By Dawn Wolfe
FERNDALE – On Nov. 17, about a hundred people gathered at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit to observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Outside, the front yard of the church was ringed with lighted cups; each cup bore the name of one of the 350 transgendered people known to have been murdered since TDOR was begun by activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith six years ago on Nov. 20
All too many of those cups bore designations instead of names: “unknown transgender person” “unknown man wearing women’s clothing,” and even “unknown infant with ambiguous genitalia.”
Detroit transgender activists Michelle Fox-Phillips and Jamie Phillips-Fox led the ceremony, which was sponsored by TransGender Michigan, MCC of Detroit and Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center. The service was one of two major commemorations in southeastern Michigan; the others were held in Ann Arbor and were organized by Transforum and the University of Michigan’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
According to Smith, TDOR is necessary both because of the prevalence of anti-transgender violence and because so much of it goes unrecognized by the wider community.
“The problem with the tracking of hate crimes,” said Smith, “is that anti-transgender crimes are not presented as such. They are included within larger figures.”
As to the prevalence of anti-transgender hate crimes, Smith estimates that, “a little more than one person is killed each month due to anti-transgender violence.”
Those losses were felt deeply at MCCD. The first speaker introduced by Phillips-Fox, MCC’s Rev. Mark Bidwell, spoke of helping set up the light display earlier that evening.
“All I could think of as we put up the cups was – no more cups, no more names,” he said.”
The next speaker, the Triangle Foundation’s Sean Kosofsky, called anti-transgender violence, “A plague in our society. Transgender people are some of the most powerful and peaceful people I know.”
Atiba Seitu, the Program Supervisor for the Ruth Ellis Center, compared the violence he has experienced as a black male with the experience of the transgender youth with whom he works every day.
“As a black male, you’re prone to any amount of violence,” he said, “but the violence that they face is over the top. I can’t imagine any group being more oppressed and discriminated against than transgender people. These people really face the threat of violence every day, just because of who they are.”
“We all need to look at ourselves and our own attitudes toward trans folk,” he continued, calling on our community as a whole to be more welcoming to our transgender brothers and sisters.
Transman and community activist Don Sidelinker remembered victim Tyra Hunter, who died after a car accident in Washington, D.C. when paramedics halted her treatment on discovering male genitalia under female clothing. Sidelinker called the event at MCCD, “A very positive way to express our grief and our loss – we’re here because we care enough to remember them.”
“We can’t stop the big numbers,” he said, “but we each in our own way can do something to make a difference.”
The most moving speaker at the event, which included a reading by Gaye Tischler and the recitation of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, was Rachel Crandall, executive director of TransGender Michigan, who spoke of the loneliness and isolation expressed by many callers to the TransGender Michigan hotline.
“Sometimes I get calls from people who are so lonely, who are so scared to go outside, who want to reach out but don’t know what to do,” she said. “They are isolated, and dying quietly that way.”
Of the cups lighting the front yard, Crandall said, “So many of the cups said things like ‘Unknown transgender person,’ or ‘man wearing women’s clothing.’ I realized – that could be me.”
Crandall told the audience about the fear she feels as a transwoman and about the need she feels to always be on her guard, even in the daytime.
“This shouldn’t have to happen to any of us,” she said. “This has to stop! I’m so angry that I can’t contain it anymore.”
Crandall closed by calling on the audience to become a part of the community, “so people don’t have to die alone in isolation.”
After the speakers came the reading of the names. It took thirteen people over a minute each to read them all – sharing the stories of a few, struggling with unfamiliar names, and deeply feeling the absence of the very people who could have helped them pronounce the names correctly.
The ceremony closed with the shared lighting of candles and a silent moment of reflection and remembrance.
Cause to hope?
In the midst of the grief and anger of the memorial service, there were moments that gave cause to hope that the victims of anti-transgender violence have not died in vain.
Seitu spoke of the Ruth Ellis Center’s plans to expand their services to include job training and substance abuse programs. Crandall talked about the TransGender Michigan hotline, a service to help alleviate the isolation felt by so many members of this part of our community.
Smith said in an interview with BTL that, while the violence has continued, awareness is growing.
“What we are seeing is an increase in awareness that there is a problem,” Smith said. “We’re seeing people address it, and treat it as a serious issue. Police are aggressively working on anti-transgender murders, and we’re seeing them making it to court. I suspect we shall soon see the death of the ‘trans-panic’ defense that has been used in trans murder trials for decades.”
“Unknown transgender person.” “Unknown man wearing women’s clothing.” “Unknown infant with ambiguous genitalia.” Ultimately, the Transgender Day of Remembrance exists to heighten that awareness. And while the day may never give these unknown victims of violence a name, it may someday help stop their number from growing.