The heat and humidity of summer in the Gayborhood has exploded into the brisk colors of fall. The celebrations and vibrancy of Pride and OutFest and the Trans* March are over. And now, for me, is the annual emotional turmoil of International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a celebration of life, but of lives ended in tragedy and brutality.
Rita Hester was a transgender African-American woman who was murdered in Allston, Mass., on Nov. 28, 1998. An outpouring of community grief and anger led to a candlelight vigil attended by approximately 250 people. That vigil inspired the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Since then, TDOR has grown with memorials and life celebrations held all across the globe, this year on Thursday, Nov. 20.
Each year, TDOR revives a wave of emotions in me. It brings back the memory of the death of my mentor, Clare Cameron, who looked out for me in my early teens. Clare taught me street smarts, how to distinguish between the guys who wanted company and the predators with the easy smiles who hung out in the bars and clubs we frequented. This was survival training at its best because, at that time, being gay was illegal. Being openly trans-identified was illegal and was often, and still can be, fatal.
Clare was, in essence, my sister. In my eyes, she could do no wrong. Of course, everyone makes mistakes. One cold, raw February night, in a rush to get home, Clare took a shortcut. Her body was discovered two days later. To my eternal shame, out of fear, I did not attend her funeral. No one did. Since that time, I have become an activist, working so that one day change will come, and that things will be different — that none of us will have to live in fear. Change comes slowly.
In September, two gay men were assaulted, one severely beaten, right here in Philadelphia. Almost instantly the incident went viral. Overnight, social media lit up with news of the hate crime, as did local and national media, including MSNBC, the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Daily News, the San Francisco Chronicle and in the pages of most of the gay press nationwide.
It was an appalling attack and we are all disgusted by it. But, paradoxically, the outrage that I think I should be feeling is strangely absent. There are times when I wonder if I’ve been so brutalized, so inured to my brothers and sisters being beaten and murdered, that my ability to feel has been compromised: Is this a form of PTSD?
For the last five years, I have coordinated the Philadelphia Transgender Day of Remembrance. Last year I stepped down from that role, partly because I have held too many battered bodies in emergency rooms, given too many eulogies and attended too many funerals and memorials.
This city that I love with such passion has taken the lives of so many transwomen, mostly transwomen of color; I know of at least 19. When these senseless murders occur, I hear no real public outrage. There can be notes in PGN and a few people may attend a protest rally in Love Park. Historically, it seems that these killings are of a low priority for the police; arrests are the exception, rather than the rule. Even if there are arrests and trials, the same old clichés about gay-panic defense and deceptive transgender people are rolled out to “justify” the attack.
Charles Sargent, the alleged murderer of Diamond Williams, is using this defense. In July 2013, Ms. Williams’ dismembered body parts were found scattered in a vacant lot in North Philly. Even in death, the violation of Ms. Williams continued with some media reports describing her as “a man dressed in women’s clothing.” All of this leads me to conclude that trans people, and especially transwomen from minority backgrounds, are seen as disposable. Where is the outrage?
Why should this be so? Marketing a good news item with a solid headline can be difficult; sensationalism and prurience, on the other hand, are always an easy sell. The lives of trans people are commonly thought by significant parts of society to be represented by drag queens, the clowns on “The Jerry Springer Show” and gay men like RuPaul. The reality is that trans people are civil engineers, lawyers, physicians, electricians, scientists, police officers, nurses and a slew of hardworking people in every walk of life.
So how do we bring about change? How do people begin to accept trans citizens and support them? How do we end the fear of trans people, the hatred that leads people to think it is acceptable to attack trans people, that they are somehow legitimate targets of hate crimes? That investigating crimes against trans people are low-priority cases? That sensationalizing reports of attacks in the media is legitimate journalism?
Diamond was a woman brutally attacked and murdered. Her body was partially dismembered. She was a woman, a human being. She was not “a man dressed in women’s clothing,” and therefore someone who could understandably be brutalized.
Progress has been painfully slow, though steady, with the path littered with bodies of our sisters and brothers. It is a process that will be strengthened and moved forward by trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people being out and visible. Everyone who is visible is helping to change how the world views all LGBTQ people. Being visible puts us in the norm, the mainstream of society and right alongside everybody else. (By the way, you probably met trans people and never knew they were trans, just as it is not always possible to determine that a person is a heterosexual.) Ultimately, we are Philadelphians, we are all family and we all deserve much better than this.
Dawn Munro is an LGBTQ activist, a member of the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative and serves on the LGBT Police Liaison Committee. Munro is the recipient of the 2014 Jaci Adams OutProud Transgender Award for community service.