Vigil for lives lost to hate

Trans Day of Remembrance seeks to honour those who died for their gender identities

Shandi Strong has watched everyone, from her community to the police, fail to treat transgender people with basic human respect.

“I could list a dozen friends that are trans who are routinely hassled in public, insulted or hassled on the bus, misgendered intentionally to make them angry or upset,” Strong says. “That’s something we need to learn as people, is to learn to respect people properly.” 

For that reason, as well as having transitioned herself, she became the head organizer for the Trans Day of Remembrance, a vigil where the LGBTQ+ community comes together with allies and friends to honor the trans lives that were lost in 2016.

The Buffalo Gals drum group offered songs to open and close the vigil.

Elder Velma Orvis offered an opening prayer and smudge throughout the vigil.

This year’s vigil was held at the University of Winnipeg on Nov 20. The vigil involved speeches from various members of the community and a reading of the names of the 295 transgender people who died over the last year. 

Strong notes that none of these murders happened in Canada. “Remember though, for every human rights victory that we have earned here, there was an atrocity that had to be overcome. We are learning that our own history is not so pristine.”

The task of reading the names, ages, date of death and location of death of each person can be quite emotional and is shared by a group of both trans people and their allies. This year, readers included Mandy Fraser, Donna Kurt, Veronica Gingles, Lara Rae, Rhiannon Frost, Charlie Primeau, Tannis Cherewan, Maybelle Darling and Cynthia Fortlage.

“We have to remember that for every hater out there, there are allies beside us,” Strong says.

Charlie Primeau is one of the readers who shared the names of 295 trans people lost over the last year.

Charlie Primeau’s tattoo was created by an artist who works uniquely with trans clients.

Rhiannon Frost joins in the reading of names.

Maybelle Darling joins in the reading of names.

Logan Oxenham, a member of the transgender community who was scheduled to speak at the event, says trans lives are often ignored and diminished, even before they die, and this is a way to give those lives the respect they deserve. 

“Often, trans lives are erased and forgotten about,” Oxenham says. “They’re erased before their lives are erased from the planet sometimes. It’s just to ensure that their lives are known and they did exist.” 

Oxenham’s statement was read at the vigil by Michael McCallum, as Oxenham wasn’t able to attend: “One way we can honour those lives taken is to be sure those lives weren’t taken in vain. We must continue to advocate for our basic human rights, we must give a voice to those whose voices were taken away.”

The Canadian Criminal Code and Human Rights Act doesn’t calculate gender identity into its hate crime statistics, which means the public and advocacy groups have no way of knowing exactly how many transgender people have been killed due to prejudice. There are statistics for other aspects of a hate crime, including race and sex.

Strong says trans lives aren’t taken seriously by the law or by the public.

“All too often, when a trans person is murdered, people are all too quick to say ‘oh they were a hooker, or it was this or that,’” Strong says. “These are people with families and feelings … A lot of people don’t care enough to look into it. If (it was) a white cis person … ‘we’ll look into that right away.’”

“We’re often the victim of, ‘oh yeah, we’ll look into it when we have time.’”

The 295 transgender people honoured at the vigil were murdered from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, according to Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) research project. The majority of these murders happen in Brazil, Mexico and the United States. A press release notes these are just the deaths that were discovered by the organization. Most countries do not produce data on murdered trans and gender diverse people, and the real number of deaths is likely much higher.

Oxenham says that in order for trans lives to be protected, allies of the LGBTQ+ community need to come forward and support their transgender friends and family.

“Those folks who call themselves allies of the LGBTQ+ community, I challenge them to stand by their words of allyship. I challenge them to do something,” Oxenham says. “Tweeting about your disgust is one thing, but actually standing by your trans community members, and giving them an opportunity to speak, is really important.” 

Veronica Gingles shared in the reading of names for the second time this year. “It’s tough to get through when you’re reading names, especially … the youngest ones and the oldest ones are (hard), they hit hard. But have hope. I’ve been out for two years. Life is better than it’s ever been before. I’m 53 years old, and it was tough, but it was worth the wait. Life has gotten amazing.”

Veronica Gingles and Kelly Emily Harrison display their matching engagement rings, featuring stones coloured for the Pride rainbow.

Donna Kurt has been a reader of names for two years now, and she hopes that through this event, more people will join in to support the trans community: “When we all work together, when it comes to establishing rights, whether it be asking for improved health services, or more protection, or work protection and other issues that are basic human rights … if we have a more unified voice and everyone gets on board, we’re stronger in numbers.”

Charlotte Nolin stepped up to the podium to make an impromptu speech at the end of the vigil: “When I came out last year after 40 years of being in the closet, it was children who gave me the strength, gave me the courage to be who I am, to be true to myself. Today, I walk with my sisters in pride. I’ve devoted my life to helping others. And when I think of all the ones who’ve left us over the years, because of racism, bigotry, fear.” 

At the conclusion of the vigil, Micah Pullis stepped up to the podium to deliver a powerful message: “I have hope that one day, we will have a transgender day of remembrance, and there will be not one name read. I have a hope that one day we’ll come together and we’ll celebrate, because we have come so far. I come from a Christian background, and I’m told all the time that only Jesus can effect change. But each of our lives is a gift, and this world is a gift to us, and what do you do with a gift? You do whatever you damn well please with it. So I look out at every single face here, and I see the gift that has been given to each of you, and I am so stunned and so proud to call you my brothers and sisters, because I know that through each and every one of us, my dream of that celebration can happen.”

A list of transgender lives lost can be found at transrespect.org, or tdor.info.

Published in Volume 71, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 24, 2016)

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