Mel Groves, a 25-year-old studying plant and soil science at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, was the definition of a tree hugger, his friend Que Bell recalled.
Bell and Groves met through a mutual friend. The three of them linked up because they were all Black transgender men around the same age. Bell said that one time he was landscaping in his yard and Groves stopped him before he began to trim a tree.
“He was like: ‘No, you can’t do it like that. That’s going to hurt the tree.’ And I was like: ‘OK, let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s figure out something that’s good for us but also that’s good for the tree,’” Bell said, laughing. “He cared about everything, especially plants.”
On Oct. 11, Groves drove himself to Merit Health Central, a hospital in Jackson, where he lived, and collapsed outside his car, Jackson police said. He had been shot multiple times. Hospital staff members transferred him to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where he died later in the afternoon.
Groves’ loved ones said news articles have reduced his life to a statistic: He is at least the 39th trans person to have been killed this year, the deadliest on record for trans people, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking fatal anti-trans violence since 2013. They said his story does speak to how law enforcement and social safety nets fail trans people, but they stress that he was more than just a statistic in an increasing tally.
At a virtual memorial Sunday, people who knew Groves described his vast knowledge of plants, his “generous heart” and a smile that made people want to talk to him.
In addition to studying plant science, Groves was also a farmer for the Knights and Orchids Society, an organization based in Selma, Alabama, that prioritizes supporting the Black trans and gender-nonconforming community. Bell, who is the group’s executive director, said Groves drove it to start a community garden program after a supporter donated land. Just before he died, he was about to become the full-time garden manager for the society.
Bell said they used to joke that Groves just wanted to “play in the dirt.” Since his death, Bell said, one of Groves’ former professors has reached out to tell him about important research Groves conducted in plant science. Another professor told Bell that he used to text Groves plant trivia questions and that he had been waiting for Groves to become his colleague one day.
“I’m just thinking that wasn’t even his best,” Bell said. “That was him performing, still, while dealing and facing all these other barriers he was fighting through, so imagine how much he could have contributed to technology, to science, to agriculture if he had been stable and if he actually had a chance. He’ll never get an opportunity.”
Since the two met in 2016, Bell said, Groves had experienced homelessness frequently. His immediate family rejected him after he came out as trans, and he experienced violence and discrimination in college. Groves also previously said he repeatedly experienced discrimination from medical providers.
A deadly system
Sam Brown, the public information officer for the Jackson Police Department, said there has been no indication that Groves was killed in a hate crime.
But his loved ones say that doesn’t mean that his identity as a trans man can be separated from his death. Caleb Gumbs, the mutual friend who connected Groves and Bell, said he has seen comments online that say, “Do we actually know that he was killed for being trans?”
“And that made me really think about, wow, is that really what it takes for us to understand the systems that are at play that have ultimately led to his murder, whether or not it was directly related to him being trans?” Gumbs said.
Gumbs met Groves when they were both about 19, and Gumbs turned 26 the day Groves died. He said it was jarring and telling, because he and Groves lived “parallel lives.” They both grew up with families that weren’t affirming, went to historically Black colleges in south Alabama with full-ride scholarships and were close in age.
“At every turn, the difference between us was so small,” said Gumbs, a Ph.D. student in pharmaceutical sciences at Florida A&M University. “Everything that happened to me was just this minor change and difference — a little bit more acceptance, a little bit more luck. And now, the vast difference between the two of us.”
He said that Groves experienced repeated homelessness but that he couldn’t go to shelters, where many trans people report experiencing violence.
“If he didn’t feel like the streets were his only option available to him, I truly do believe things would have been different,” Gumbs said.
He wrote in a post on Medium that Groves “embodied resilience” but that a culture of transphobia, racism and cissexism, which is a subtler form of discrimination based on sex and gender, led to his death.
“That same system that did ultimately kill him really could have killed me and still can,” Gumbs said.
Even after Groves’ death, his loved ones were fighting those systems. Just hours after he died, they had to reach out to local news outlets that misgendered and deadnamed him while also grieving his loss, Gumbs said. Some updated their stories; others said they couldn’t change them without confirmation from law enforcement or Groves’ immediate family.
A week after Groves died, Jackson police provided the same statement to NBC News that it first issued, which misgendered and deadnamed him. The department has not responded to a request for comment about whether it plans to update the statement.
An increase in violence
At least 41 trans people have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Advocates have said the number is likely to be low because police often misidentify trans people in reports of their deaths. A disproportionate number have lived in the Southeast.
Known trans killings — which, according to the Human Rights Campaign, include both fatal violence motivated by anti-trans prejudice and fatal violence in which a person’s trans identity may have put them at risk — are the most on record. The increase is due in part to better tracking but also to legislation in the last few years that harms trans people and reinforces prejudice, advocates say.
More than 30 states — including Mississippi — have considered over 100 bills this year that would bar transgender minors’ access to certain gender-affirming health care or restrict their participation in school sports, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Nearly one-third of those bills have been considered in Texas, whose Republican governor, Greg Abbott, is expected to imminently sign a measure barring trans students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identities. Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said bills like the one headed to Abbott contribute to anti-trans prejudice and violence because “they perpetuate fear and misinformation about who trans people are.”
“They build this caricature of trans people as folks that people need to fear,” he said. “When you repeat, time and time again, a lie about a marginalized or group of people that folks may not necessarily have a direct contact with, if you repeat it enough, then some people internalize it as the truth, and that is what’s happening here.”
Nov. 20 is Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual effort to honor the memory of trans people killed in acts of anti-trans violence. Bell said he is already dreading it, because someone had already shared a photo of Groves with a hashtag next to his name.
“I was not prepared yesterday just to open up Instagram and see a hashtag beside one of my closest friends’ names,” he said. “And it’s different for me, because I’m in the work — we’ve been organizers, we’ve been activists, we’ve done these vigils, we’ve done these memorials for folks. But it is different when you know the person, you have poured into the person and there’s that connection. It’s hard to see it.”
Bell said he feels so much pain for trans people whose names are on the list but whom the public doesn’t know anything about aside from the fact that they were killed. That’s why he is trying to celebrate and memorialize who Groves was as a person.
Once, when the two were driving from Mississippi to Alabama, they were taking turns choosing songs to play. When it was Groves’ turn, Bell said, he chose “the oldest blues or jazz song that you could think of.”
“He was a Nat King Cole type of guy,” Bell said. “And I was like: ‘How are you this old? And you’re only like 20-something.’ He was an old soul. He was well before his time.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 21, 2021, 6:07 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the location of Alcorn State University. It is in Lorman, Mississippi, not Jackson.