Richmond Trans Community Remembers the Dead
The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is a powerful reminder of the institutionalized discrimination people still experience around the world.
The ceremony, celebrated in cities the world over, is a commemoration to those who have died because of violence against trans individuals. It is organized locally, with minimal funding; often utilizing a very small network of volunteers who are able to be public about their gender variance. Richmond TDOR events, much like other cities, culminate with a candlelight vigil and ceremony where the names of those lost are read to honor their memory. This year, over 35 names will be read – some of them are simply “unknown” because of the cultures where they lived and the lifestyle they were forced into.
The trans community is often abused and neglected – trans folks face daunting hardships in addition to those faced by the broader LGBT community. In data recently released by Equality Virginia, 80% of trans people experience harassment or mistreatment at work. 22% lost their job over their gender variance. 44% believe their identity lead them to being denied a job.
In elementary through high school, 74% admit to being the subject of harassment, and 35% saying they were victims of physical assault.
Kenneth Decker, a Richmond transplant who helped with Richmond Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2007, has his own reasons to be supportive of the trans movement. Though he identifies as a gay man, Decker said he had lost his first lover to LGBT-related violence and he’s felt a need to participate ever sense.
“We need to take stock of what has happened and remember and honor those individuals whose lives have been taken from us.” Said Decker when explaining why the TDOR is important. “Mainstream society needs to be examined and challenged in order to change the culture which allows such violence to occur.”
Decker first got involved in TDOR events when he lived in Hartford, CT. In 2003, he worked with local groups and learned the ropes of organizing. Shortly after he moved to Richmond in 2006, he met with local organizers and activists at Virginia Pride. He was humble about his own involvement. “The stuff was there, they just needed someone to pull it together – it wasn’t anything magical I did.”
Richmond’s own activist culture had held smaller TDOR events prior. VCU and U of R students had participated in localized events – a vigil was held in 04 and 05 in Triangle park by the Virginia Queer Space project – but the community as a whole hadn’t really organized behind a single event. Decker said the excitement behind the wave of marriage amendments fired up the LGBT community in Richmond and it became a matter of putting the pieces together.
Decker had a leadership role within the TDOR movement up until last year. He was proud of several milestones connected to the TDOR. In 2009, a state-wide study on domestic violence within the LGB community was conducted by Quillin Drew at the Virginia Anti-violence project. The research included transgender individuals, a first for a LGBT domestic violence study. “Every study after that includes trans people was because of the work done here in Richmond.”
Additionally, in 2010, a memorial tree was planted at the Gay Community Center of Richmond and a spokesperson for the Mayor attended, marking the first time the city’s highest elected official had participated in the event.
It isn’t easy to organize an event like this – the efforts transgender people go through to change their gender create a few problems when organizing. The danger of being a visible trans person can affect your professional life, and after completing the transition process, some people choose to leave their old life and the baggage that came with it. “It’s difficult,” said Decker, “as an ally, to defend people who don’t want to be identified.”
This year, Decker felt the need to step back, as did several other organizers of the event, and allow the event to be guided by new voices within Richmond’s trans community. Wes McWillen was one individual who took up that cause.
Though he had only attended one TDOR event in the past, McWillen said he felt a responsibility to help his community when and where he could. “The community is not that big,” said McWillen, “so it really is up to us as community members, to get involved if we want the events to better serve us.”
McWillen only came out as trans about a year ago. He had considered himself an ally for some time prior, but with the realization of his own trans-identity came his feeling of duty. “I feel a personal responsibility to get involved as much as I can.”
McWillen, even as the media manager for this year’s TDOR, still keeps his trans life a secret from his work place. He is all too familiar with the struggles that trans folks face day to day.
“If you want to be able to pay your bills, you can’t be out. Even if you feel like anyone with a pair of eyes or who knows you could figure out your history, you still feel like you can’t talk about it or you can’t share it because of the climate in a lot of jobs.”
That’s why he’s gotten involved to the level he has. McWillen knows events like these increase visibility for the marginalized trans community, ideally making it easier for some. He hopes the memorializing ceremony spreads awareness of the issues facing so many.
“It’s a human issue. It’s about taking time to consider that these people were murdered in cold blood, simply for walking around, looking and behaving the way they are most comfortable. It’s about taking time to come together, and seeing what connects us all.”
Another new addition to the organizing team is Robyn Deane. Deane made headlines in 2010 when she come out as both trans and the former brother-in-law to Gov. Bob Mcdonnell. She has since taken on an activist role, not afraid to confront those with preconceived notions of the trans movement. She understands, firsthand, the struggles the community faces.“The transgender person is very visible in society… with that being the case, we tend to be the whipping post for anybody’s anger or predjuce against the LGBT community. Someone that’s gay can operate very stealth and no one will notice the difference, but if you’re a guy in a dress, and you’re transitioning, its a little bit tougher. You end up being the target.”
Deane had participated in past TDOR events, and when discussions began about holding this year’s event, she rose to the challenge. “We are not a huge community – our universe of volunteers is very small. We have a lot of people who aren’t ready to be public.”
There are concerns with an holding an event like the Transgender Day of Remembrance: the disillusioning effect of a funeral-like event on a community that continues to face so many challenges.
Dr. Lisa Griffin, a self-identified queer clinical psychologist, spoke at a TDOR event earlier in the week – a salon presented by the Alliance for Progressive Values. Griffin specializes in transgender issues in her practice, and has been a speaker at TDOR events in Charlotte in the past. She recognizes the challenge of trying to stay positive about a movement using the dark imagery of a candlelight vigil.
“The emphasis on loss and grief can be very motivating for some to try and change the culture… It’s like a funeral in that regard; they are sad but we still have them. It can have a demoralizing impact on some, though, make people feel like, ‘Every year we have more names to read. Every year, more names than the year before,’ making some pople feel hopeless.”
But much in the way that we celebrate the life of someone at a funeral, Griffin says the TDOR can be seen as a way of positively remembering those that were lost.
“They are embracing and acknowledging the lives of those that were lost. It can be a call to action for changing the culture to prevent this situation from perpetuating.”
The Richmond Transgender Day of Remembrance has several events lined up starting this weekend and ending Tuesday night.
Sunday 11/18 @ 7 PM – VCU Queer Action Candle Light vigil at the VCU Amphitheater
Tuesday 11/20 @ 12 noon – TDOR Flash Mob at the VCU Compass on VCU’s Monroe PArk Campus
Tuesday 11/20 @ 12 noon – Equality in the Workplace Panel/Brown Bag Lunch at U of R Common Ground, downtown campus
Big Event Tuesday 11/20 @ 7 PM – Candlelight Memorial at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1000 Blanton Ave.
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