A 20-year-old Philadelphia man who recently defended his relationship with his transgender girlfriend in a video was found dead Sunday — friends say by suicide — setting off a national conversation about how people are treated for whom they love.
Over the last two days, #RIPreese has gone viral, prompting an outpouring of support for Maurice “Reese” Willoughby from prominent voices in the LGBTQ community, such as actress Laverne Cox, as well as politicians including congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who tweeted: “No one should lose their life because of who they are or who they love.”
Details surrounding Willoughby’s death remained murky Thursday. Police haven’t responded to a request for information, and the city Department of Public Health said the investigation is pending. A cause of death wasn’t released, and his girlfriend indicated on social media that his suicide was the result of a drug overdose after she left him.
His death has also sparked the widespread sharing of a video, which first spread on Twitter over the summer, of Willoughby being harassed by a group of men on the street for his relationship with his girlfriend. It wasn’t immediately clear who initially posted the video, which as of Thursday morning had been viewed nearly 4 million times.
On July 18, Willoughby went live on Facebook and defended his relationship with the woman, named Faith. He had previously posted about her, writing, “I don’t care if she wasn’t born a woman she is a woman to me & I love her flaws that’s what makes her faith if you heard her story it’s motivating.”
Willoughby’s girlfriend didn’t respond to requests for comment. But the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a national organization that advocates on behalf of black transgender people, posted on Facebook Thursday: “Faith went on Instagram Live to clarify that Reese’s suicide occurred through an overdose after she left him. A heavy drug user, Reese threatened to take his life and Faith’s. She ran away to safety, and it was then that he committed suicide.”
Amethyst Jade Lee, a 25-year-old who described Willoughby as a close friend, said he was a “funny sweetheart” who wasn’t afraid to say who he was.
“He was brave enough to say, ‘I ain’t ashamed of myself, I am what I am, I do what I do, I’m living my best life,’” she said. “Hate is so strong, and I just don’t understand it.”
She added: “If I could tell him anything, I would want him to know I’m not mad at him. And I love you, and I think about you every day.”
Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date for Willoughby’s death.