Friends of Austin slaying victim remember her as a light in dark times

Despite all the struggles she faced, 43-year-old Monica Loera was always funny, generous and full of life, said her friends, who continue to grieve after she was shot to death Jan. 22 in Austin’s first homicide of 2016.

Loera’s friend Jon Sanchez met her in 1994 through connections in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Austin just a few years after he had moved to Austin from Taylor and had come out.

Loera, who grew up in Austin as David Loera and went to Crockett High School, became good friends with Sanchez. When Loera’s death was reported, he said it felt as if he had lost a family member.

“I always felt safe with her,” Sanchez said. “She always took care of us.”

Loera’s friends had reason to feel in danger back then. At the time, they were trapped in a relentless cycle of using prostitution as a means to buy drugs.

JonCasey Rowell, 29, has been charged with murder in Loera’s death and was still in custody in the Travis County Jail on Monday. Police said Loera’s roommate told officers that Loera was arguing with a man outside their home before the shooting. Investigators said they connected Rowell to the shooting through witness accounts, text messages and an ID card of Rowell’s found in Loera’s room.

Though many of Loera’s friends have left sex work, Loera was still working as a prostitute from time to time, Sanchez said. After her death, many of her friends expressed regret that they weren’t able to persuade Loera to leave that dangerous line of work before she died.

“I would always speak to Monica to build her up and say, ‘You can do something different,’ ” said her friend Deidre Mask. “Jon would do it too.”

But Mask said feeling marginalized on a day-to-day basis sends many transgender people, especially those from broken homes, down paths like these.

“You couldn’t work at a regular job because they’ll make fun of you or they’ll treat you badly,” Sanchez said. In the 1990s, Sanchez considered himself transgender as well, though he now identifies as a gay man.

But in these dark times, Loera brought light to their lives, her friends said.

“She was very warm and friendly; just she had this way about her,” Mask said. “She was vivacious. She’d really just extend warmth to people.”

She was always able to make Sanchez laugh, he said.

“She has this way of impersonating people, and she’d just make you laugh so much,” Sanchez said.

Mask emphasized that people can alleviate some of the stress that transgender people face by treating them with respect.

“These people are lovable people,” Mask said. “Extend kindness. If you don’t understand, go outside your comfort zone and try to understand. It might make their life just that much easier knowing that somebody took the time to give a smile or just say it’s OK to be different.”

Loera is the first transgender homicide victim in the United States this year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

At 7 p.m. Friday, a vigil will be held for Loera, hosted by the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism. At press time Monday, the location had not been decided. The group plans to provided updates about the event on its Facebook page.

“Living like this, it’s hard,” Sanchez said. “It’s a lifestyle that’s hidden. It’s really dark.”

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