By Sharon Gittleman
FERNDALE – Ten men and women faced the crowded pews at Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit last Thursday, their faces grim. Each read a list of names and told the tragic stories of the last moments of the transgender people they came to remember.
“My name is forgotten,” read one of the women. “I was living in Neuquen, Argentina. Police were called to my apartment by neighbors reporting shouting and the police found me inside. I had struggled with my murderer. I was beaten to death.”
That killing was just one of 378 murders of transgender people since 1970.
Dozens of gays, lesbians, transgender and allied people gathered together in Ferndale for one of many Transgender Day of Remembrance Vigils last week to mark that sad statistic and to show their respect for a community whose lives are often discounted and ridiculed.
Outside the church, markers were sunk deep into the grass lining the walkway to the church’s front door. The markers were emblazoned with maps of states and countries and the death toll of their transgender citizens – from 9 killed in Italy to two in Iowa.
Four murders were listed on the Michigan marker.
Inside the church, a poster titled, “In Memory of Nikki,” was placed in front of the altar. A rainbow candelabra was lit in the victims’ honor.
Tears streaked down the face of several of the people reading victims’ names. Two women touched the shoulder of a third when her voice broke as she read her list of murdered transgender people.
Some of the victims had no names – they were listed in police records only as “unidentified man.” One of those individuals whose name was lost, was a three-year-old boy, killed because his father didn’t want to “raise a sissy.”
At the service, Michael Odom, program coordinator for La Comunidad, spoke out against crimes directed against members of the transgender community. He called them examples of “extreme brutality and hatred.”
“An important aspect for us all to understand is that hate crimes against any marginalized person or persons, are message crimes,” he said. “These crimes just don’t affect the friends and families of those attacked. It affects a whole community who might interpret the message that they will be next.”
Odom said he had his own message for the victimizers.
“We stand together as a united voice and we will fight to put an end to this insanity,” he said.
Ferndale Mayor Robert Porter also spoke to those gathered for the vigil.
While Porter is straight, he was the victim of an anti-gay hate crime in 1984.
“A youth gang assumed if you were in Palmer Park, you were gay,” said Porter just before he addressed the crowd. “They attacked four people that day. Three died. I lived.”
Porter said he spent more than two weeks in a coma and had brain surgery following the attack.
“I had to learn to read again,” he said.
When his attackers were caught and asked why they assaulted their victims, they said, “who cares, they were probably fags,” Porter said.
Porter told the men and women at the memorial service that he felt compelled to come to the vigil.
“We are all family, whether you’re straight, transgender or gay,” he said.
Governor Jennifer Granholm added her voice to the gathering – a proclamation she issued that was read to the assembly. The decree was a “certificate of tribute” in honor of the seventh annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Many in the crowd raised candles in the air to show respect for the murdered transgender people’s memory at the readings’ completion.
Some searched for answers to the question of why individuals were willing to kill total strangers who were transgender.
“People are filled with rage and hate and self-hatred and they act out,” said Bobby Phelps, who was himself a victim of anti-gay beatings. “Someone splashed me with a cup of tobacco spit and yelled, ‘faggot.'”
Susan Porter said that, as a transgender woman, the stories she heard made her feel sad, frustrated and frightened.
“We need to get people to understand we’re people just like them who want to live our lives in peace,” she said.
Transgender Day of Remembrance events were also held in Flint, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo.