ANDERSONVILLE — Hundreds of mourners gathered in Andersonville to honor trans activist Elise Malary, writing tributes on a brick wall and on notes they tossed into a small bonfire Sunday evening.
Malary, a prominent LGBTQ advocate in Chicago, was reported missing by her family March 11 when she stopped responding to her sister’s texts and calls two days earlier. Her disappearance sparked a massive search among family and friends that came to a tragic end Saturday when police identified Malary as a woman whose body officers found Thursday in Lake Michigan in Evanston.
Detectives are continuing to investigate Malary’s death. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Evanston Police Detective Bureau at 847-866-5040. Tips can also be texted to 274637 if the message starts with “EPDTIP.”
Malary, a Black trans woman, was a founding member of Andersonville-based Chicago Therapy Collective, which aims to alleviate LGBTQ health disparities through education, therapy, advocacy and the arts. Sunday’s vigil started outside Women & Children First, the downstairs neighbor of the collective, and ended with a fire ceremony outside Chicago Waldorf School, 5200 N. Ashland Ave.
Hundreds of people gathered around the bookstore’s brick wall and used chalk to write memories of Malary.
“Her voice was soft. Her tongue was sharp. Her love is forever,” one person wrote.
Other messages highlighted Malary’s smile and big heart.
“We’re here to start a healing process,” said Alexis Martinez, one of Malary’s friends. “Elise Malary was a very special person in this neighborhood, and all of us have a story about her.”
Malary was born and raised in Chicago and previously lived in Andersonville before moving to Evanston, her loved ones said.
Most recently, Malary worked at the Civil Rights Bureau of the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Malary previously worked as a communications associate for Equality Illinois and interned for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, according to her LinkedIn.
Malary was also among several organizers who rallied around Women and Children First in 2019 when anti-trans stickers were put on the store’s front windows for weeks.
Iggy Ladden, a director and therapist for the Chicago Therapy Collective, said Malary “worked tirelessly for Black trans lives, including her own.”
“Elise faced hardness and chose kindness,” Ladden said. “Elise faced cruelty and chose softness, love and joy. She chose giving people the benefit of the doubt. She looked for the good in them. She chose compassion, and she chose time and time again to lift others up.”
Friends celebrated Malary’s dedication to making the world a better place, and promised to honor her legacy by continuing that work on her behalf.
“We will continue your legacy by taking care of one another in the true spirit of community you embodied,” speaker Precious Brady-Davis said.
Malary’s close friend, Angelina Nordstrom, shared memories of everything they did together, like trips, shopping, going to demonstrations and talking on the phone to “spill the tea.”
The two friends bought two half-heart keychains from Kate Spade that formed a whole heart when paired together.
“When I bought this, there was only one person who could have a keychain like this, and that was her,” Nordstrom said. “So I gave her the other half, and for years, we held onto our ends of this.”
Malary “shed a light” on the world and inspired Nordstrom to remain optimistic about the world, Nordstrom said.
“There was a sisterhood that only she and I were able to cultivate that I really felt with all of my heart,” Nordstrom said. “And Elise, with your physical presence no longer being here, all I’m left with is this half of my heart.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.