This year marked the 15 anniversary of Transgender Day Of Remembrance (TDOR), started in 1999 by Gwen Smith in the Bay area after the murder of Rita Hester in Boston in 1998 and the associated vigils. I helped with putting together some of the materials at that time.
When I read that there would be a candlelight gathering in a city where I used to live, I decided to go. I didn’t really expect to be the only visible transwoman in a group of 25 or 30 people.
The event was put together by the people at Schenectady Pride, lead by Michelle Rivera-Landers. These non-trans people wanted to stand up against violence, wanted to speak out about the abuse and terror they saw against others who were just trying to live the truth of their heart. Chad Putman even choked up as he talked about the stalled progress of getting transgender civil rights into New York State law.
I was moved to see all of these people coming out on a cold and snowy November 20 to remember the transpeople who lost their lives, the transpeople who face fear everyday. Taking a moment at the end of the event, I thanked them for coming and told some of my history coming out in their city.
I went on to tell the “Third Gotcha” story, explaining how transpeople who have been pounded into the closet for years feel the minefield around them, full of people who believe that transpeople are fair targets for abuse, asking for whatever they get and even people who are in so much pain over their own sacrifice to fit into the system of gender that they want to destroy and erase those who mock that sacrifice, those who offend their belief system.
Thank you, I said to them, thank you for coming out and standing as allies to transpeople.
My sharing was rewarded with hugs, a phenomenon shared across the country where non-transpeople have their heart opened by the list of violent murders of transpeople and then want to physically affirm transpeople near them, unable to hug those who died.
Driving home, I thought back fourteen years to March 23, 2000 when a transperson I knew was violently murdered just blocks from where I lived in this same city. I knew her as Stephanie, small and vulnerable, but in the papers she was he, a man named Frankie, a man who used to dress up in a skirt & heels and frequent nightspots, who ended up with their throat cut at 4:30 AM, just after the closing time of bars.
As a small community of transpeople in the area, we struggled to understand what happened. Had Stephanie brought on her own murder by her choices? Should we stand up for her? So many closeted transpeople wanted to stay away from what they saw as a morally ambiguous event, somehow believing that distance would isolate and protect them, keeping them safe in their compartments.
I knew that was not an acceptable choice, that we must stand against violence, holding attackers responsible, not their victims. It was hard to gather enough of us for a remembrance at that time, but now, 14 years later, a group of people had come together of their own accord to stand up and I was lucky enough to see that change happen. Such an amazing shift in understanding and support of people like Stephanie and I, such a more affirming world.
At that time, I wrote about our small event. I include that here:
Lillies in The Snow
9 April 2000
Who expects it to be 67° one mid-April day, and the next day to wake up with 4″ of snow on the ground? Then again, who expects to wake up one morning to find the most recent murder of a transgendered person was just a few blocks down the street in your quiet, historic residential neighbourhood?
Today, we gathered at the house where Stephanie was killed, her throat slashed at 4:30 in the morning, left in a pool of her own blood.
The snow blanketed everything, a heavy frosting glued to tree branches creating a canopy above, and the ground enshrouded by a blanket of new, pristine snow.
It was into this snow that the spray of purple lilies Karen brought fell, lying there spent, splayed out, their vibrant note of spring slicing though the lush, barren white.
My feet were frozen from standing there, the wind whipping off the river, not 200″ away blowing ice particles in my face. I stood there alone and waited, cold seeping though the toes of my boots, looking at the door where Stephanie last entered, and last left on a gurney.
Here it was, spring, and the universe chose this weather on the day we selected to gather and honour Stephanie. Only three people attended — myself, tall and all in black, Karen who came later, after feeling the arrows of disdain and hatred in the supermarket, and Denise, who not only plowed but had to be towed out of a ditch just to make it. Karen & I stood as the snow fell, talking about how Stephanie hadn’t been circumspect enough, protecting herself, and how so many transgendered people were too circumspect, unable to even try to be here. Which is the greater flaw, trusting too much or trusting to little?
We learn to hide, we transgendered people, specifically because we fear what happened to Stephanie will happen to us, because we fear the kind of stares Karen got when going to buy flowers in the supermarket will happen to us. As we hide, though, we disconnect from the world, let them assume we are ashamed and shameful, which makes it hard to stand up and say “We care that this nice person was murdered. We stand for her memory as a transgendered person.”
The snow continued to fall on the lilies Karen left in the blank snow, the snowflakes melting to form drops of dew. We walked to the river to place flowers and notes upon the water, and then held hands for a moment of prayer.
On the note I wrote, I wrote “l’chaim” — to life. May Stephanie now have the kind of life where she can bloom, and may we remember in the face of even the harshest snowstorm that covers up the green, that life is to be lived while we have it. To bloom as flowers in the snow is hard, but in the end, it is the blooming that counts, that writes our own identity against the enveloping white.
I took one more look at those purple irises in the snow as I left. There they sat, as temporary and ephemeral as any living thing, but still proudly marking the life force we knew as Stephanie.