LGBTQ students, faculty and alumni at Ole Miss say they still fear for their safety even after a student was arrested two weeks ago in connection with the death of Jimmie “Jay” Lee. (Canva image)
Lindsey Trinh wiped her tearful eyes with the collar of her navy blue Ole Miss T-shirt as she described the fear and anxiety she has experienced in the month since police announced a student had been charged with the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee.
Trinh had only known Lee from class, but the 27-year-old journalism student, who is gay and Vietnamese, knew what it was like to live with an identity held by few others in Mississippi – and to be recognizable for it.
At home in Biloxi, she thought about going back to Oxford for her last semester. She had been looking forward to finally graduating; to dancing at Code Pink, a local drag show; and to walking around the Square holding her girlfriend’s hand. Now she started to wonder, what would happen if she went missing?
“Oxford felt like such a welcoming community, that when this happened, and this news came out, it felt like the whole world, the whole city, is against you now,” Trinh said.
The day after Sheldon Timothy Herrington’s initial appearance, Trinh made a decision. She opened her laptop and started writing an email informing the university provost and her journalism school advisers that she wouldn’t be returning to Oxford for the fall semester.
“I have had an immense amount of frustration, stress and anxiety from the lack of information, Jay’s unfound body disposed in the area and the injustice for his family, friends and all of Oxford’s hurting LGBTQ+ community,” she began, “including myself.”
“At the time and because of the unknown of why this has happened to Jay and the whereabouts of his body, I have decided that I cannot physically come back to Oxford for my last semester this Fall,” Trinh added. “I fear for my safety and well-being as an outspoken and proud gay person of color.”
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Trinh is not the only LGBTQ student considering not returning to UM this fall in the wake of Lee’s disappearance and death. As court proceedings for Herrington have begun, the community is grieving and trying to understand how someone like Lee could go missing.
“It doesn’t feel real, especially since they haven’t found his body,” said Braylyn Johnson, a UM student who was roommates with Lee during the pandemic.
Eleven LGBTQ students, faculty and alumni told Mississippi Today they now fear for the community’s safety in Oxford, a town known for being more inclusive than most in Mississippi. Many also worry that Lee’s killing will lead community members, seeking safety from violence and harassment, to conceal their sexuality or gender identity.
“You never know, especially within our community, who becomes a target when you are free,” Blake Summers, a co-founder of Code Pink, told Mississippi Today at a rally for Lee on July 21.
Trinh said that Lee’s killing makes her worried “the generation after me,” including her 10-year-old brother, who loves Lil Nas X.
“He knows that Lil Nas is gay,” Trinh said. “He told me that being gay is normal. When I heard about Jay’s killing, I thought about my little brother and his friends and how some of them will probably never be comfortable with being themselves because of the society we live in.”
Since the Oxford Police Department arrested Herrington for Lee’s murder two weeks ago, local law enforcement has not released any new information about the case, compounding anxiety in the community.
Jaime Harker – the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at UM and the owner of Violet Valley, a feminist bookstore near Oxford – said she knows of at least one community member who is afraid to leave their house due to rumors about the nature and reason for Lee’s killing.
Harker said that she understands prosecutors need to act in a way that will ensure a conviction, but she wishes authorities would take steps to tamp down on the fear and help the LBGTQ community make informed decisions about their safety.
“I think people are filling the void with what their biggest fears are,” she said.
At the Lafayette County Courthouse on July 27, protesters hoped that Herrington’s initial appearance would provide some answers, but he was sent back to jail pending a bond hearing this week. Herrington has not yet entered a plea, but attorney Carlos Moore, his uncle who is retained in the case, has said he believes the 22-year-old is innocent.
Jose Reyes, one of Lee’s friends at UM, was standing in the shade of a tree near the courthouse after law enforcement escorted Herrington back to jail. Reyes said he views justice for Lee as Herrington going to prison for “as long as possible,” but that he’s anxious about the route the court case might take.
“I don’t want this happening to anyone else,” Reyes said, “and if we let him get away with it, it just shows how easy someone can go missing and be murdered, and no one’s going to do anything about it.”
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Reyes and many members of the community, even those who did not know Lee personally, are determined not to let his killing pass by like that of so many other cases of missing and murdered Black trans and non-binary people.
“Justice for Jay Lee!,” an Instagram page started the weekend that Herrington was arrested, now has more than 2,000 followers. The page has called on the Oxford community to protest outside court proceedings and is organizing a fundraiser with Code Pink for Lee’s family – the “Jayoncé Benefit Night” – for Aug. 11 at Proud Larry’s, a local bar.
“We send our condolences to the family and friends of the victim,” read the caption of the page’s first post. “The entire world is watching Oxford, Mississippi to make sure that Jay Lee’s family gets the justice that they deserve.”
The community’s fears are magnified by the backdrop of a national backlash that Harker said she hasn’t seen since the 1980s, when she was a teenager.
States like Texas and Florida effectively ban certain gender-affirming medical treatment or the discussion of LGBTQ identities in public schools. Similar laws already exist in Mississippi, where employers can discriminate based on sexual orientation and gay and trans legal defenses are still permissible.
Trinh, who transferred to UM from community college in 2020, initially worried she would get into “arguments with people all the time.” But she decided it would make her tougher. A first-generation student, Trinh sometimes felt like she was expected to entertain or educate her peers in class, even though she was at UM to get an education herself.
She recalled taking a political science class with Lee and reading his outspoken discussion posts. He was “opinionated,” she said, “but in a way that he was proud of what he thought.”
Sometimes, Trinh would reply to Lee’s posts: “I love that you mentioned this, because being here at Ole Miss, a lot of people don’t think the way that most of us in the LGBTQ community think or people of color think.”
The day after Trinh sent her email to the university, she was in the car on the way to Destin, Fla., for a family vacation with her girlfriend when she received a reply from Julie Glasco, the assistant to the provost. She read the email’s opening lines with a pit in her stomach.
“Thank you for reaching out to our office, expressing your concerns, and sharing your challenges as a student,” it began. “This has been an extremely upsetting time for our campus community.”
“Please know that you have resources available. Chancellor Boyce shared a message with the community last week offering a list of services and resources available. I’m providing the list below for you to access quickly,” Glasco continued, adding that she had cc’d the university’s vice chancellors for diversity and community engagement and student affairs and the dean of the journalism school.
Her first thought, Trinh said, was that the provost’s office hadn’t listened to what she was saying. She said the reply had “no sentiment.” In an Instagram story, she called the list that Glasco appended just a “quick copy + paste.”
“I was like, oh my god, they literally don’t care. They don’t care,” she said. “I can’t go back, because I feel like, if they don’t care about Jay’s case, then what does that say for the rest of us?”
Trinh is now waiting for the university to give her a new fall schedule that will allow her to take online classes and graduate on time. She’ll have to go back to Oxford one last time to empty her apartment. Then she’s moving to California – her job, a company that sells Tesla accessories is there, and so is a community she perceives to be less dangerous than Mississippi.
Without more information, she said that’s the only way she’ll feel safe.
“None of us knows what happened to Jay – we don’t know if it’s racially motivated or if it was homophobic,” she said, “They can’t sugarcoat that, because we’ve got to know. At the end of the day, we have to protect ourselves.”
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