Angelina Nordstrom remembers their close friend Elise Malary through candid photos and videos they loved to surprise her with.
"My favorite thing was to catch her off-guard with the camera, to capture random moments of her and also some very natural moments of us together," Nordstrom said. "And there are a lot of moments. We shared good times, bad times and everything in between."
Nordstrom and Malary supported each other's advocacy work, spent time at each other's homes and loved seeking out holiday lights in the winter. They described Malary as "vibrant," "angelic," "introverted" and "powerful."
Malary, a 31-year-old Black transgender woman, was found dead March 17 near Lake Michigan in Evanston after she had been missing since March 9.
"I've been very distraught," Nordstrom said. "She had been dealing with a lot of changes in her life and personal struggles, and she wanted space to be able to cope with those things to the best of her ability. I gave her that space when she requested it, but in hindsight, part of me wishes I hadn't."
Malary's friends and family as well as the broader community have mourned her with vigils and acknowledged her name at rallies. Before authorities found Malary's body, hundreds of people helped circulate posts searching for her.
"It's comforting to see how many lives she touched," said Iggy Laden, who worked with Malary and described themself as part of her chosen family. "I feel proud of our community's response and the belief that absolutely no Black trans woman is disposable, that we all need to drop what we're doing and look for her and find her and we won't rest until we do."
Before she died, Malary worked at the Illinois Attorney General's Office. Nordstrom said Malary also "loved every bit" of her work as a founding member of the Chicago Therapy Collective, which aims to alleviate LGBTQ+ health disparities.
Laden, who worked with Malary at Chicago Therapy Collective, said Malary advocated for employers to address biased hiring processes through the organization's #HireTransNOW initiative because she understood how vital her job was for her wellbeing. The initiative aims to end hiring stigma and employment discrimination, according to its website.
"She really believed that, unless trans folks have jobs, they're not going to be able to have all the other aspects of a healthy life, at least not in this country," Laden said. "I don't think we can understate how important it is for trans folks to have affirming environments where they work, when we spend so much of our lives at work."
Laden became close with Malary while they worked together and they quickly began spending holidays at each other's homes, exploring Andersonville together and conversing about society.
"When I think about her, I remember the way she would pause and take an intentional, thoughtful moment before speaking," Laden said. "As soon as she landed on whatever she was going to say, her eyes would get wide and her whole face would light up. I'm just going to miss talking to her. She was such a great conversation partner."
Laden said Malary was especially passionate about social justice and had recently become interested in the issues with capitalism and racism in the U.S. Nordstrom also remembered Malary's commitment to protecting the rights of marginalized people.
"It was just really fun to talk to her about these things because she cared so much and was so thoughtful and engaged and just brilliant when it came to the things she was passionate about," Laden said.
Reflecting on Malary's death, Nordstrom advised people to prioritize and show love to the people they care about.
"Do not allow yourself to be consumed with your own endeavors to the point where you forget the people closest to you," they said. "Your friends, your chosen family can be here today and gone tomorrow in the snap of a finger, and then it's too late."
To learn more about the #HireTransNOW Initiative, visit transinclusivechicago.org/hire.