When 16-year-old Rochelle heard that her friend, Brianna Ghey, had been dead-named in the U.K. press, she burst into tears. Why would the media disrespect Ghey by referring to her by a name that she had left behind when she came out as trans? She grabbed her phone to text Ghey… before she remembered that she couldn’t, because the 16-year-old TikToker had been killed less than a week ago. “Calling with her was like therapy,” the German teen tells Rolling Stone, sharing a TikTok Ghey sent moments before her death. In it, the willowy redhead sports round glasses and a school uniform, lip-synching to a song by the Current Joys: “Oh, I’m just a kid…”
Although Ghey is now known internationally — and her U.K. vigils have turned into de facto rallies for trans rights — she was just that: a kid, beloved by a throng of mostly online friends, bullied in real life for refusing to dim her light. Rochelle describes Ghey as “a sister.” She loved gaming — Roblox and Minecraft — and her favorite color was “obviously pink.” Obviously because she was often decked out in it on her now-deleted TikTok account. (Rochelle, who never met Ghey in person, has saved a trove of them). She loved miniskirts and makeup, and, according to another online friend, 15-year-old Vivienne from London, she had a brutal, honest sense of humor and was unabashedly herself. “She was so proud of being trans,” Vivienne tells Rolling Stone. “She absolutely loved it. She was ultra feminine. She was so beautiful and she just didn’t really care what people thought.”
“She was just another 16-year-old girl at the end of the day,” says another U.K. friend, 20-year-old Kenzie. “She had huge possibilities and she didn’t deserve what happened.”
Ghey’s death shocked and confused a nation — and beyond. She was found fatally stabbed in a park in Cheshire, England, on Feb. 11. Two 15-year-olds were arrested and charged with her murder, a death that prosecutor Leanne Gallagher called “extremely brutal and punishing.” Those teens will be headed to court in July, but, in the meantime, questions swirl over just why Ghey was killed.
Cops muddied the waters when they initially told the press that they did not believe her death was a hate crime. Although they later walked back that statement, the damage had been done — the community was wounded and confused. “The police should be looking at the history of Brianna’s bullying and make connections to get a better understanding of whether it was a hate crime or not,” Kenzie says; all three of the friends Rolling Stone spoke with mentioned that Ghey told them she was bullied. “I just know deep down it was [a hate crime] — and many other people in the community feel that way, too.”
The way the U.K. press approached news of Ghey’s death did nothing to put the trans community at ease. The Times published a story referring to Ghey as a teenage girl, later editing it to refer to her by her male birth name and saying she had been “living as a girl for several months.” Meanwhile, The Telegraph interviewed former police officer/current Fair Cop founder Harry Miller — who has been vocally anti-trans in the past — who opined that if the killing wasn’t a hate crime, “it has to be categorized as the tragic murder of a young male.” Fair Cop describes itself as “a group of gender-critical lawyers, police officers, writers, and professionals dedicated to…removing politics from policing.”
“Why did they even ask him [about Ghey]?” Mallory Moore, a researcher for the U.K.’s Trans Safety Network, tells Rolling Stone. “Miller launched the #SayYesToHate campaign the night before Trans Day of Remembrance in 2020, and last month took to defending the neonazi activist James Goddard over an arrest for anti-LGBTQ Twitter posts,” she adds. “This happened in a story where from the first version to the last they didn’t ask a single trans person for comment.”
“I’ve been quite upset with the way the press has handled it,” Vivienne says. “It wasn’t necessary for them to release her dead name. I think that was very disrespectful.” Writers for The Times and The Telegraph did not return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.
Anger over both Ghey’s death and the way it’s been handled has touched off a firestorm of hurt and pain in the U.K. and beyond — coming at the same time as trans people and allies have taken aim at U.S. press. In the States, journalists and celebrities alike penned two open letters to the New York Times regarding their coverage of trans issues, leading to an ongoing battle between the publishing institution, its staff, and its readers. The latter’s rage only intensified when the Times ran an opinion piece titled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling” one day after the letters were sent — and not long after the British author seemed to threaten legal action against actor JJ Welles for likening her to a Nazi based on her views on trans people.
In the midst of all this pain and anger, around 50 vigils have been organized for Ghey in less than a week, according to British journalist and host of the podcast What the Trans? Michelle Snow. She estimates that the one she attended in London on Wednesday saw thousands in attendance. “It was a mixture of grief and rage,” she says. “It was a vigil and a protest at the same time. There were lots of people talking about how tragic the death of Brianna Ghey is. And also lots of people pointing out the hostile media environment, the hostility from politicians.”
Snow says the vigils are the culmination of the nearly decade of anger and disappointment in the trans community over both how they’ve been treated by the government and the press. “The coverage has not really been a surprise, because this has been the nature of the U.K. media’s coverage of trans issues since I started doing what I do in 2015,” she says, adding wryly that she started her podcast to talk about clothing swaps, not “a national, constant moral panic.”
Meanwhile, Ghey’s friends are both in mourning for her and terrified for their own safety. “I’ve cried myself to sleep the last few nights. I don’t feel safe to leave my own house anymore,” Kenzie says. “I remember hearing about Bri’s death and I instantly ran to my mum and just said, ‘I don’t know what to do anymore.’ Going out in public as a trans person doesn’t feel like an option anymore, are we really safe?” And she’s not alone. According to a spokesperson for Mermaids U.K., a charity for transgender youth, they saw a 31-percent spike this week in calls to their helpline.
Still, even though Ghey has become a kind of heroic figure for trans teens in the U.K. and beyond, her friends don’t want the real Brianna Ghey to get lost in the shuffle. They rattle off memories like, well, excited teenagers. That time Vivienne and Ghey were practicing gymnastics on FaceTime, taking shots of apple juice and laughing. A silly backflip Ghey did on TikTok that had Rochelle in tears. How they used to talk about how tough it is to be trans, swapping advice and eating ice cream. All their plans to meet in person someday in some other place without the bullies around.
Wednesday night, Vivienne spoke at a vigil in Manchester, surrounded by fairy lights and prayer candles, remembering Ghey’s skill with makeup and her enviable mermaid hair — to light laughs from the audience. She admits that she was unmoved by the speeches about trans rights at the event, the “statistics,” the talk about violence and murder. “I want people to remember Brianna for Brianna, not that she was murdered,” she says. “I want people to understand that she was just a teenage girl living her life and she had so many dreams and she was so loving and funny. I want to remember her for her beauty and her humor. She shouldn’t be remembered as a murder victim. She should be remembered as Bri.”