by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Nicolette Ybarra and Connor Maddocks
Nicolette (right) with Jolene (left) and Dee (center)
Marchers near the Pride Flag
On Thursday, November 17 I went to the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. I’ve been to these events before and found them profound and moving, even though at the start of the last one I told one person there I looked forward to the day when we don’t have to have them anymore. For the Transgender Day of Remembrance is just what its name implies: a memorial ceremony in which the victims of anti-Trans violence in the United States and elsewhere in the world are honored and acknowledged.
The event was advertised as lasting from 6 to 9 p.m., but it began with an assembly outside the Center and a march through the heart of Hillcrest, with people bearing candles to honor the Transgender victims of hate crimes. One woman who saw the march later joined it, followed it into the Center and became one of the volunteers who read the names of victims. She called the event “awesome” and told the audience at the program, which started at 7 p.m. in the Center’s big hall, that she had been moved to join in and read a name.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance was started in 1998 by Gwendolyn Anne Smith to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a Transwoman who was killed that year. It has grown into an elaborate commemoration put on in various cities across the U.S. and elsewhere. The names of the victims, along with whatever is known about them — their ages, where and how they were killed, and some personal information to put a face on each one — are posted to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) Web site at http://www.glaad.org/tdor, and groups in various cities download this information and use it as the basis for their own event.
This year the official GLAAD site listed 15 U.S. victims of Trans-related murders, though as more information came in about additional incidents the list was expanded to include 26 names. Unlike in previous years, the 2016 San Diego Transgender Day of Remembrance included only Trans people killed in the United States, though the organizers were well aware of incidents in other countries. Indeed, though the GLAAD list contained just one victim from Mexico, the San Diego organizers knew of at least 10 and decided to honor them by having two featured speakers from the Trans community in Tijuana.
“In Mexico, the country of my parents and my grandparents, the country with whom many of us have a connection either to its people or its culture, the country right next door, there has been since September of this year a wave of Transphobic hate crimes, with many of these actually leading to murder against persons of our community, the Transgender community,” said activist Nicolette Ybarra. “And I say our community, because regardless of this or that border, we are to be found everywhere. For we are truly a worldwide community, and the welfare of our Trans brothers and sisters over there, as well as elsewhere, is also of concern to many of us here.”
According to Ybarra, at least 10 Trans people were killed in Mexico in the 2 ½ months preceding the event, even though the GLAAD Web site listed just one Mexican victim for all of 2016. She said that would be proportionate to 30 Trans murders in the U.S., a country with three times Mexico’s population.
Ybarra compared her status as Transgender with her activism in the U.S. and Mexico, and said that in both she crosses arbitrary “border” lines. “I have always had a relationship with the border,” she explained. “Or, rather, with many borders. With the border between male and female; with the border between just simply ‘infected’ with HIV and actually living with the disease and the stigma; the border between Spanish and English; and of course, in geographical terms, the border between the United States and Mexico.
“My position relative to the border has varied over the years,” she added.” Sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, and sometimes on both, it would seem, concurrently. Now I’m sure this sounds complex, but I’m also sure that this is something that we as Trans folks can more readily understand, because it is within our own individual journeys as we transition, we face and deal with multiple issues, often all at the same time. These different states of being along the journey of my life have led me to become aware of and concerned with various communities and issues, in particular that of the Transgender community, both here and also beyond the border.”
This year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance was also held under the long shadow of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. Presidential election just nine days before. In a November 15 column in the British newspaper The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/15/trump-disaster-modern-masculinity-sexual-nostalgian-oppressive-men-women), Jacqueline Rose wrote that, among other things, Trump’s supporters boldly asserted an old-fashioned definition of masculinity that regarded Trump’s insults towards women, and his claim that he could sexually assault them with impunity, as sources of pride, not shame. Trump, Rose wrote, “tapped into the deepest, most disturbing strata of the human mind. And men, as well as women, will be the casualties.”
A New York Times Web post on Rose’s article (http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/11/20/donald-trumps-victory-threatens-to-upend-progressive-notions-of-masculinity/) quoted a specifically anti-Trans tweet by Joe Walsh, a former Congressmember from Illinois and now a Right-wing talk radio host. “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary,” Walsh tweeted on November 6, two days before the election. “If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.”
Many members of the audience at the Transgender Day of Remembrance expressed fear of what a Trump Presidency could do to the status of Trans people in the U.S. But there was also a spirit of defiance, as if they were there to show the nation and the world that even the election of a President based on openly racist, sexist, homophobic and Transphobic appeals would not deter them from speaking out and saying that Trans lives matter.
Connor Maddocks, Center staff member and a key organizer of the event, used the threat of Trump’s presidency to call for unity within the Queer community. “With this election that we’ve just had, with the way things are going in our world, more than ever we all need to be together and work together,” he said. “And we need to stop tearing each other apart within our community. We have got to stop putting each other down and tearing each other apart and saying things about each other on Facebook that are not nice. How can we expect the rest of the world to stand with us and respect us if we don’t do it in our own community?”
The highlight of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, as usual, was the solemn ceremony of the reading of the names of the victims. Each name was followed by the lighting of a candle and the sounding of a bell. The people reading the names were asked to do so in the first person, as if they themselves were the victims. They eloquently turned the bare facts listed on the cards with the information about each victim into moving human stories, emphasizing the tragedy that prejudice and hatred had snuffed out these lives too soon.
At least four of the information cards indicated that the victims had been “misgendered” — meaning that media reports had referred to them by their birth sex rather than the gender they preferred or were presenting as when they were killed. Nicolette Ybarra had mentioned this in her speech as well. “In the reports of some major media outlets,” she said, “when a Transwoman is murdered, she is labeled as a man; or, more salaciously, as ‘a man in a dress.’ In death, as in life, she is still a man in the eyes of many. And in addition to this Transphobic attitude about our existence, our sexuality, and our identity, the fact is that there is no trustworthy central database to keep track of Transphobic and homophobic hate crimes, which can feed into our being mischaracterized, misunderstood and mistreated, in life as well as in death.”
The name I was given to read was that of Sierra Bush, a.k.a. Simon Bush, from Boise County, Idaho. The card I was given gave their age at 18 and said they were “gender non-conforming” (which is why I’m referring to Sierra with the plural pronoun), though a report on their memorial service I later found online (http://people.com/human-interest/sierra-bush-idaho-student-dead/) gave their name as Sierra and identified them as “she.” Sierra’s body was found near Idaho City, Idaho on October 22, 2016, though they had been missing for over a month. Sierra’s parents told police they thought Sierra had been kidnapped.
The online report on Sierra Bush’s death, written by Alexia Fernandez and published October 28, contained a comment from Boise Police Sergeant Justin Kendall. “Sierra’s disappearance has been suspicious from the beginning and this is a tragic discovery for everyone who knows her,” Kendall said in his statement. “Every missing person’s case is initially investigated as being suspicious, and Sierra was not the type to disappear without telling anyone. For weeks, our detectives have been following up on leads and our investigation is ongoing.”
The story also filled out more details on Sierra Bush’s life than I had been given in the card from which I read. It said that they were a freshman student at Boise State University, studying engineering in the Honors College and participating in a wide range of school activities. Sierra’s memorial at the Boise State campus was so well attended, Fernandez wrote, that the organizers had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the large crowd. The story also contained quotes from Sierra’s friends that fleshed out their portrait and showed how inspirational they had been.
“One of my favorite quotes from her is, ‘If I can be as weird as I am, you can be as you as you are,’” Sierra’s friend Samantha McGraw told local TV news station KTVB. McGraw said she and Sierra’s other friends are committed to carrying on her legacy, which McGraw described as “loving yourself, being what you want to be and not letting anybody stand in the way of your dreams.”