this meeting and, while the focus was on getting information on Kyra’s case, most of that happened privately afterwards with detectives, and the meeting was really about what can be done better next time. She wants justice for Kyra but she knows there’s going to be another Kyra and she doesn’t want the same mistakes happening. She sees the big picture.”
Maher and her sister attended a number of Transgender Day of Remembrance events in November, where Casarez gave her a copy of the city proclamation recognizing TDOR, which mentioned Cordova.
Gonzales said Maher’s involvement in both the case and the community stems from her innate love for her daughter.
“She was accepting of Kyra when she first came out as gay when she was younger and she was accepting when she came out as trans,” she said. “She’s gone on trying to find her murderer and she’s gotten so involved in the community while dealing with her daughter’s murder, and I think that speaks volumes. She’s not just accepting, she’s affirming and she’s become an advocate for all of the folks in our community.”
Maher told PGN that while it took her some time to embrace her daughter’s identity, she ultimately saw that it was a natural part of her life.
“I know for Kyra it was who she had to become, not only mentally but physically,” Maher told PGN. “She didn’t become a different person on the inside; she just became who she was truly meant to become on the outside.”
Such an attitude is not held enough by family members of many in the trans community, Casarez said.
“To see a family that loved their daughter, their niece, their granddaughter more than anything, it’s really hard to put into words what that does,” she said. “Dawn was able to see past the things that many families get hung up on and was able to see that this is just who Kyra is. It’s clear love trumps anything she may not fully understand yet.”
Barr said Maher is an example of a “parent learning that her child touched the hearts of many, created her own community family, volunteered, worked and survived a world that does not cater to the true diversity of its people. I see her trying, and so many people just don’t.”
Maher has emerged as a mother figure for many in the community, Gonzales said, noting that friends and supporters of Cordova often refer to Maher as “Momma Dawn.”
She visited residents at Morris Home, a residential treatment facility for trans- and gender-variant people, at Thanksgiving, and invited friends of Cordova’s to stay at her house over Christmas.
“For a lot of community members, both trans and LGB, there’s that family component missing,” Casarez said. “People are really responding to her. It may be because they haven’t had that acceptance in their lives and they’re really appreciative to have someone like her who’s so warm. If we had more mothers like Dawn, and more families like Kyra’s aunt and grandmother, we’d have a lot less isolation and desperation out there.”
Casarez said she noticed that whenever a community member has come up to Maher to thank her for her involvement, she has responded, “No, thank you.”
She said that exchange embodies that, while Maher’s presence has been healing for the community, the community has also been a healing presence for Maher.
“She’s shown an interest in getting to know the people who knew Kyra, and I think knowing these folks helps her see another side of her child. She can see Kyra’s life in her friends and I think that’s been important,” Casarez said. “And on the community side, it’s important for us to see where Kyra came from, that she had a loving family. I can see where Kyra got her uniqueness because they’re all great people. Dawn is attached to the community now, and people need her. I think we need her as much as she needs us.”
Despite the frustration in the progress of the investigation, Gonzales said supporters should take heart in the hope that figures like Maher represent for the community.
“It’s a true demonstration of motherhood, in its purest form — unconditional love of your child.”