Sorrowful ceremony honors transgender people who died in past year
on November 21, 2011
The night before last Friday’s Oakland’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual international memorial service, an African-American trans woman named Chassity Porter was shot to death in West Hollywood. The killer went on to fire at another trans woman that night. Porter’s murder raised the global tally for transgendered people who died in the last year, violently or otherwise, to 222.
“Really?” said Tiffany Woods, the organizer for Oakland’s event each year, who was finishing typing her script when she received the news. “We can’t even get a break for one day?”
The Day of Remembrance was created in response to the 1998 murder of a trans woman named Rita Hester in San Francisco, which prompted a candlelight vigil. Thirteen years later, people gather in cities across the world, usually on November 20, to light candles and read names of people who can be confirmed to have died in anti-transgender crimes since the previous November 21. This year, 168 cities are known to have participated.
“It’s about giving them some closure and some dignity that they never got in life,” Woods said. She runs things a little differently from other Day of Remembrance events, though; her list includes trans people who have died not only in targeted attacks, but for any reason – whether from AIDS, suicide or unknown causes. But her event is also more than just a memorial. “I don’t want speakers here just talking about death, death, death.,” she said. “There are other issues.” Harassment is one, she said, as are HIV and access to healthcare.
Woods, a 48 year-old transgendered mother of three, in 2002 left her career casting movies in Hollywood. She moved to Oakland and founded TransVision, a program that specializes in HIV support and prevention services for transgendered people. “At that point there was no transgender service outside of Oakland and Berkeley in (Alameda) county,” she said.
Trans women in particular, Woods said, often see sex work as their only viable option. They are extremely vulnerable not only to contracting HIV, she said, but also to assault. Attackers know where the women usually work – in particular the stretch from Broadway and 14th to Martin Luther King and 16th. They know they are transgendered. They know they are carrying money.
Often, when the nearby clubs begin to close, men will yell slurs as they drive by. Sometimes, they will do more. Last February, Woods said, one of her clients was attacked. “He shot her right in the face and the throat,” Woods said. The woman lived, Woods said, but her suffering was not yet over. She was visiting Chassity Porter when Porter was gunned down on Thursday. They were cousins.
Unfortunately, Woods said, the situation has degenerated, not improved. Last year, her list of deaths worldwide had 115 names on it; this year it had nearly doubled, to 222, as reported by TransRespect Versus Transphobia, a research project by the organization Transgender Europe. Woods said she chose to hold the event at Preservation Park, located adjacent to the streets where many of her clients work, because the area is “ground zero” for transphobic attacks in Oakland.
On Friday, speakers took turns reading the names, organized by month. Mournful string music played softly over the PA, and the rhythmic reading of the list was punctuated by the sounds of muffled weeping among the more than 200 people in attendance. Over time, the list became a somber sort of mantra – name, age, country, place of death. Name, age, country, place of death. Repeating phrases began to emerge:
“In the streets in Brazil.”
“In her apartment.”
“In a park.”
Some entries evoked grisly images:
“She was found in a river.”
“In a wasteland.”
“In a bathroom.”
Others hinted at the invisibility of many transgendered people in their communities. “Name unknown, age not reported,” and “Female name unknown” were common throughout the night. Woods said she made the decision not to give the women’s male names, even if they were the only names on record. “They are all transgendered,” she said. “Their male name is disrespectful, even in death.”
One story told in detail was that of a local trans woman named Tracy Bumpus, who worked as a program assistant at the AIDS Project of the East Bay, and was friends with many of the organizers and speakers of Friday’s event. Bumpus survived violence during her days working as a prostitute, and was beginning to turn her life around, said speaker Andrea Horn.
Like the other trans sex workers mentioned Friday night, Bumpus had been the target of violence in her life. Unlike most, however, she fought back, and won. Once, Horn said, she was attacked by a john with a knife. “They fought over it,” Horn said. “She killed him in self defense.” She said that Bumpus–who was poor, struggled with addiction and had no family support–was unable to pay for a legal defense, and went to jail for the killing.
In another instance, Bumpus was the target of a transphobic tirade from a New York City Transit Authority employee. She sued the NYCTA, and won a large settlement. She never received the money, however, or the the masters degree she had just earned in social policy. “In one of life’s cruel tricks–” Horn spoke between rapid gasps of breath–“she died the day she got her masters degree.” The cause of her death last June was not mentioned, though the program said “she was killed by all the trials and tribulations … that trans women face.”
The mood of Oakland’s Day of Remembrance was often sad, but also uplifting. Speakers reminded the audience that the event is about more than just mourning death; it’s also about fighting, as Tracy Bumpus did, for the right to exist in the world. That is the purpose of reading all those names, Woods said–to refuse to be made invisible.
“They may have killed, but they are not erasing our memory,” she said. “They can’t do that to us.”
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