CENTRAL HARLEM — Friends and family could not look directly on the delicate features of Islan Nettles as she lay in an open casket at her funeral Wednesday night — as a white veil hung over the coffin to conceal the transgender woman's fatal beating wounds.
Nettles, 21, who friends and family said had been driven in her pursuit of a new life and transformed identity, died nearly a week after police said she was beaten unconscious by homophobic slur-hurling men outside a police stationhouse Aug. 22.
Delores Nettles, Islan's mother, had to be helped up to see Islan's body, clad in a pink sequin dress and laid inside a mahogany casket covered in pink roses. Family and friends sat inside St. John Pentecostal Church on Lenox Avenue and 132nd Street listening to the Rev. Vanessa Brown's sermon against hate.
"We are valuable and we are vital," Brown said. "Islan's life was valuable and vital and it remains so in death."
As the body was rolled out of the church, her family and friends touched it with one hand while wiping tears with the other.
Members of the transgender community lined up outside to express their outrage at her death and the yet-to-be upgraded charges, while also honoring her passing. Emotions ran high and a brief argument broke out outside the church between family members and friends over access to the service.
Franclot Graham, the father of an unarmed teenage boy killed by a police officer in The Bronx, came by to pay his respects. "This should have never happened," said Graham, who said he had lived near Nettles and her family in Harlem. "Everyone has a right to live how they want to live ... Nothing will bring [Nettles] back. That's something I know, but I still wanted to be here to comfort the family."
The Rev. Al Taylor, of Man Up Harlem, said he was upset by the attack and the silence from Harlem's religious leaders.
"The antidote to all of this is love," Taylor said. "Where are all of my clergy?"
State Sen. Bill Perkins drew a connection between the apparent bias-fueled attack and the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
"Here we are on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and while it's a day to celebrate we are mourning a victim of prejudice, which Dr. King wanted us to avoid," Perkins said.
"Sometimes out of tragedy comes change and the fulfillment of a promise," said Perkins, who said he planned on hosting a forum for youth on homophobia and other prejudices.
Nettles was beaten on Aug. 17 on Fredrick Douglass Boulevard near West 148th Street — across from Police Service Area 6, a housing bureau station — after she and other transgender friends ran into a group of men on the street, police said. When the men realized she was transgender, they began hurling homophobic slurs and at least one of them began to attack Nettles, police said.
Paris Wilson, 20, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment by cops who had to pull him off of Nettles, prosecutors said. He was released on $2,000 bail the next day. One of his friends came forward following the arrest and took the blame for the beating, in what police and prosecutors now believe may have been a false confession, sources said.
The Manhattan District Attorney's office said it is presenting the case to a grand jury and expects further charges to be filed.