OXFORD, Miss.— As the stage lights came up on Code Pink Oxford, a monthly dance event at The Lyric that showcases amateur drag queens and serves as a safe space for members of the local LGBTQIA+ community, Jay Lee emerged from backstage. The frequent Code Pink performer wore a black mesh top, hair gems and a bedazzled silver skirt that glittered in the light.
As Jay Lee took center stage, the speakers blared music from his personal playlist of iconic pop divas like Ariana Grande, Beyoncé and Rihanna. The crowd roared as Jay Lee strutted and danced to the music with all the skill of a seasoned drag performer. There is a reason Jay Lee, 20, was considered a staple of Code Pink Oxford; his performances were, as Jose Reyes described it, “mesmerizing.”
The first time Reyes, a University of Mississippi student and close friend of Jay Lee, saw him perform, was December of his junior year, in 2019. “At that point, it was only Jay Lee’s second performance. It took only seeing one of his performances to give me the confidence to get on that stage myself,” Reyes said.
“The first night I ever performed, we got ready in his tiny apartment and, when we got to the Lyric, to kill the jitters, we instantly took shots. I remember that night so, so vividly. He is the one that got me out of my shell. It was just so much fun.”
Braylyn Johnson, another of Jay Lee’s friends, agreed. “Jay Lee was really, really good at getting on stage and being confident in himself,” she said.
“When you go back and watch his drag performances, you can see and feel the personal touches he put in, like the little things in his hair or the songs; they were always one of his favorites. He just wanted everyone to have a good time.”
Today, Jay Lee is still a part of Code Pink, albeit in a much different way. Instead of performing onstage, his graduation picture sits at a memorial table, next to a sign that reads: “JUSTICE FOR JAY LEE.” Instead of laughing or dancing with him, Jay Lee’s friends are sharing his story with patrons and taking donations for his family. Instead of leaving with their friend, they are left only with his memory.
“And it isn’t fair,” Johnson said. “He should be here with us, but he isn’t. So, we had to step up. We had to do what was right.”
‘Instantly, There Was Chaos’
Scores of lives changed forever when, on the morning of July 8, 2022, Jimmie “Jay” Lee, 20, a Jackson, Miss. native and student at the University of Mississippi, went missing from his Campus Walk apartment, wearing only a silver robe, gold bonnet and gray slippers. Initial reports chronicled his friends and family’s frantic search, as well as the Oxford Police Department’s efforts to find Jay Lee and bring him home.
“I was in shock,” his friend Braylyn Johnson said, remembering the moment she found out that her friend and former roommate had disappeared. “I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke. I saw the flyer and just thought I’d be able to call him that evening and he’d answer and the confusion would be over.”
A day went by. A week, and then another. It was not until July 22, when The Oxford Eagle reported that 22-year-old Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr. of Grenada, Miss., had been arrested, that there were any answers.
“He had been charged with murder,” Johnson said, “and instantly, there was chaos.”
Still, Jay Lee’s body has not been found even as the prosecution built a case against Herrington in August 2022 with his family in the courtroom.
Local news outlets released frequent updates regarding the case both in print and on their social-media accounts, the latter of which quickly became a cesspool of hate and bigotry. Johnson, who is active on apps like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, saw the onslaught of racist, homophobic and transphobic comments left in the wake of Herrington’s arrest, and remembers the feeling it spurred in her — the need to take action.
“The two weeks while Jay was missing, there wasn’t a lot of discourse,” she said. “It was just people wanting a mother to find her son, or wanting a family to be reunited with their college student. But at that point, when Herrington was arrested, everything switched.”
Reyes remembers that switch, and the onslaught of misinformation that followed, all too well.
“When everything first started going down, rumors were being made, things were being taken out of context — it was just really getting out of control,” he said. “The main thing I was very, very adamant about was pinpointing that Jay Lee was a cisgender man who went by he/him pronouns.
“There was so much confusion about who Jay Lee was,” Reyes continued, “and I remember him being so strong about who he was and expressing that to me. It was important that I continued protecting him and made sure the world knew who Jay Lee really was.”
The day the misinformation started was the day the injustice started, Johnson said, adding, “I knew from past cases in Mississippi’s history, that public opinion can and will affect the way that justice is served.”
‘We Had to Get to Work’
Jay Lee was the third queer person slain in Mississippi in 2022.
Kenyatta “Kesha” Williams, a 24-year-old Black transgender woman, was found dead in Jackson on March 26, 2022. Then Shawmaynè Giselle Marie, a 27-year-old Black transgender woman, was killed in Gulfport on June 21, just over a month before Jay Lee went missing. The Human Rights Campaign reported that, in 2022, at least 38 other transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States. HRC uses the term “at least” due to the high number of stories that go unreported, or misreported.
“We have a very small queer community,” said Rae DelBianco, bestselling author, UM writing fellow and member of the movement in Oxford. “When this happened, it absolutely impacted all sense of safety and sense of my community.” DelBianco identifies as bisexual.
In the United States, biases against race and sexual orientation motivate the majority of hate crimes. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice, using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting, or UCR, program, released the 2021 Hate Crime Statistics. Of the 7,287 single-bias incidents recorded in 2021, racial bias motivated 4,491 of them, while sexual orientation bias motivated 1,121 of the crimes. Gender identity bias motivated 266.
Often, both racism and homophobia motivate violence. In Mississippi, racial bias motivated 26 of the 31 (83%) reported hate crimes in 2021, while sexual orientation bias (.06%) motivated two of them. These numbers, coupled with the 31 anti-LGBTQ bills and “Jim Crow 2.0” legislation introduced in the state in 2022, make Mississippi one of the most unsafe states for LGBTQ+ and people of color to live in.
“When you see these cases of violence against Black and queer people, especially in the South, you do see an increase in transphobic and homophobic things being said,” Johnson said. “We knew we had to step in and defend him in the community. We needed to be the platform to be able to have a voice for Jay Lee. We had to get him in the media more.”
Black and Missing Inc. reported that “nearly 40 percent of missing persons are persons of color,” despite African-Americans making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Cases involving Black victims are also less likely to receive media coverage as opposed to cases involving white victims. A 2015 study from the William & Mary found that “although African-American missing children amounted to a shockingly low 7% of media references, they accounted for 35% of the National Crime Information Center’s cases.”
“Black people are more likely to go missing, and they are less likely to receive the coverage, which then makes them less likely to be found,” Johnson said. “And then, add on this layer that Jay Lee is a queer Black person.”
A 2020 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that “LGBT people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization,” with 27% of those crimes committed specifically against gay men.
“All of these intersectionalities really play a part in why there is so much injustice going on in this case,” Johnson said. “And because of that, we had to get to work.”
‘Jay Lee Has An Army’
Braylyn Johnson immediately called Jose Reyes on the Friday when Oxford police arrested Timothy Herrington for killing Jay Lee. “Let’s do this,” she told him.
Johnson then called every organizer and mentor she would think of to ask for advice. She now calls her reaction “pure desperation. “I refused to let corruption and hate be spewed over my friend’s legacy,” she said later. “We just did it.”
She and Reyes created the Justice for Jay Lee Instagram page and started putting out information to tell who Jay Lee really was.
“I remember being like, of course, we have to spread this story somehow,” Reyes said. “Everyone is on social media, so it was easy to make those connections.”
The Instagram account, @justiceforjaylee, shared its first post on July 24, 2022. It read: “WHO WAS JIMMIE JAY LEE?” The post, which consisted of seven slides, told Jay Lee’s story from the perspective of his friends, offering insight into his life and his activism. It included videos of his performances at Code Pink, as well as pictures of him with his family.
“The entire world is watching Oxford, Mississippi to make sure that Jay Lee’s family gets the justice that they deserve,” the caption read.
The post quickly received over 100 likes.
“At the time, there weren’t a lot of people defending Jay Lee at a time when he needed to be defended,” Johnson said. “I know that sounds crazy to say. Why does a victim need defending? But it was necessary because of how much hatred and misinformation was being spread about Jay Lee and who he was and just hateful things being spread about the queer community in general.
Johnson said the Instagram account was a way “to relight his voice and to let the world know that Jay Lee has an army, and we’re going to ensure justice will be served.”
Since that initial post, the Justice for Jay Lee Instagram account has accrued nearly 3,100 followers, with the hashtags #whereisjaylee, #jaylee and #justiceforjaylee appearing on more than 100 posts. His friends then launched a TikTok account that has drawn over 430,000 views and 36,000 likes with almost 1,200 followers.
“We never anticipated growing this much,” Reyes said. “We weren’t expecting to make more than three posts. We were really anticipating that Jay Lee was going to be found and that we wouldn’t have to continue using that account. But we have, and it’s helped a lot. It definitely has spread Jay Lee’s legacy.”
This unprecedented amount of growth not only spreads information about the case but allows Jay Lee’s story to reach thousands of people, not just in Oxford, but across Mississippi and the South
Oxford: A Great Incubator of Queer Talent
Moth Moth Moth (also known as Magical Miss Mothie), a self-described “artist and entertainer first, a politician second” from Memphis, Tenn., felt an immediate connection when they heard Jay Lee’s story in the summer of 2022. Moth, a fellow drag performer, had known of Jay Lee through connections at Code Pink Oxford and had been told nothing but good things.
“My heart is still f — king broken over Jay Lee, and I didn’t even know Jay Lee,” Moth said in an interview. “But I knew Jay Lee through his drag sisters, and I had plans to get Jay Lee in my web because he showed great promise. I was told by many people that Jay Lee is someone to watch.”
Moth lifted up the North Mississippi college town for its active support of LGBTQ+ residents and talent. “Code Pink is a great show, and Oxford is a great incubator of queer talent. I don’t think it gets any credit for that, and it should take pride in that. And to see that one of their most talented young queer people got killed, and there’s still nobody, it’s ridiculous. So, I’m here for the Justice for Jay Lee Movement. I’m here to support and love them.”
As the current Miss Midsouth Pride 2023 and the programs director at the Focus Center Foundation in Memphis, Moth is no stranger to activism. In fact, their politics and activism are “very much” a part of their drag performances, which included ripping up cardboard cutouts of then-President Donald Trump to the song “Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Sigrid.
“I never dreamed of being put in front of people quite in that way,” they said. “It was never intentional — but it’s all because of Lisa.”
In 2020, Moth’s dear friend, the beloved Memphis trans icon and musician Lisa Michaels passed away at age 61. Michaels, known for her brightly colored hair and witty, political humor, is who Moth credits for their foray into LGBTQ+ activism.
“I remember at the Pride Parade in 2018, [Michaels] saw protesters, and she just started chasing them,” Moth said. “There were all these pictures of her just blocking them and singing. She was the one who would happily, every time, without thought, would stand between us, all of us trying to have our dreams, and all that hatefulness out there. She is who I want to be like.”
‘Incredible Group of Young Warriors’
In 2018, a catastrophic seizure almost put an end to Moth’s career in drag. But Lisa “would not allow it,” Moth says now.
“When I was ready to quit, she bullied me into staying onstage,” they said. “I would get so frustrated with her, but she’s the only thing that kept me going when I didn’t believe in anything or in myself. So, when I talk about everything that I do or that I’ve done, I owe it all to Lisa.”
When it comes to the Justice for Jay Lee Movement, Moth “never questioned” whether they should get involved or insert their voice into the conversation.
“I really dashed into it quite thoughtlessly,” they said. “I’ve met such an incredible group of young warriors, and I was struck by how sad I was that the responsibility to hold an entire city accountable had fallen to all these young people. This is hard. This is a really, really hard one.”
Moth has since given their support to several Justice for Jay Lee events, appearing at rallies and even in Instagram Reels for the movement’s account. In the Reel, Moth expresses their fear that Jay Lee’s case will, as they put it, “disappear into the fossil record.”
Allowing Jay Lee’s story to disappear would only double down on proof that nobody in the South cares, Moth said.
“Nobody cares to look for us when we disappear into the darkness. It’s so easy for gay life, trans life, and gender non-conforming life to just be whisked out of existence with no recourse, repercussion, without investigations, without stake,” they said.
“It shows a total lackadaisical attitude when it comes to the loss of Black life in the South, and it’s ugly. So, we have to talk about it.”
‘What Would Jay Lee Do?’
The Justice for Jay Lee warriors are engaging in face-to-face activism, as well as social-media messaging. They insist the case must not fade away—and especially the need to locate Jay Lee’s body as the prosecution of the suspect in the case slowly moves forward.
At Timothy Herrington’s Aug. 9 bond hearing, the prosecution shared Snapchat messages between the two indicating Jay Lee was hesitant to visit Herrington’s apartment the morning of July 8. Following Lee’s agreement to meet, Herrington Google-searched several disturbing things, including “How long does it take to strangle someone,” prosecutors revealed.
Store security cameras showed that Herrington also purchased a roll of duct tape from the local Walmart. Later surveillance footage from the Molly Barr Trails apartment complex showed Jay Lee arriving at Herrington’s apartment—but never coming back out.
That same morning, a “petite man in a gray hoodie with a long-sleeve t-shirt wrapped around his head and neck, blocking his face” was seen running from the apartment complex. This same petite man (identified as Timothy Herrington) was later seen retrieving a white box truck from his company, the T&T Moving Co., a truck he then drove to his parents’ home in Grenada, Miss.
There, prosecutors said, Herrington was seen handling a full-sized shovel and a wheelbarrow. Cadaver dogs would later alert on those tools, suggesting they detected the presence of human remains or decomposition.
On March 29, 2023, a Lafayette County grand jury indicted Timothy Herrington on a capital-murder charge. He is still out under his previous bond, and a trial will be set for a later date.
Nearly 300 days later, Jay Lee’s body has still yet to be found—and the push to bring awareness to his story goes on.
Johnson, Reyes and others have sponsored rallies, Code Pink events, and even special drinks at Proud Larry’s near the Square in Oxford, with proceeds going to support Jay Lee’s family.
How do they decide what events to hold? They ask themselves one question: what would Jay Lee do?
‘It Was Like a Sisterhood Thing’
The memorial at Code Pink is Jose Reyes’ top priority.
“We shared the same love for Code Pink; it was like a sisterhood thing,” he said. “We would always look forward to it and plan for it together so for me, it’s important that I continue sharing that love, and it’s important for me to keep him included.”
When it isn’t at the memorial at Code Pink, Jay Lee’s graduation portrait sits in Reyes’s room. Whenever he gets ready for the event, Reyes sits with Jay Lee and gets ready with him, “just like it used to be,” he says.
“I have him with me the night prior,” Reyes said. “It’s literally the same vibes we had; we’ll be getting ready together, we’ll take a few shots together, we’ll get in the car and pull up to the event together, and then I just set him up. It’s nice having him there, although he’s not there in person. But having an image of him is more than enough. Those were our nights; it wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Johnson is proud of the ongoing Code Pink memorial to her friend, which happens without fail at each gathering there. But they hold events at different spots around Oxford to keep his memory alive. “The drink at Proud Larry’s — when he went missing, it was a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday. I’m an event planner so, I thought, what can I do to celebrate him? Within a week, we put together a full-scale event in honor of Jay Lee’s birthday to raise money for his family.”
Johnson points to the Justice for Jay Lee movement, Code Pink, Jay’s friends and family, and members of LAMBDA (an LGBTQIA+ process support group for students in the UM Department of Psychology), as helping to make all of this possible.
“Our community makes our in-person appearances just so much better,” she said. “Their support is incredible.”
Rae DelBianco credits Jay Lee’s closest friends for the Jay Lee movement and growing awareness.
“Braylyn and Jose are downright the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and the courage with which they are facing down the powers that be in order to get justice for a loved one is absolutely incredible,” DelBianco said.
Deep Impact Beyond Life, and Death
Jay Lee’s documenters believe his life can have deep impact beyond his death.
Johnson said she is optimistic that Justice for Jay Lee will incite powerful change—change she knows would make her friend proud.
“Jay Lee was such a well-rounded, passionate person,” she said. “The day he went missing, he was doing a baby-food formula drive on campus, and I just thought that was so awesome. That definitely speaks to his character, that that’s what he was doing on a random Friday. And because of the platform that we’re building, we’ve developed enough community resources to be able to pick up where Jay Lee left off.”
That work goes beyond Oxford and Mississippi for Jay Lee’s friends. “There’s so much that can be said and done for Jay Lee. Anti-LGBT and anti-Black legislation is plaguing the entire nation right now. It’s important that we use our platform not only to get justice for Jay Lee but to speak out against these forms of hate, just like Jay Lee would have,” Johnson said.
“There’s so much work and so many ideas that he had that he didn’t get to finish before his disappearance. Those ideas and his work deserve to continue on.”
Moth agreed. “To me, Jay Lee is a historical figure,” they said. “Here was this interesting, plugged-in, brave, mold-breaking young man who, through the click of his high heels, changed his school and was so tapped in and involved with the people around him. He deserved a lot more than this; he was going to do even bigger, more amazing things. I’m going to continue his work, and I’m going to continue telling his story because Jay Lee’s story is not a rare story. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”
DelBianco encourages anyone who has heard Jay Lee’s story to tell it to others. “Share his story, whether on social media, with your friends, or with your colleagues at any media outlet,” she said. “Sharing Jay Lee’s story and demanding justice is going to shape the future of safety for queer people in the South.
“The time to do it is now, so that we make sure Oxford knows that, if it does not carry out investigative justice, or have a fair trial, the whole world is going to be watching.”
Note: Moth Moth Moth uses he/him, they/them, and she/her pronouns. This article uses they/them pronouns for consistency.