Paige Clay could turn anything into a runway.
One time, she strutted up and down the middle of a street, feet sashaying on the yellow lines and cars driving past her in both directions. The wind blew her around like she was a supermodeland she looked like one, too, according to her friend Zy'Aire Kyng.
"She was a very upbeat person," he said. "To know her definitely was to love her. She pretty much got along with everybody. I called her short and feistyshe wasn't really one you could push over. She had a big personality."
Even if Clay was in a room full of six-foot-tall people, you couldn't miss her, Kyng said. And often she would be surrounded by friends with her infectious joy drawing in people.
When Clay was murdered in 2012, Kyng organized an event calling for justice at TaskForce Prevention & Community Services, an agency serving LGBTQ+ youth on Chicago's West Side. The room was packed, he said. It was clear how many people loved and missed her.
One of the people who misses her every day is her sister, Toya Cole.
"We was like Bonnie and Clyde. Our bond was unbreakable," she said. "No matter how many years we was apart from each other, we could just meet up and get right back on point with our relationship."
Cole said they had a rough childhood, becoming wards of the state and moving from foster home to foster home. But through it all, she remembers how Clay would always be willing to spend time with her, whether they had tea parties or played with Barbies.
As they got a little older, they were adopted by Cole's aunt, who wasn't accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, Cole said. As Clay began figuring herself out, she started clashing with Cole's aunt, she said.
When Clay was about 11, Cole's aunt admitted her into Hartgrove Behavioral Health System, Cole said. After that, Clay ran away multiple times, finally leaving for good around the time she was 16.
Cole said that she is also a part of the LGBTQ+ community, so she and Clay connected over that.
"I explained to her, what don't break us will only make us stronger," she said. "They do not define who you are. Love yourself. 'I love you, I accept you.' That's all that matters."
But once Clay ran away, she lost contact with her, only seeing her occasionally. The last time Cole saw her was the Thanksgiving before she was killed.
"We understood each other," Cole said. "Our last Thanksgiving with each other was the best thanksgiving. We sat around the table, cracked jokes, brought up old memories...And in a blink of the eye, all that was gone."
They exchanged numbers after that night, planning to celebrate their birthdays together. But the following April, Clay was murdered. She was 23 years old.
It would take months for Cole to be informed of Clay's death. It was only by coincidence that Cole's uncle saw Clay's father and heard the news. That broke her heart, she said.
"She was my baby," she said. "Everybody say they got a rider, they got somebody that's there for them that always had their back. This girl always had my back. Whether I was right or wrong, she was stepping for her sister."
She said that Clay is the type of person to come to someone's rescueand to keep her promises. When they were children, Clay told her that she'd get her name tattooed on her. Years later, when Cole saw her again, there it was: "Toya" tatted on her neck.
"In all honesty, it meant everything to me," she said, "Because we been through a lot as children."
While Clay was the big sister to Toya, she was like the little sister to a group of her friends. Khomeini Wajd, Eric Haywood and Kyng all met her around when she was 15 or 16, and they looked after her like she was family.
Kyng said that she helped him become the man he is todayshe was the person to give him confidence to embrace his sexuality,. But Clay wasn't always confident, Wajd said.
"When I first met her, she was just so quiet and nonchalant," Wajd said, "But when she started coming around more gay people like her, she opened up more. She was happier, she was laughing all the time."
When Clay transitioned, Kyng said, it was like she found herself and became the person she really wanted to be. He recalled her putting a lot of care into her appearance and fashion, turning thrifted finds into classy looks.
Clay was also well-known in the ballroom scene, walking in multiple categories. Her ballroom name was Fendi, Kyng said, and she walked for the House of Evisu, according to a 2012 Windy City Times article.
Wajd said that Clay loved to vogue, and that it seemed to get her mind off the hardships she experienced. He said that Clay, despite all she went through, stayed sweet.
"I really wish people knew the love and caring person she was, how she been to hell and hot water all her life and she never let none of that get her down," he said. "She still lived her life. She didn't become sour to everybody just because everybody treated her the way they treat her."
Windy City Times made many attempts to contact friends and family members of Paige Clay. Those who would like to speak to her memoryor know of someone else who would like toshould email firstname.lastname@example.org .
See the Trans Omnibus Project introduction page for links to other stories in this series: