DiscoverAfterlives: The Layleen Polanco Story
Afterlives: The Layleen Polanco Story
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Afterlives: The Layleen Polanco Story

Author: iHeartPodcasts

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The life and legacy of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco is at the heart of Afterlives, a podcast about trans lives we’ve lost and the ways their stories have reshaped our world. Known to light up a room, Layleen was an Afro-Latina trans woman in New York City who was sentenced to the city’s notorious jail complex on Rikers Island. She died there in 2019, at the young age of 27.

Hosted by Raquel Willis and inspired by her award-winning work on Out magazine’s Trans Obituaries Project, this 7-episode series celebrates Layleen’s vibrant life through memories from her family of origin and the community she discovered in New York’s famed ballroom scene. The series unpacks the systems that failed Layleen leading up to her death at Rikers through in-depth interviews with activists fighting against the criminalization of sex work, solitary confinement, and the epidemic of anti-trans violence.

Afterlives is the story of Layleen’s life, and the fight that continues in her name today.
10 Episodes
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Episode 1: Layleen

Episode 1: Layleen


Layleen Polanco was full of energy and always up for an adventure. From her love of music, to the first time she expressed her girlhood, we’ll explore how Layleen came to discover her sense of self and found her way to New York City’s ballroom scene. As a picture begins to form of her vibrant life, we also see how it took a turn and why her demise could have been prevented.See for privacy information.
Episode 2: To Survive

Episode 2: To Survive


Layleen’s mid-twenties weren’t easy. In the years leading up to her death at age 27, she was denied job opportunities, spent periods of time incarcerated, and struggled with her physical and mental health. Sex work was one way Layleen could support herself; but a sex work arrest set off a dehumanizing battle with the criminal justice system that led to her death. Layleen’s story is not an outlier. Decades of transphobic policies made her arrest feel familiar. We’ll hear from trans women who were devastated by the loss of Layleen, in part because they felt her fate could have been their own.See for privacy information.
Dysfunctional, transphobic, dehumanizing. These are just a few ways people we interviewed described Rikers Island. We’ll take a look inside this notorious jail complex, hearing about the conditions firsthand from people who have worked there and been detained behind its bars. It’s not somewhere Layleen should have ended up – failed attempts at reform within the criminal justice system led to a $500 bail which Layleen couldn’t afford. As her first few weeks at Rikers unfolded, the chaos inside the jail took a toll on Layleen. See for privacy information.
Episode 4: 41 Minutes

Episode 4: 41 Minutes


An ominous email thread among correction officers led to Layleen’s placement in the Restrictive Housing Unit, which politicians and advocates alike agree is just another name for solitary confinement. Inside cell #6, Layleen’s day started like any other on Friday June 7. But as the afternoon unfolded, video footage shows Layleen left unattended by correction officers when she suffered a fatal seizure. The manner of her death was documented as natural, yet it seems anything but.See for privacy information.
June 2019 was especially deadly for trans women of color. Amidst a celebration of World Pride and the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a crowd of 600 people came together to mourn Layleen Polanco. Just days after receiving the news that her sister died, Melania Brown found herself fighting her fear of public speaking to address the crowd and lead the call for justice. As weeks and months passed, organizing efforts continued to gain momentum, as did investigations and lawsuits surrounding Layleen’s death - some culminated in disappointing decisions, while others marked historic wins.See for privacy information.
Every year, the anniversary of Layleen’s death is a reminder to ask: has anything really changed? Many organizers have been personally touched by Layleen’s story and have spent years advocating for policy changes that would prevent a tragedy like hers from happening again. Major headlines have surrounded Layleen’s death: from steps taken towards decriminalizing consensual sex work, to the claim that New York City ended solitary confinement, to the creation of an unit at Rikers dedicated to LGBTQ+ advocacy. But these initiatives have had mixed results in practice. We’ll look at the strides that have been made in Layleen’s name as well as the effects of compromises, rollbacks, and resistance.See for privacy information.
Layleen’s spirit is very much alive in her sister Melania’s home: photos dot the walls, a recording of Layleen’s voice lives inside her daughter’s teddy bear, and Melania surrounds herself with animals and pets as her sister once did. In the final episode, Melania reflects on how her own life has changed in the past four years and what she wishes for Layleen’s legacy. We’ll hear from activists fighting for the future she dreams of– where trans people can live safely and Rikers Island is closed forever. See for privacy information.
Enjoy unaired excerpts of interviews with two brilliant authors: Sydney Baloue and Tre’vell Anderson. Sydney Baloue, who is currently writing Undeniable: A History of Voguing, Ballroom, and How it Changed my Life and the World, dives deeper into the House of Xtravaganza’s legacy. He also opens up about his own foray into ballroom (which started in Europe) and reflects on his history-making performance at the Latex Ball in New York City. In the second half of the episode we hear from Tre’vell Anderson, the author of We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film. Tre’vell discusses their own relationship with representation, talks about an early trans celebrity (and what her fame meant for future trans stars), and considers whether visibility can lead to true progress.See for privacy information.
Two incredible trans storytellers, ​​Kristen Lovell and Cecilia Gentili, share how they found their power in interview segments you haven’t heard before. Kristen Lovell, the documentary filmmaker behind The Stroll, talks about how Martin Scorsese inspired her to tell a New York story that she knew intimately. The conversation explores the history of New York’s Meatpacking District and the community space that was lost due to police crackdowns. Then we hear from Cecilia Gentilli, the founder of Trans Equity Consulting and the author of Faltas. Starting with her childhood she talks about her life story, including the harsh realities of her transition, the moment she opened her eyes to all that trans people can be, and the importance of passing the torch to trans youth.See for privacy information.