Sunday, November 25, 2007

Transgender Day of Remembrance Honors 15 Dead


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

They ranged in age from late teens to their 50’s. They were shot, beaten, stabbed, struck with blunt instrments. Usually their killers just left them to die, but sometimes they tortured or raped them before they killed them and, in at least one especially gruesome case, dismembered them and put the pieces on public display in tribute to their sick idea of God. Some of the victims were sex workers, possibly meeting their ends when their last clients discovered a little something extra between their legs and reacted far more violently than just throwing up in a toilet like the guy in The Crying Game. They were the 15 reported victims of Transgender-related hate crimes in the world thus far in 2007, plus the no doubt far greater number whose deaths were never reported to the authorities at all.

They were honored worldwide in a series of events called the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held on November 20 every year. The event is held in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder in 1998 kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” Web project,, and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Since then, the event has grown to encompass memorials in dozens of cities across the world. San Diego’s contribution included a candlelight march through the streets of Hillcrest and a subsequent rally and commemoration at the LGBT Center, which included volunteers from the audience reading the names of the victims and telling, in stories written in the first person, how they died.

Perhaps the most intense story was that of Hasan “Tamara” Sabeh, who was killed January 11, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Ironically, her birth name was the same as that of the legendary medieval Afghan gang leader who invented a resinous derivative of marijuana which his gang members smoked when they weren’t killing people for hire. The words “hashish” and “assassin” both derive from the original Hasan’s name.) The 21st century Hasan/Tamara was a middle-aged professional in Iraq’s fashion industry — it’s an indication of how far Iraq has fallen since the U.S. invasion that under Saddam Hussein, despite his brutality, there was enough personal freedom in Iraq that it could have a fashion industry — who was murdered by a gang of Shi’a Muslim “morality enforcers” who subsequently cut her body into pieces and exhibited them publicly. When Tamara’s sister-in-law tried to intervene, they killed her too.

Other victims included Keittirat Longnawa of Rassada, Thailand, who was beaten by nine youths who then slit her throat; Moira Donaire of Viña del Mar, Chile, who was stabbed five times by a street vendor; Michelle “Chela” Carrasco of Santiago, Chile, who was found in a pit with her face completely disfigured; Ruby Rodriguez of San Francisco, who was strangled and found naked in the street; Erica Keel of Philadelphia, who was repeatedly run over by a car driven by the man who had picked her up for sex; Bret T. Turner of Madison, Wisconsin, killed with multiple stab wounds; Victoria Arellano of San Pedro and Maribelle Reyes of Houston, both people with AIDS who were denied treatment; Oscar Mosqueda of Daytona Beach, Florida, who was shot to death; and someone listed only as “unidentified male clad in felame attire,” who died in Kingston, Jamaica of gunshot wounds to the chest and lower back.

At least three of the victims, Aldomiro “Tatiana” Gomes, Manuela di Cesare and a woman identified only as Stefania, were killed in Italy — which probably says more about the Italian government’s willingness to take these crimes seriously than any special vulnerability for Transgender people in Italy.

Ironically, for an event dedicated to commemorating the struggles and sacrifices of Transgender people, surprisingly few Transgender people actually appeared at the Center’s rally. Connor Maddocks of the Transgender Advocacy and Services Center, who was originally scheduled to MC, had to drop out at the last minute due to a family emergency. Caroline Desert, the Center’s public policy coordinator, filled in. The featured speaker was also a longtime community activist, Mama’s Kitchen director Alberto Cortes, but he too was a “Trans Ally” — as the buttons many attendees were wearing proclaimed them — rather than a Transgender person himself.

Cortes began his speech by comparing anti-Trans hate violence to similar crimes based on race and sexual orientation, including murder victims James Byrd and Matthew Shepard as well as “hundreds of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11.” He said that hate crimes based on gender identity have been especially invisible because all too often Transgender people themselves have been invisible. He quoted pioneering Transgender activists Ralph “Jenny June” Werker — who 85 years ago asked “whether you are at last ready to demand justice for the androgyne” — and James Cromwell, who wrote in a poem, “I have been told I am a figment of my own imagination. … They may keep me out of the bounds of their imagination, but I refuse to be invisible.”

“I must know myself first,” Cortes said. “What are my biases and assumptions about Transgender people? How do I react to people in my community with mixed-gender appearance? Do I know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity? Do I understand that they see traditional gender terms as repressive? Do I know that most Transgender murders are unsolved, and many Transgender people have died at the hands of lovers, medical personnel, police and even parents? Do I know what message it sends when anti-Transgender attackers receive light sentences? The questions are more abundant than the answers.”

Cortes called for “comprehensive laws against hate crimes and discrimination in employment and housing that include Transgender people” — a cause that recently faced a setback in the U.S. Congress, where at the last minute the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was passed by the House of Representatives, but only after protection for Transgender people had been removed from the bill. “Until we educate our own community, including our LGBT [Queer] community; until we have a society that provides equal access to happiness without fear of violence and death; we still have to mourn and weep for the loss of our Transgender brothers and sisters. Let us remember our fallen.”

The event ended with Leon Powell’s reading of a poem by 13th century Persian poet Rumi, “Gone to the Unseen,” which ended, “Now the words are over/And the pain they bring is gone./Now you have gone to rest/In the arms of the Beloved.”