Death of a Maiden

Déjŕ was a survivor in Miami's perilous world of transsexual hookers -- that is, until she met a customer named Bowlegs

By the time Dondre Johnson was a teenager, his mother had begun to suspect something. Johnson was a tall, thin boy with a timid smile. In most ways he seemed like an average child, trooping around the neighborhood with his stepbrother and stepsister, and playing trumpet in the Norland High School marching band. “He loved dancing, singing, and he loved Michael Jackson,” recalls Clara Duncan, who had married Cleveland Duncan, a pharmacist, when Dondre was four years old. “At one point he wanted to be a vet, and then he changed over to nursing.”Duncan is sitting in the living room of the family's Carol City home, a suburban ranch house in a black, middle-class neighborhood of quiet streets and manicured lawns. She is an articulate, educated woman, currently in nursing school herself. “When he was a teenager,” Duncan says, “I started to see Dondre change. I saw him using colored contact lenses. He didn't even wear glasses. When I asked he said, “Oh, this is just a fad.' Then I started to see what I thought was makeup on his face. He said he was seeing a dermatologist, and the dermatologist told him this would help clean up his face. I said, “No, Dondre, I don't think a doctor would tell you that.'”

As Duncan speaks it's clear she is still puzzled by her son's behavior. “It was on his 21st birthday -- that's when I found out he was gay,” she recounts. On that morning, November 8, 1992, the phone rang. When Duncan lifted the receiver, the caller hung up. That happened two more times. On the next call, Duncan let Dondre, who was in bed, answer. She could tell he was speaking to a man. When he ended his conversation, mother turned to son. “Is that person gay?” she asked. There was silence.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, looking down.

DĂ©jĂ 's journeys were numerous, from a middle-class home to the streets, from a sensitive young man (top) to a brash young woman (above)
DĂ©jĂ 's journeys were numerous, from a middle-class home to the streets, from a sensitive young man (top) to a brash young woman (above)
DĂ©jĂ 's journeys were numerous, from a middle-class home to the streets, from a sensitive young man (top) to a brash young woman (above)
DĂ©jĂ 's journeys were numerous, from a middle-class home to the streets, from a sensitive young man (top) to a brash young woman (above)

“Are you gay?” she asked. He didn't answer. She repeated the question.

Her son pulled the sheets over his head and said, “Yes.” He paused a beat before asking, “Does it matter?”

Duncan didn't have to pause: “No, honey, you'll always be my child, and I'll always love you.”

When she talked to her husband later, he told her he'd always had a feeling. “It wasn't natural for a teenage boy not to have girlfriends,” notes Cleveland Duncan, a well-groomed man with salt-and-pepper hair. As it turned out, most of the family knew. Dondre's stepbrother, Kevin, who is now in the military, told his parents he used to protect Dondre at school from other kids who picked on him because of his effete manner. “I'm the only one who didn't know,” Clara Duncan says now.

Dondre's homosexuality was the least of his secrets. The truth was he desperately wanted to be a woman; he felt he was a woman inside. Not surprisingly his domestic life soon began to unravel. Someone called his parents and told them Dondre's lover was sneaking into the house after they left for the day. They confronted him. “Of course he denied it,” his mother says. Then he started staying out late. His misbehavior culminated later that year, when he didn't come home for a week. Eventually he called to tell his mother he was staying with friends. Her response: “We told him, “Listen, if you're going to do this you have to find your own place to live.'” He moved out.

Throughout 1992 Dondre (pronounced don-dray) was supposed to be attending Broward Community College's nursing program, but he quit school. He continued working as a supermarket cashier at the Winn-Dixie on NW 62nd Street in Miami, a job he had held since his senior year in high school. He rented a small apartment nearby.

Now that he was on his own, Dondre began making some subtle cosmetic changes, wearing his colored contacts, cutting his hair into a page-boy, or dying it light brown. Other workers began to notice. “During high school he was just a regular guy, and then he started changing after a little,” remembers Darren Saunders, who worked at Winn-Dixie with Dondre and also was a bandmate at Norland. “I remember I asked him what he was going through, and he got offended.” In fact other workers openly teased Dondre. “You could tell he had sugar in his panties,” says one man who works in the market's dairy department. “We used to mess with him about it.”

At some point, around 1995 or 1996, Dondre met some of the transsexual prostitutes who lived and worked in the area. At night, after work, he would hang out with them at the Waterfront, a gay club off Le Jeune Road. From them he learned how to dress like a woman, something he would try only at night. Although he was awkward at first, putting on too much makeup and wobbling a little in high heels, it didn't take him long to catch on. “[Dondre] always looked like a woman, always looked pretty,” recalls Stephanie, a voluptuous transsexual with wide, childlike eyes. Dondre even drew on his musical training as a singer to perform at the Waterfront and at a club called 21 in Fort Lauderdale.

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If I may, my name is Francesca Michaelson. I knew Deja and now she is dead, murdered. I tried to post this to the Miami CBS affiliate but I do not know if they will print this. Please share this, let our outrage be heard.

I am sick, my heart and soul scream for justice for this woman, though born physically male, she was one of the many transgender individuals in this country. She was poor, yes, miserable even. But SHE was human. I knew her here in Brooklyn, NY where I live, an activist for AIDS testing and prevention, calling out to people explaining the need and urgency to protect themselves from this infirmity. She was friend to many and her absence in our lives will leave a hole that will take a long time to fill. In the web post you repeatedly refer to Deja as a “transvestite” and a “prostitute “with several references to her criminal past and questionable occupation; such a lack of professionalism I have not seen, ever! I dare use the antiquated term “yellow journalism” because instead of reporting her death with due consideration to her and her memory you went the way of the whore you accuse her to have been and now you would stand and inform the people, to communicate to them an incident that occurred with such a jejune attitude toward the victim as though she, and yes I say SHE, was not a valuable member of society. It is statistically evident that the majority of transsexuals are not given the same employment and educational opportunities that are available to the general public at large. Could it be that your callous disregard for Deja's person and memory and HER struggles merit nothing of consideration? Did you victimize her in death like she was victimized in life for no other reason than sensationalism and ratings? Sellers of dirty laundry you are! You should be ashamed, we owed HER better. I consider myself lucky because as a transsexual I am not the norm, the stereotype as it were. I am educated and presently returning to college for an advanced degree program and I have my family’s support of my decision to transition into a female, even though there are members of my family that do not agree with it. Life is hard enough for a transgender person with its struggles and pitfalls common to everyone and then again more so by the laissez-faire attitude with which her death was reported. It reminds me of another death many, many years ago, one Marilyn Monroe (nee Norma Jean Mortenson); found dead in her apartment of an apparent suicide and the press like rabid dogs fought each other to report first the fact she was found naked without regard to what may have drove her to suicide or if it even was. The bile is rising in my throat so I must stop writing. If it isn't too much trouble, next time this happens, and it probably will soon, have a care for those of us left behind. I carry the hope that she is in a better place now, easier to believe because I have had the first-hand experiences to know the Hell transgender people deal with quotidianly. May God have mercy on HER soul, and yours.


I just saw Bowlegs on MSNBC Lockup. He claims Deja was an innocent victim in the path of the bullet meant for another man, outside He did say the detectives and D.A painted a story that he hated the transsexual kind, but never once said he solicited them for sexual favors many times before the murder of Deja. Ofcoarse he wouldnt admit anything like that, he didn't wanna be looked at like that. Deja sounded like a wonderful person. Before and after her life working on the streets. May she rest in peace.

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