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Vigil for a trans teen in Laurens shows the unease and strong bonds of South Carolina's LGBTQIA+ community

The vigil for Jacob Williamson was held in Laurens Monday evening.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
The vigil for Jacob Williamson was held in Laurens Monday evening.

A vigil held in memory of 18-year-old Jacob Williamson drew dozens who knew him and dozens who didn't, but who felt the need to support a member of the trans community.

The first thing that struck so many of the people in this room was that they didn’t know anyone here.

The second thing that struck was that this was a good thing, borne of a terrible thing.

The reason 75 or so people were gathered Monday evening at The Ridge at Laurens, South Carolina, a rec center just off to the side of Laurens County Airport, was to say good-bye to someone most didn’t personally know, but whose reality most live.

This gathering was the vigil for Jacob Williamson, an 18-year-old trans man who had met a man online, went on a date to meet him, and never was seen alive again. On either June 30 or July 1, overnight, Williamson was murdered in Union County, North Carolina. Over the July 4 weekend, police found his body in South Carolina – the culmination of three exhaustive days of searching near where Williamson’s Life360 signal had stopped transmitting.

A North Carolina man named Joshua Newton was soon after charged with Williamson’s murder.

An artistic portrait of Jacob Williamson sat at the front of the room. Vigil attendees ended the evening by placing personally written cards beneath the portrait.
Scott Morgan
An artistic portrait of Jacob Williamson sat at the front of the room. Vigil attendees ended the evening by placing personally written cards beneath the portrait.

And so it was, in the aftermath of violence that friends and strangers gathered to honor Williamson’s life.

In speaking with those who attended the vigil, it was immediately clear that none want the world at large to focus on Jacob Williamson’s death. They instead want the world to focus on who he was as a person – described by people like Promise Edwards, a longtime friend of Williamson’s family who took him in after he became estranged from his biological family, as “goofy” and “quirky” and “pure;” someone who loved art and anime as much as he loved kids and Christmas songs (which he was prone to singing in the summertime).

Those members of South Carolina’s LGBTQIA+ community who did not know Williamson spoke about him in two ways – as one of their own, and as someone they would have liked to have met.

Whether they want it or not, Williamson’s death has come to serve as a cautionary tale among this community. Monday’s vigil began with reassurances that there were men standing guard at the doors and that support services providers were in the back of the room for anyone who felt unsafe or uneasy – and that is something that does not tend to happen at most vigils.

The evening ended without even the hint of an incident, but the air of unease could not be missed. This community, said Cyprus Hartford, a trans activist , is a vulnerable one.

“There’s a danger in South Carolina and the United States as a whole to the trans community,” said Hartford, whose preferred pronoun is it. It cited 2021’s record as the deadliest year for trans and non-binary people in the U.S. – 59 killed that year, according to a study by the Human Rights Council – and added that the rise of anti-trans legislation around the country in just the past two years has made trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people feel exposed and at risk.

In attendance at the vigil was a 14-year-old trans boy named Alex, who told me, “I worry for my safety when I go out in public, and if people might hurt me.”

I asked what gives him hope, and Alex said, “Safe people – people that help protect me.”

His father, Tim Jackson, is one of those who watches over him. Jackson is a therapist in Greenville who specializes in counseling LGBTQIA+ people. He said following the vigil that even though he didn’t know Williamson, the young man’s murder “hits really close to home. As parents we want to give our kids agency and autonomy … but want to make sure that their safety is not compromised as well. It’s a very scary line that you have to toe to make sure that you’re allowing them enough room to grow and be, but within a world that’s not necessarily safe.”

A main takeaway, then, for the vigil – beyond celebrating the life of Jacob Williamson – was for trans people, and trans youth in particular, to be cautious about meeting people online. Edwards implored those in attendance to never go out with new people without telling someone they trust where they’ll be and who they’re with.

Another takeaway was a message of community and love and acceptance. Edwards said that neither she nor Williamson knew that there were so many groups and organizations available to help trans kids figure out how to navigate what can be an unkind space.

“Had we knew that they had existed,” she said, “we would have had the love and support, and Jacob would not have been forced to look for it in strangers.”

Following the vigil, Edwards told reporters that she felt proud by the turnout for Williamson.

“I was sad this morning,” she said. “To see these people, that didn’t even know Jacob come out … and just be with us, it just made me feel a million times better.”

Edwards said, however, that she is not through fighting for Williamson.

“Next is justice for Jacob,” she said. “I want justice fully.”

CORRECTION, July 27, 2023: This story erroneously cited a source as an operator of Organize Against Transphobia, or OAT. This reference has been removed from the story, as the person cited is not a leader of the organization.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.