After writing for Between The Lines and Pride Source for the past 22 years, I’ve lost track of exactly how many Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) vigils I’ve attended. This year was the 20th year for the Metro Detroit vigil. So, I figure I’ve covered at least half of those. But, while attending this year’s vigil, sadly, I noticed it was no different from any other.
On Friday, Nov. 19, a day before the actual TDOR, the Metro Detroit service took place at Zion Lutheran in Ferndale. There, the names of 310 transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals from across the world who died tragic, violent deaths over the past year were read aloud.
So far in 2021, 72 transgender people, mainly transgender women of color, have been killed here in the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, when they die, mention of their deaths cannot often be found on TV or in the newspaper. And when they do appear, the victims are often misgendered or referred to by what the trans community calls a “dead name.”
I know a little something about dead names. I may be a white, cisgender homosexual, but I’m one whose father threatened to kill him for being gay if ever he should see him again. Then he told me I was dead to him already and ordered me to change my name. So I did, and like many transgender men and women, the day I did was something of an Independence Day for me. I felt free and like my true self for the first time.
Now, please be clear. I’m not comparing my situation in any way, shape or form to what trans folks go through daily. I’m simply saying that as a reporter, my personal experience with a “dead name” helps me to empathize greatly and take great care to get it right when I’m covering trans issues in general. This is especially true when I’m given the somber task of reporting on another senseless murder of a trans person here in Michigan.
Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, whose body was found in bits and pieces scattered around Detroit’s east side, is a name I’ll never forget. Coko Williams, shot and left in the street to die, was another. Then there was Kelly Stough, known to many as Keanna Mattel, who was shot by a man who self-identified as a “preacher.” And I can’t forget about Natasha Keianna, whose lifeless body lay in her car decomposing for over a week before authorities responded to multiple pleas to investigate from the man whose house the car sat in front of.
But while I remember the names, I never knew the individuals. But someone did. Lots of people did. These were real living, breathing people, and they had people who loved them and whom they loved. Many had families, friends, people who valued them, sometimes relied on or counted on them. Some were parents, and all of them were somebody’s children. And none of them deserved to die for simply trying life as their authentic selves.
I don’t know the struggle of being transgender, and I’ve often remarked that I thank God I don’t. Being gay, and coming out in the ‘80s while AIDS was ravaging the community, was hard enough. Still, I look to my transgender friends, and I admire their bravery and courage. From the friend I escorted to the University of Michigan Hospital and waited on while she underwent a seven-hour long gender confirmation surgery to my own niece, who I watched embrace her transgender identity from the ground up, taking her shopping for clothes and to early doctor’s appointments to get on estrogen and testosterone blockers.
Then there are the transgender community legends I’ve written about and gotten to know over the decades, like Rachel Crandall-Crocker and Michelle-Fox Phillips. And next generation leaders like Lilianna Angel Reyes and Jey’nce Poindexter Mizrahi. I don’t just write about them. I look at them with awe. I don’t have half the strength that any one of them do.
Transgender people live fearlessly. In a sense, I suppose they have to. If fear were something they were capable of giving into, they wouldn’t be who they were — who they truly were. So I remember the dead, but I also salute the living. Not just on one day of the year, but every day of the year.