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Meghan Riley Lewis' typical signoff for emails, texts and other messages to friends reflected her own outlook on life: "Stay sparkly."
The Bel Air, Maryland, woman made it her mission to help people see their own sparkle, even when the outside world didn't. A transgender woman, Lewis donated time, money, food and love to Baltimore Safe Haven, the state's only full-service housing and wellness center for LGBTQ+ people.
"Meghan was sparkly," said Iya Dammons, Baltimore Safe Haven's founder and executive director and Lewis' friend. "She made sure our kids were able to have a Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving dinner, whatever they needed to smile. She was always sending over sparkly things."
Lewis even invited strangers into her home on Christmas Day, hoping to ease the pain of loneliness and loss felt by many during the holidays − including trans people who often feel alienated from friends, family and society.
But her sparkle was extinguished before the holidays were over. Lewis was fatally shot Dec. 27, allegedly by a man delivering food in her neighborhood. Brian Michael Delen, 47, is facing murder, assault and weapons charges. He was released to home detention on GPS monitoring Dec. 29, according to court records and local news reports.
Lewis was more than just a smiling face to people who too often feel isolated, Dammons said. The two had known each other since 2018, when Dammons founded Baltimore Safe Haven and Lewis immediately reached out to see how she could help. When Dammons underwent gender reassignment surgery, Lewis was there, not just offering advice and sharing intimate details about the procedure and recovery, but bringing over groceries and making sure Dammons had whatever they needed.
Her generosity extended beyond the LGBTQ community. Clara Longo de Freitas, a reporter with the Baltimore Banner, was fishing for a Christmas Day story when she came across Lewis' Facebook post offering a meal and fellowship to "some of my fellow queers who need to be fed and loved,” including a feast fit for royalty, with turkey, roast beef, casseroles and desserts.
When Lewis learned Longo, a native of Brazil, was spending her first Christmas alone, she invited the reporter as well, greeting her in Portuguese and offering to make traditional Brazilian foods.
Though Longo didn't go, she was moved by the gesture and wrote about Lewis after her death.
"This is true community love and kindness toward strangers," she said. "It's hard to spend Christmas alone and I think a lot of queer and trans people experience that as well. I was very touched by that, and how she offered to make Brazilian dishes. It provided me with the strength to be alone on Christmas Day."
Hearing of Lewis' death was "very jarring," the young reporter said. Also jarring, especially for Lewis' friends and members of the trans community: Initial reports by the Bel Air Police Department misgendered Lewis and used her name assigned at birth. (The department later issued a corrected release and apologized for the mistake.)
Lee Blinder of Trans Maryland called Lewis "an excellent collector of the folks who fall through the cracks in the system, who don't have anyone else." Lewis, who had two teenage children of her own and had worked in tech, "really took seriously the invitation to reach out to and provide care to our community."
Bel Air Police, in response to USA TODAY's inquiry, said in an email that "nothing in our investigation thus far has indicated any motive related to anti-transgender or homophobic sentiment."
But Blinder, Dammons and Kurt Doan of Upper Chesapeake Bay Pride all believe differently. The Human Rights Campaign in late 2023 declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, citing a spate of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, demonization of transgender people and escalating violence against transgender people, gender nonconforming people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Lewis' death is "deeply unsettling," Blinder said. "This causes a ripple effect that's already layering onto anti-transgender sentiment in many states, including Maryland and neighboring states, mostly to our south."
Doan said Lewis' death has spurred more people connected to Maryland's LGBTQ+ community to action and advocacy. A celebration of her life on Jan. 2 was attended by more than 100 people, he said, and that helped people in the rural area feel less isolated. A Justice Rally for Meghan Lewis is planned for Monday morning at the courthouse in Bel Air.
"This will shift our conversation (to) what we are going to do to advocate more for the LGBTQ+ community," he said. "We used to be all about putting on (a Pride) parade, but now we have to talk to kids in schools, talk to local police departments."
Dammons, like Blinder and Doan, is upset that the suspect in the case is not in jail. The three vowed to raise their alarm with authorities in Maryland, from Harford County (where Lewis was shot) to the Statehouse.
"I've buried, I think, 13 trans siblings in last five years," Dammons said. "We have been the pallbearers for our community. We stand in solidarity. We want to make some noise. This is our injustice and our blood runs in the streets. Meghan was not just a statistic."
Blinder said Lewis wouldn't have wanted people to mourn her, and those who planned the Jan. 2 remembrance were deliberate about calling it a celebration of her life, rather than a vigil mourning her death.
"Her perspective was about finding that joy and creating spaces for others to find their joy," Blinder said. "Nobody in the transgender community wants to be a statistic, particularly around violence or death. I think Meghan would want people to take the initiative and create lasting change for other people."
Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at ptrethan@usatoday.com, on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra, or on Threads @by_phaedra.