A Quest for Love: Natalia Smut’s Death Highlights Trans Struggles

When Natalia Smut wasn’t commanding a stage at San Jose’s gay bars and clubs, she was often snapping selfies and dishing out compliments to people wherever she went. She was recognizable because of her bodycon dresses, personalized “Smut” choker necklace and her flowing, colorful hair.

But after nights out on the town, the 24-year-old trans woman struggled to find an affordable apartment to rest and recoup in her hometown. She’d grown up in East San Jose since she was 2 years old, but prices were rising. Then Covid-19 cut out most of her income working as a Afro-Latin performer in the South Bay’s small—and at times discriminatory—drag scene.

Smut’s sister, Vanessa Singh, said she finally got a place to call her own place at Hillview Court Apartments in Milpitas a few months ago. Santa Clara County offered the apartment though its part in California’s Project Homekey, which provides long-term housing for homeless or at-risk residents.

“Because she wasn't able to perform anymore, she was just trying to make it until Covid was over,” Singh said. “Natalia was happy. [The apartment] was something for her to start new and she was just looking forward to life and upping her level into the next level.”

That refuge became a crime scene by 2:30am on April 23. Smut’s boyfriend, 22-year-old Elijah Cruz Segura, fatally stabbed her multiple times and then called the police, admitted to being responsible for her injuries and turned himself in, hands still bloodied from the attack. Cruz Segura faces an arraignment in Santa Clara County on Thursday.

Sobs echoed through the otherwise silent San Jose City Hall rotunda Saturday night, days after her death. At least 100 people, including friends, family and supporters, held candles, waved pride flags and hugged.

As the sun set, the vigil ended in laughter. Microphone in hand, friends took turns regaling a mourning audience with stories of Smut’s proclivity for lip-syncing to Britney Spears hits in pajamas or hijacking cars in Grand Theft Auto. Some remembered the hours she’d spend FaceTiming with people she loved or watching episodes of Bad Girls Club and experimenting with new makeup looks. The stories painted a picture of an energetic woman who dreamt of being a transgender rapper and makeup artist.

“She was too beautiful for this world,” Kiara Ohlde, Smut’s best friend since childhood, said. “She loved and believed in anyone. Even five minutes with her, you knew all of Natalia.”

Smut’s death marked the nation’s 16th homicide of a transgender woman in 2021 and one of four in April alone. She was one of three Black trans women killed this month, the data show. GLAAD reports that transgender women of color often face high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, due in part to living within a dangerous intersection of transphobia, racism and sexism.

This year’s trend follows a record high in 2020, when at least 44 transgender people were murdered, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Disproportionately, 22 of those were Black trans people, and a majority of the victims were trans people of color.

Kiara Ohlde (left) Smut’s best friend since childhood and Natalia Smut pose for a selfie. (Photo courtesy of Kiara Ohlde)

An Emotional Wake up Call

Singh wondered daily if and when she would get a phone call about her sister.

“You brace yourself as best as you can and hope and pray you never do, but I don’t think anyone can physically prepare themselves for this,” she said. “I think she knew, too, how rare and how hard it was for transgender people, let alone being a Black person in this world and having that double-edged sword.”

Smut’s fierceness came through in photos and at clubs, but Singh said she’ll always cherish her sister’s goofy, sweet side that made people laugh and feel loved.

“I think she always wanted everyone to be happy and to see the best of themselves,” Singh said. “A part of me thinks she did it because that's what she wanted; she just wanted someone to love her, accept her and to be ‘her’ to her fullest.”

For the South Bay’s small, tight-knit transgender community, Smut’s death was an emotional wake up call. 

“We all have to be very careful, always looking behind our backs,” Vivianet Isabel Castillo, a trans Cupertino resident, said through tears Saturday. “I wonder if maybe this will happen to me, because I am transgender and these things happen to us. We sometimes think Santa Clara County is safe, but now we have to be more concerned with where you’re living and who you’re with.”

Ivy Flores, who performed in the drag community with Smut, said the two women talked about the dangers they faced often.

“She has spoken to me, personally, and told me, ’Us girls, we’re pretty and we have to watch our backs.’” she said. “[Natalia] would always do that for us and defend herself. She was ‘that b*tch.’”

Trans people often struggle more to escape domestic violence than their cis peers, data by the Williams Institute shows.

Natalia Smut was known for her colorful, flowing hair and customized choker. (Kiara Ohlde)

That’s due, at least in part, to a lack of legal protections against discrimination in employment, housing and social services, which increases a person’s vulnerability to intimate partner violence. Between 31% and 50% of trans people face such violence at least once in their life, according to a 2015 report by the Williams Institute, compared to 20% of cisgender people.

Ohlde said Smut just wanted to love and be loved, accepting it wherever she found it, even if people took advantage of her forgiving and compassionate nature.

“She would always tell me how it’s so much harder for her to find a man who wants to be with her and who was comfortable with her,” Ohlde said. “She got stuck in a domestic violence relationship because she just wanted to love somebody who would love her back.”

Compared with cisgender individuals, transgender people were more than twice as likely to experience physical and sexual violence with their intimate partners, the Williams Insitute data show. According to a 2015 report by the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress, trans folks of color are nearly six times as likely to live in poverty compared to cisgender peers, which economically limits the options to escape abusers.

Smut’s death was only 23 days after March 31, the Transgender Day of Remembrance—a day to celebrate trans lives, rather than mourn their deaths—and five months after Kimberly Susan Fial, a transgender woman, homeless person and volunteer, was killed in the stabbing at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose.

Sera Fernando, senior management analyst for the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, has trouble keeping PowerPoint presentations for trans awareness trainings up-to-date because of the fast-rising number of deaths in the trans community.

“We are at a rate of like one trans murder per week,” said Fernando, who helped arrange Saturday’s vigil. “This is the real truth of what it means to be trans: your life could be over in an instant. The average life expectancy of a Black trans woman is 35. It makes no sense to me.”

Discrimination for trans people is felt across the country, particularly when it comes to finding employment or adequate medical care, Fernando said. That’s true even in “progressive” places like Santa Clara County, which boasts the nation’s first gender health clinic, and California more broadly, where discrimination based on gender identity is prohibited and “transgender panic” defenses are banned in murder trials.

San Jose resident Cordelia Larsen draws in chalk at San Jose City Hall on Saturday April 24 during a vigil for Natalia Smut. (Photo courtesy of Kiara Ohlde)

Hope for a better future lives in a surge of attention to discrimination and anti-trans legislation nationally, Fernando said.

In the meantime Fernando feels personally responsible for providing more education across the South Bay about the social and cultural stigmas and traumas trans people feel because of her job at the county.

“This patriarchal system, this place where toxic masculinity still exists, and this whole shame of loving someone that's trans for being themselves, it's hard enough for a trans person to come out,” Fernando said. “If anything, one thing that we could do is raise awareness, education and just get the community to understand where this comes from—again.”

No matter the resources and education, San Jose resident Cordelia Larsen said more protections need to be carved out to foster a sense of belonging among trans people. Smut’s death may have been a shock to some, but the 23-year-old—who is nonbinary, genderqueer and “just hella gay”—said the tragedy is not only a reminder of the pain the LGBTQ community has faced in the past, but also a reminder of the pain they fear and know awaits in the future.

“[Feeling safe is] not just a resource thing,” Larsen said. “It’s a mentality, it’s a cultural shift, and until that shift has truly taken place, we’re never going to be safe. This is a reminder of why we fight so hard now.”

Ohlde and Singh are raising funds in honor of Smut via a GoFundMe campaign to help with funeral expenses, but if any money is left over, they plan to give it to an organization or community center that helps domestic violence victims leave abusive environments.

“My end goal for my sister is to help her keep living on and helping everyone in the future,” Singh said. “I’ve been around domestic violence all my life, I know how it is and the fact that my sister was taken by it, it’s something to be shined a light on. No one deserves to live with that.”

18 Comments

  1. TO: Steven:

    Your comments posted under this article are in extremely poor taste (actually, disgusting). I commented in a different news article that was discussing, in addition to the loss of Natalia, the problem of violence against trans people (which should never happen — and, of course, the same is true for Cis people).

    This article is a celebration of Natalia’s life. It was intended to uplift people who are grieving from her loss and to let people who didn’t know her see the good in her. Providing solace and support to the grieving family and friends is a very appropriate thing to do. What you have done here is shockingly egregious.

    Please do not respond unless you have something nice to say to the family and friends or about Natalia if you knew her personally.

  2. HB, you wrote:

    “Here is a little data that supports the idea that at least half of the trans people are killed by their queer partners. Another huge risk factor about trans women is if they engage in street prostitution. A number of other articles suggest that the victims were engaged in prostitution.

    Very hard to get good stats but it would appear that the queer community is the biggest part of the problem.

    https://abcnews.go.com/US/transgender-womans-murder-underscores-problem-partner-violence-plaguing/story?id=65203137

  3. HB, you wrote:

    “Here is a little data that supports the idea that at least half of the trans people are killed by their queer partners. Another huge risk factor about trans women is if they engage in street prostitution. A number of other articles suggest that the victims were engaged in prostitution.

    Very hard to get good stats but it would appear that the queer community is the biggest part of the problem.

  4. HB,

    Yuo just cannot understand, that you are a constant cheater. I will forever remind the readers of your conduct here in EVERY other discussion moving forward.

    It is not a threat or harrassment, it is just history, YOUR history

  5. HB,

    Are you EVER going to say what you wrote was wrong?

    You cannot compartmentalize your life, especially in the public forums.

    Time for you to be held accountable for your behavior.

  6. It seems that some people are cognitively incapable of understanding that one can grieve for a murder victim while simultaneously condemning those who, despite their real or imagined connection to the deceased, opt to exploit it for personal or political gain.

    A common example of this can be seen in the reaction of police officers who, while sincerely mourning the loss of one of their own, condemn a duplicitous politician for his feigned fraternity (e.g. NYPD shunning Bill di Blasio).

  7. PHU TAN ELLI you wrote:

    “It seems that some people are cognitively incapable of understanding that one can grieve for a murder victim while simultaneously condemning those who, despite their real or imagined connection to the deceased, opt to exploit it for personal or political gain.”

    Just realize that on both counts the laws literally made it a CRIME to cross-dress and be a homosexual until the courts had to use the U.S. Constitution to rule them unconstitutional, the homosexual laws took longer because it involved a stupid Supreme Court case from Georgia originally allowed it to be illegal, but then the Texas case finally corrected it. But the Crossdressing laws were quickly ruled unconstitutional due to FIRST AMENDMENT right to FREE EXPRESSION no less. And no state or city that passed the laws ever contested it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Then again you and your friends try to make it so you classify anyone you do not approve of as criminals. Again saying that “ANOTHER HUGE RISK FACTOR ABOUT TRANS WOMEN IS IF THEY ENGAGE IN STREET PROSTITUTION.”

    There is no EXPLOITATION here, you just call it that because you don’t like “THEM”.

    Are you going on the record to agree with the writing here?

    ““Here is a little data that supports the idea that at least half of the trans people are killed by their queer partners. Another huge risk factor about trans women is if they engage in street prostitution. A number of other articles suggest that the victims were engaged in prostitution.

    Very hard to get good stats but it would appear that the queer community is the biggest part of the problem.”

    Please either say it was a good and just statement, or go on the record to say it was uncalled for?

  8. In the end, I think that the fact is so many people were positivley touched by Natalia, far more than the combination of Phu Tan Ellie, HB, and SJ Kulak, and there will be no one to advocate for you under similar circumstances.

    A follow up story shows how much good Natalia did for so many people.

    And so far none of you can demonstrate anything like this.

  9. HB said nothing wrong. Objective facts should not be condemned, nor should reasonable opinions based on those facts.
    Phu Tan makes an excellent point, even though the example used may not be an exact analogy (and I suspect DiBlasio is sincerely sorry when a police officer is killed, while being totally oblivious that the hateful rhetoric of his political allies might have made the death more likely).
    Natalia does not appear to have been engaged in behavior that should ever be considered high-risk. Her friends and family deserve our deepest sympathy.
    That does not then mean that we should agree with activists who link her death with those of individuals who actually were engaged in clearly high risk behavior and who’s deaths, at the hands of men who have rejected society’s teachings, should somehow be used to condemn society.
    (And all of us mourn for family members and friends who have died while engaged in, or who fell into, high risk behaviors, whether it’s prostitution, alcohol or other drug abuse, driving too fast, or a hundred other examples. In all those cases we mourn the person, while recognizing their own, at least partial, responsibility. But that consideration does not seem to apply in Natalia’s case, and the death of someone who had no reason expect risk is always sadder).

  10. TTOM6 you wrote:

    “HB said nothing wrong. Objective facts should not be condemned, nor should reasonable opinions based on those facts.”

    What objective facts? That was a condemnation of many people that you are stereoptyping, or convicting wqith no evidence. Your approach to say just “one” girl is justified for diginity, and the heck with all others without a trial is wrong. You wrote:

    “Phu Tan makes an excellent point, even though the example used may not be an exact analogy (and I suspect DiBlasio is sincerely sorry when a police officer is killed, while being totally oblivious that the hateful rhetoric of his political allies might have made the death more likely).”

    Again all you and your friends are doing is condemning a complete set of people with no justification, and you know it. You wrote:

    “Natalia does not appear to have been engaged in behavior that should ever be considered high-risk. Her friends and family deserve our deepest sympathy.”

    Again trying to single out only one of an enire group while condemning he group is disingenuous at best. You wrote:

    “That does not then mean that we should agree with activists who link her death with those of individuals who actually were engaged in clearly high risk behavior and who’s deaths, at the hands of men who have rejected society’s teachings, should somehow be used to condemn society.”

    But if you are going to “condemn” anyone you must identify the RIGHT people the RIGHT way. Otherwise your just trying to bake the cake and eat it too. You wrote:

    “(And all of us mourn for family members and friends who have died while engaged in, or who fell into, high risk behaviors, whether it’s prostitution, alcohol or other drug abuse, driving too fast, or a hundred other examples. In all those cases we mourn the person, while recognizing their own, at least partial, responsibility. But that consideration does not seem to apply in Natalia’s case, and the death of someone who had no reason expect risk is always sadder).”

    Again nothing but a MASS conviction of people without proof of crime, or proof they did a crime, due process of any INDIVIDUAL who committed a crime, and an actual conviction of a crime. The SO-CALLED libertarians that claim that you should only look and INDIVIDUALS just proved their flaw in their philosophy.

  11. Classic case of twisting a tragedy into the arena of bigotry when it has nothing at all to do with it. Intersectionality fatigue is taking effect. Your narrative deservedly is going to loose steam, that is if Americans actually care and love their fellow people so progress can be made on the ills that plague peoples lives. Spun as hate crime. This is a DOMESTIC VIOLENCE of which the LGTBQ community suffers a significantly higher rate of incidence. Like my more leftist associations say.. “own it” (I hate that term btw). Per the Chronicle’s lead article on this the incident has already incorrectly been added to the hate crime database. Conservatives are 100% correct that the American public is getting conned.
    The Atlanta incident likewise. Slated as hate, was IN FACT sexual addiction, another societal scourge on America’s mental health, including porn.
    22 Dead El Paso. Shooter racist comments slated. Blame squarely on Trump. In fact racism had never been an observed behavior in his past. Severe bullying in high school. Followed by recruitment online, targeting those emotionally vulnerable to latch onto a cause, giving purpose after being left behind by society. How do we progress on domestic violence, sexual addiction, bullying, online supremacy/radical Islam recruitment? Prioritize. But one cannot prioritize when the Woke narrative is glued on to every incident as possible.

  12. WOLFDUDE you wrote:

    “Classic case of twisting a tragedy into the arena of bigotry when it has nothing at all to do with it. Intersectionality fatigue is taking effect. Your narrative deservedly is going to loose steam, that is if Americans actually care and love their fellow people so progress can be made on the ills that plague peoples lives. Spun as hate crime. This is a DOMESTIC VIOLENCE of which the LGTBQ community suffers a significantly higher rate of incidence. Like my more leftist associations say.. “own it” (I hate that term btw). Per the Chronicle’s lead article on this the incident has already incorrectly been added to the hate crime database. Conservatives are 100% correct that the American public is getting conned.”

    Actually, since the “so-called” conservatives have always disenfranchised any LGBTQ people from being considered “legitimate” people ever since the RED SCARE wave, they proven NOT to be CONSERVATIVE. Just look as Jerry Fallwell, Strom Thurman, Anita Bryant, Ronald Reagan, and so many others. True CONSERVATISM would not target other groups for mistreatment You wrote:

    “The Atlanta incident likewise. Slated as hate, was IN FACT sexual addiction, another societal scourge on America’s mental health, including porn.”

    Actually that is what the SHOOTER and the DEFENSE attorney is arguing, it is NOT A FACT. And the case is not yet complete, it may just wind up that the charges will be a hate crime. Boy too many people here trying to be deceptive. You wrote:

    “22 Dead El Paso. Shooter racist comments slated. Blame squarely on Trump. In fact racism had never been an observed behavior in his past. Severe bullying in high school. Followed by recruitment online, targeting those emotionally vulnerable to latch onto a cause, giving purpose after being left behind by society. How do we progress on domestic violence, sexual addiction, bullying, online supremacy/radical Islam recruitment? Prioritize. But one cannot prioritize when the Woke narrative is glued on to every incident as possible.”

    A person can be caught ON A FIRST TIME OFFENSE regarding a RACIST CRIMINAL, thus they HAVE NO HISTORY. You are simply exploiting that, and further trying to defend him regarding his CRIMINAL conduct. I suppose that if you could you would plan out something criminal and lay a “DEFENSIVE” grid so that it would be hard to convict you of a hate crime. Wait, that is an exhibition of a guilty conscience and is very easily detected in this day.

    We have a good number of people out there that are ideologically saying over and over again in their minds and in their “groups” that the people killed or harmed get what they deserve.

  13. “A person can be caught ON A FIRST TIME OFFENSE regarding a RACIST CRIMINAL, thus they HAVE NO HISTORY. You are simply exploiting that, and further trying to defend him regarding his CRIMINAL conduct.” — Steven Goldstein

    Inspector Clouseau: “Commissioner, I have assembled proof that this murder was motivated by the Englishman’s hatred of the French.”

    Commissioner Dreyfus: “Really? I don’t recall there being any such evidence. What is it you’ve found?”

    Inspector Clouseau: “I’ll tell you what I found, nothing!

    Commissioner Dreyfus: “Nothing?”

    Inspector Clouseau: “Don’t you see, the absence of evidence is the most persuasive kind, it is the mark of the devious, hateful mind. Knowing we’d suspect him of that most enduring of animosities, the English scoundrel made sure to conceal his hatred in his emails, social media posts, and personal associations!”

    Commissioner Dreyfus: “I see. Since we French know how the English hate us, that you found nothing in your investigation is quite compelling.”

    Inspector Clouseau: “Indeed! And as a proud Frenchman it is my duty not only to prosecute those who hate our people, but to know who it is that hates us.”

    Commissioner Dreyfus: “But doesn’t everyone hate us?”

    Inspector Clouseau: “Exactly!”

  14. PHU TAN ELLI

    What you wrote does not address the topic, it is just another attempt to change the subject.

    The fact is that if there is any EVIDENCE discovered during the investigation, that was NOT YET PUBLIC RECORD, then that EVIDENCE will support a HATE CRIME in the FIRST CRIME OFFENSE.

    You really just trying to excuse hate. And to use such an insulting namesake is just proof of your motivation.

    You know this, why are you trying to claim ignorance?

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