Discrimination and violence showed no boundaries at Friday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance at the Oakland Peace Center. Mexico, Brazil and India. Maryland, Florida and Louisiana. Turkey and Canada. All these are states and countries—their names read aloud in melancholy succession at the event—in which transgendered women were murdered this year.
Some of the women, whose stories were retold Friday to honor them, were strangled, shot in the face, or burned. Others were mutilated—found in ditches or dumpsters with their genitals burned, removed, or stuffed in their mouths. Sometimes their hands and feet were bound, or wrapped in sheets.
“Some people die in car accidents, cancer or being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Tiffany Woods, program coordinator for TransVision, a program of the HIV Services Department of Tri-City Health Center, a community clinic in Fremont serving high-risk populations in Alameda County. “Trans people are killed just for the fact that they are challenging people’s perceptions of religion, gender and sexuality.”
Each year on November 20, the International Transgender Day of Remembrance is held across the world to honor transgender and gender-variant individuals killed each year in what seems specifically anti-transgender violence. The ceremony began in 1999 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was found dead from multiple stab wounds in her Massachusetts apartment.
TransVision organizes the event in Alameda County. Staffed entirely by transgender women, TransVision was one of the county’s first programs tailored specifically for transgender and transsexual women. Of the 265 women honored at Friday’s ceremony, one hit especially close to home: Brandy Martel, a former TransVision peer advocate, who was shot and killed last April in downtown Oakland. Her murder still remains unsolved.
The ceremony also honored Gwen Araujo, the transgender woman from Newark who was beaten, strangled and buried in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 2002. This October marked the ten-year anniversary of her death.
Despite the rain, more than 100 people came to the Oakland Peace Center for the ceremony. They lined the room, filing past hundreds of red and white balloons—upon which attendees were encouraged to write notes honoring this year’s victims—and tables covered with dried flowers, flickering tealight candles and photographs of the transgender women killed around the world this year.
“They’re here with us, not the way we prefer them to be here with us, but they are here with us,” Woods said, encouraging attendees to light a votive for “their fellow sisters” if they found themselves becoming overwhelmed throughout the ceremony. “As part of the healing, let’s let in the light and fill the room.” The auditorium was aglow by the evening’s end.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland Police Department spokesperson Johnna Watson, and Judge Vicky Kolakowski—the country’s first openly transgender Superior Court trial judge—spoke throughout the night. Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, was a keynote speaker. Her voice cracked as she advised transgender members of the audience to always alert their loved ones of their whereabouts, and to keep a detailed journal of their daily interactions—to use as evidence should they ever be subject to violence or hate crimes. “[Gwen] had a hard life in the end when she transitioned, and I watched it as a mother,” Guerrero said. “Every single one of these lives is precious. I don’t want your name to be added to this list.”
Anti-transgender bias compounded with racism is particularly high for transgender Latino and Latina and people of color, according to a 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality. Of the 402 transgender Latino and Latina participants questioned in the study, 34 percent said they have felt pressured to turn to prostitution or sell drugs for income. An additional 47 percent reported having attempted suicide, compared to 1.6 percent of the general U.S. population.
Friday’s ceremony was an opportunity to grieve and to mourn, but it was also a celebration to honor loved ones and the extent to which transgender acceptance has progressed. Beyoncé’s fierce dance song “Till the End of Time” played on the loudspeaker, a reminder of loss and the strength to continue on.
I just wanna live for you
I’ll never let you go
Bring your love to me
Among transgendered people, women are likelier than men to be victims of extreme violence, Woods said. “For a lot of men, they see an attractive woman and then they find out she has a gender history as a male or as a biological male—yet everything in their senses are saying she’s female and it becomes about them,” Woods said. “They start questioning their manhood, their sexuality, and it’s a place they don’t want to go. It’s easier to erase, or target, or lash out, and transfer these emotions in question.”
The ceremony is open to everyone, regardless of his or her affiliation with the LGBT community. “I’m not interested in preaching to the choir,” Woods said. “I want to educate those who have no idea. The whole point is for our community to take care of our own and to bury our own with dignity with closure.”
There are a considerable number of transgender women of color living in Alameda County, Woods said; Berkeley and Oakland are probably the most visible local areas in which being transgendered is more accepted. In conservative parts of Alameda County like Contra Costa and the southern and eastern ends of Alameda, transphobia, as the people most affected by it now call hostility to transgendered people, is much more common.
It’s a sad reality, Woods noted somberly, but she knows it’s likely that she could be reading the name of someone she knows at each year’s remembrance ceremony. “Our goal is never to have another of remembrance the following year, but there’s so much institutional bias against transgender people,” she said. “When that influences cultures and communities, you’re going to have collisions. It doesn’t matter what’s between my legs. It’s how I identify.”