Jahaira DeAlto was a transgender woman who described herself as a staunch advocate for marginalized communities and dedicated her life to that work, according to her friends.
“She was the life of whatever room she walked into, and her sense of humor was jovial, even during the hardest times,” said Kelan O’Brien, the chair of Berkshire Pride. DeAlto, he said, was one of the key organizers for the county’s first annual lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer festival in 2017. “She was radically honest and would tell you exactly what she was thinking, but in the most respectful and kind way,” he said.
DeAlto, 42, and Fatima Yasin, 27, were fatally stabbed in an apartment on Taft Street in Dorchester on Sunday. Marcus Chavis, 34, has been charged with two counts of murder and was held without bail at his arraignment Monday.
DeAlto’s mother, Doris Camer, said her daughter was born in Beirut and came to the United States when she was 3 months old. DeAlto spent most of her childhood in Chestnut Hill and went on to get her GED before attending Berkshire Community College and Simmons University.
“She read all the time,” Camer said in a telephone interview. “She was articulate as the day is long.”
DeAlto had lived in the Berkshires for a few years while attending Berkshire Community College and moved to Dorchester in August, Camer said.
“She wanted nothing more than to advocate for people who were desperate,” Camer said as she wept. “She had such a complicated life and she did a lot of good. A lot of good. She suffered a lot because she was transgender.”
O’Brien said DeAlto’s online presence, which included social media postings and videos about her life that she shared on YouTube, was part of her advocacy work.
“She was firm on her belief that education and trans people being visible is what would move the needle,” O’Brien said. “For her, that was showing up in many places, appearing authentically and proud, and that was manifested through social media.”
Berkshire Pride posted a statement of condolence on Facebook.
“Jahaira was a loyal friend, a fierce advocate, and a mother to many,” the Facebook post said. “Her unconditional love was felt by all who met her and her kind and funny spirit left its mark on the Berkshires — from the classrooms at Berkshire Community College to the offices of the Elizabeth Freeman Center, from helping launch the first Transgender Day of Remembrance and Berkshire Pride Festival to ‘being all the things,’ as she liked to say.”
DeAlto was a keynote speaker at the 2018 Live Out Loud Conference, an event held annually “to strengthen our understanding and advocacy of the LGBTQIA+ population,” according to its website.
In her biography, DeAlto said she got her start in social justice in 1997 after the trial for the murder of Chanelle Pickett, a trans woman who was fatally beaten in a Watertown apartment in 1995. The man who was convicted of beating Pickett was sentenced to just two years in jail.
DeAlto shared her own story with Faces of Freedom, a website that features stories from LGBTQ people and allies.
According to her page, DeAlto described herself as a transgender woman who was identified as male at birth and transitioned to a female identity at 16. As a student at Berkshire Community College, she worked as an advocate and activist to help “normalize” the transgender experience.
“It is still vitally important we leverage our privilege to provide educational opportunities for people to learn more,” DeAlto stated on the Faces of Freedom website. “The more we humanize ourselves for those who don’t think they’ve encountered a transgender person, the more we’re able to remove the stigma and fear surrounding the perception of what trans people are.
“Education is our greatest weapon against ignorance,” she continued. “After having the experience of meeting Jahaira DeAlto, you can no longer say you’ve never met a trans person.”
DeAlto was a student in the class of 2023 at Simmons University, where she was studying social work.
In a message to the university community, Simmons president Lynn Wooten described DeAlto as “a passionate advocate for trans rights, trans visibility, and victims of abuse.”
“Jahaira was a bright light who truly lived her passion and calling as an advocate, friend, and colleague,” Wooten said in the statement. “Over the past 25 years, she spoke about her experiences and more broadly about issues of gender, race, and sexuality at hundreds of events, including the Ryan White National Youth Conference and Shades of Color.”
Professor Diane Grossman, DeAlto’s adviser, said she was “exceptionally bright and tremendously committed to social justice issues around trans rights, victims of abuse, and more.
“She had a charismatic personality and was a magnet for other Simmons students who admired her tremendous experience as a community leader,” Grossman continued. “As a vocal supporter of her peers, Jahaira stood up for issues of equality, justice, and inclusion.”
Associate professor of practice Katie Nolan, who was DeAlto’s social work adviser, said DeAlto “was a student who embodied all of our core social work values. Her understanding of the importance of human relationships as well as her lifelong commitment to social justice were evident in every interaction that she had in the classroom, with peers and faculty, and in her work in the community.”
From 2018 to 2019, DeAlto worked at the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which provides services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their families in Berkshire County, as a counselor and advocate. She also worked at the center’s shelter.
Helen Moon, development and communications coordinator for the center, said DeAlto was a “beacon of safety and justice” and a respected leader in the trans rights movement.
“This one hits very close to home,” Moon said in a telephone interview. “She’s one of those people who really gave a lot of her authentic self to everyone she encountered.”
In November 2017, the Berkshire Eagle reported that DeAlto read a list of more than 30 names of transgender murder victims at an event in Pittsfield in honor of the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. DeAlto was quoted in the Eagle as saying, “I think everybody who steps outside their front door as their authentic selves are the most courageous people I know.”
O’Brien said DeAlto always made it clear “that there was much more work to do” to make sure trans people are accepted by society and can feel like they belong, and that her murder should not be her legacy.
“She lived a full life,” said O’Brien. “It may have ended too soon, but she touched the lives of so many people who share her vision and will continue her work.”