Makayla/ Michael Gwinn, a young transgender person whose life work was in mentoring fellow LGBTQ youth among other things died Feb. 16. Gwinn was 23.
An active performer, makeup artist and LGBTQ youth advocate, Gwinn loved life and worked to give back to Chicago's LGBT community, said friends. Gwinn, who identified as transgender, used the names Michael, Mikayla and Jaiden as well as both male and female pronouns (a choice that is reflected in this article).
"He loved life," said DaMina Ross, Gwinn's foster parent. "He was multi-talented. He was smart, witty, infectious personality, and he was loyal."
Gwinn was active in a number of LGBT initiatives. She facilitated workshops and discussions at Lawrence Hall Youth Services, where she formerly lived.
Kevin Pleasant, a mentor and friend to Gwinn, said Gwinn was dependable and committed to work with youth.
"He was youth advocating especially for LGBT youth," Pleasant said. "He just wanted equality for LGBT youth. He wanted them to have the same opportunities as non-LGBT youth."
Gwinn was also very involved in National Youth Pride Services (NYPS).
Frank Walker, founder of NYPS, said he was shocked to hear of Gwinn's passing.
According to Ross, Gwinn was found dead outside a residence in Ravenswood on Chicago's North Side, after a possible drug overdose.
Walker and Ross said Gwinn's life had not been easy or simple.
Gwinn was born in Waukegan and later moved to Chicago. At age nine, she entered the foster care system. When Ross met her, Gwinn was living as female in a group home with men. Ross later filed the paperwork to become Gwinn's foster parent.
Despite challenges, Gwinn succeeded both academically and professionally. She graduated from St. Gregory the Great High School and pursued an associate's degree in applied marketing from Harold Washington College. He later earned his certification as a makeup artist after attending London Eyes International Academy of Makeup. He was working as a makeup instructor at the time of his death.
Gwinn also performed at local clubs and was a member of the ball house, House of Evisu.
"I personally like how, even though all these worlds were against her, she made her way to be what she wanted," said Walker.
Ross said Gwinn had a close and supportive chosen family. He is also survived by biological siblings.
Ross remembered Gwinn as funny, charismatic, loyal and courageous.
Gwinn's passing marks the eighth death of an NYPS youth in less than a year, a stunningly high number. The deaths are believed to be unrelated, but the unusually high rate among Black LGBTQ youth in Chicago is sparking fears among advocates and youth alike.
Gwinn was friends with Paige Clay, a transgender woman whose murder last Spring garnered national attention.
Walker said that in its first nine years of operating, NYPS saw just two deaths in the organization. In the last few months alone, he has seen eight. Walker cannot make sense of those losses. NYPS has started keeping track of the number of Black gay youth who die in the U.S. They receive notice of one death a week.
"The majority of them are people we know from Chicago," Walker said. "I think eventually the mainstream media is going to have to start noticing that a lot of Black LGBT youth are dying."
Services for Gwinn are scheduled for Saturday, March 2 at Destiny Worship Center, 5510 W. Chicago Ave. A wake will be held from 12-1 p.m. The funeral will follow at 1 p.m. Donations to cover the cost of services can be made through Brooks Memorial Chapel at 773-699-3323.