Friday, November 20, 2009

Day Of Remembrance, And Remembering What It's About

"Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go.
Heard of some gravesites out by the highway,
A place where nobody knows.
The sound of gunfire off in the distance,
I'm getting used to it now." — Life During Wartime, the Talking Heads

Today is officially Transgender Day of Remembrance (DOR) across the globe. For me, it was last week in Chicago for their Day of Remembrance. Chicago does theirs a little early as Kimberly Nicole and Cyndi Richards professional set up and film the event there in the Windy City in order to have it edited and uploaded onto YouTube in order to coincide with Day of Remembrance.

The Chicago event was moving, and the location in New Spirit Church of Oak Park was an excellent stage for it. According to Rev. Bradley Mickelson, the church was apparently once where Theodore Roosevelt worshipped at his congregation — an interesting bit of history.

It was also well-attended DOR as the church nearly filled. A lot of thanks goes out to Cyndi Richards and IGA, the church staff and volunteer Marsha Jackson (an old friend from my late 90's lobby days in DC) for busting ass and ensuring that the entire event and the spaghetti dinner afterward were a success.

My reason for being there was to keynote the event. The one thing that I did was to address the creeping "external opportunism" from super-sized, cash-guzzling organizations on DOR itself, and to remind those attending of the history of how this collective community memorial came into being.

DOR was extremely grassroots in creation, totally spontaneous based upon the suggestions of Gazebo chat list attendees in 1998 in response to Rita Hester's murder, and over the course of the frustrating year following when local authorities never resolved her case. Gwen Smith, the list moderator based in the San Francisco bay area, decided to put the thoughts into action by getting San Fran activists and others together and hold the first official Day of Remembrance. There were also reports of a similar vigil taking place in Boston on the same anniversary night.

There was no big political organization, no entity, no non-profit fundraising, no staff, no one benefitting from it personally. Only volunteers.

The following year, Day of Remembrance went national with about a dozen cities. It was all begun by local group leaders, activists, volunteer national advocates like NTAC members, and just everyday trans folks who'd never been involved in leading things, but felt strongly about our community's consistent bloodbath due to hate murders. Again, no national org's with fundraising ambitions laying claim (even with a few NTAC board coordinating local events).

"Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?
Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?" — Life During Wartime, the Talking Heads

We grew DOR on our own, with rudimentary resources out of our own individual pockets, for the most part. We researched and reported on trans murders that came to our attention and spread the word on DOR to other cities on our own time. Just a bunch of ragtag trans folks putting together what we needed to do to get word out and draw attention to the glaring and criminally ignored murder epidemic.

Keep in mind this was in the days before the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had even bothered adding "gender identity" to their mission statement, and even that would not bring about their support for us in any legislation for years to follow. There was no "help from above." We had only ourselves, our own resourcefulness and determination to push forth our issue in the mainstream media. At some point, no matter how many obstacles, the message would eventually break through.

Later while helping push this around the country for new locations, I suggested to Gwen and took initiative to bring in our first couple locations outside the U.S: Vancouver and in Santiago, Chile. Afterwards was a watershed of international cities and trans communities joining the chorus. DOR was, and still remains, an international crisis in the Trans community, and having this go worldwide was appropriate.

After years of work and finally bringing it to the world stage, it finally started hitting the straight press and the colleges. Once the straight community started joining in and agreeing this was heinous – especially once they were aware of the commonly grisly details symbolic of typical trans "overkill" murders with mass stab wounds, multiple gunshots, body mutilations, decapitations, burnings — DOR suddenly landed on the consciousness of the world and elicited sympathy in what we were experiencing.

With this came need for the press to get commentary for news stories on the annual events.

And with that came the attention of the large GLB and T organizations, heavily bankrolled (anything over five-figure annual budgets in trans standards is massively bankrolled) with staff and big fundraising mechanisms.

Here was an automatically generated day of easy, positive public relations on the cheap. All they had to do was show up and put their face out there, express sympathy for the Trans victims and the situation, then walk away looking all-too-altruistic and heroic. Afterward, use the press as basis for raising more funds for their "sincere concern" about our plight. It's a simple as falling backwards into a swimming pool full of dollar bills.

Better still, they even began offering those of us original organizers suggestions: having the day moved from the date Chanelle Pickett was murdered on Nov. 20 (too cold, too close to Thanksgiving) to a warmer day in late spring; making it more of a soiree-type event replete with refreshments, where there can be awareness seminars in colleges (and great PR to new young recruits!); even requesting of us that it less somber and depressing (too dark) and lightening it up to more of a "celebration of life."

"This ain't no party! This ain't no disco!
This ain't no fooling around!
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain't got time for that now!" — Life During Wartime, the Talking Heads

That last suggestion stunned a few of us who received it. Celebrating our memorialized hate murder victims? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd be afraid to ask family of Holocaust victims to "lighten it up" and "celebrate" the lives of their murdered family members. Hell, I'd feel uneasy with asking Judy Shepard to "celebrate" the anniversary of Matthew's murder.

But I guess trans people are supposed to be the exception. We shouldn't have such feelings the way other humans would....

So when we insisted upon keeping our ceremonies solemn, darker and in the Fall (when foliage dies in the northern hemisphere), they simply circumvented and found other more accommodating trans folks in places like Houston, Orlando and Las Vegas [ ]. They tossed a little donation, got to stick their name and logo on the event and maybe even put out a little press blurb on it and – voila! – it's revised to seem they've been there all along with us and we're all just one big happy family!

At least that's the image these new organizing (and enterprising) hopefuls want out there.

But take a look at this symbolic "family": a majority of them robust and healthy, and dragging around these bony waifs by the arm, beseeching the world of this tragic situation and the need to help do something about it! Then when the world's attention is turned away, the bony waifs are thrown back into and locked in the dark closets and starved again. Yep, one big happy ....

"Sitting here in Queens eating refried beans.
We're in the magazines gulpin' thorazines.
We ain't got no friends. Our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send. Daddy likes men....
We're a happy family: me, mom and daddy." — We're A Happy Family, the Ramones

All these years, with all the work put in by the likes of Gwen Smith, Ethan St. Pierre and other assistants like Monica Helms, Mercedes Allen or I, became a lot of blood, sweat and tears for us and a nice boost to the bottom lines and the staff of the opportunists. It's nauseating how easy it is for trans efforts to be usurped and utilized to benefit others. I never truly appreciated how hated we were until I found out how easily we were exploited.

Meanwhile, we finally got a large GLBT community action on the recent murder, decapitation and dismemberment of Jorge Mercado. As it's reported in the press, it was a most brutal murder of a gay teen in Puerto Rico. Buried in the details and away from most media reports, Mercado was wearing a blue dress and boots. This may well have been a gay teen. This was most probably a trans-panic response with all the overkill implications.

It reminds me of the Martinez case in Cortez, CO (and no, she never chose the name Fredericka! That was a joke name given to her by her classmate friends). That was yet another murder where all indications were it was "a gay teen, some gender issues, maybe trans...." At the vigil in Cortez, her mother Paula brought up an 8 x 10 framed photo of her as a female. I still recall Cathy Renna of Gay, Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) remarking in amazement that Paula had a great photo of her son, and wondered why she wouldn't use the photo of "a handsome young man" on the stage at the vigil.

How would a lowly trans such as I explain to an organizer of a national group like GLAAD that maybe they didn't take time to look at the entire picture, so to speak. In response I muttered to her that "maybe a mom best knows her child." There's no way for me to know if Renna listened or learned, but I learned something that day. We can't take all "gay hate crimes" at face value in the press. The Lawrence King story is another that comes to mind.

Another lesson learned is how easy it is for our hate murder victims to become a wonderful opportunity and potential for future fundraising to those who really don't give a flip about having us around anyway (at least not beyond the political correctness "diversity" requirements). We're street chattel: mere coffin fodder to help boost the big bucks for the ballroom boys and girls.

Cyndi Richards, who coordinated the Chicago DOR, sent an Email to me noting an observation to a preacher from a trans parishioner. The transperson noted that angels, like trans people, weren't of either of the two specific genders. Angel food for thought ....

To the hundred-plus fallen victims to anti-trans bias this year, whether you were angels or whether you were not, we do remember. We will not forget.

"A good friend once told me the way to be an effective speaker: make them laugh, make them cry and make them feel religious." — Rev. Bradley Mickelson of the New Spirit Community Church of Oak Park, IL

"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." — Revelation, 21:4, King James version

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hate Crimes: A Long Time Coming And A Long Struggle Ahead

[Note: this is a reprint from a requested project at Pam's House Blend]

"It's been a long time comin'
It's goin' to be a long time gone." — Long Time Gone, Crosby Stills Nash & Young

It’s been a long time coming. The historic passage of hate crimes legislation and signature into law by the President signals the very first federal law covering trans people in America. My emotions, though, are mixed: ebullience, wistfulness, solemnity, sadness

To have this finally pass, and to have it inclusive of trans people, is a major victory. Since 1997, I’ve been consistently taking time, shelling out money and visiting offices all over Washington DC and Austin – and even once in Annapolis this year – in attempt to get even this, the most elemental protection, passed with coverage for us all. With this official passage last week, all the memories of where we’ve all collectively been working to achieve what’s finally reality – seemingly against all odds – come streaming in.

In 1999 I had the opportunity to pull in the most critical component of what would eventually be the key to eventual passage of the James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill in Texas two years later. Taking two of my gay friends on their very first lobbying visit to show them how to parry and effectively argue our case, we landed the support of Rep. Warren Chisum, long-known as an arch-conservative, lightning rod author for the most heinous anti-GLBT legislation. His support brought in other crucial moderate GOP co-sponsors and votes and also provided cover for blue dog Dems as well. Our only responsibility was to change the wording to “sexual preference” and “gender non-conformity.”

It was a victory I was pleased to help along, but a hollow one personally. In 2001, gender non-conformity was refused inclusion in the bill (with a promise made to me that if we didn’t fight this and let this pass, they’d “come back for us” the next session). The bill passed, I held my tongue, but they never “came back” for us. Even this year, while in Austin, I visited with Rep. Chisum again a couple times. He chastised me with reminder that he didn’t want to revisit this bill again. However, he was ready once again to support. I’ll always remember the bravery of those like Rep. Garnet Coleman, author of 2009’s expansion bill in Texas, and the initial co-sponsors like Rep. Rafael Anchia and Rep. Alma Allen, as well as conservative Rep. Chisum and at least one other longtime Republican friend who were ready to bravely support and push this. The bill died in committee after testimony, but these unsung heroes deserve mention.

Memories of victims past stream back. Meeting one of our homeless trans girls in Houston mere months before she was shot and killed in the Montrose sticks in my mind: would this law have helped solve her murder and bring some solace? Seeing the abject, stoic sadness in the faces of the family of Terrianne Summers as I attempted to hold my own emotions in check while eulogizing my activist protégée, knowing her murder is also still unsolved with no justice.

Even in the cases where the murderers were caught, there’s only a little solace for the victims’ families past. Random memories. Watching the silent tears stream down the solemn face of Paula Mitchell at the Cortez, Colorado vigil in 2001 for her murdered child F.C. Listening to the sobs of Sylvia Guerrero over the phone in 2002, recalling her precious Gwen and how callously her body was dumped and buried, not long after Fred Phelps had found out Sylvia’s address and viciously protested in front of her home. Sitting alongside Queen Washington as she recounted for a reporter covering NTAC’s 2004 Lobby Day how her baby, Stephanie Thomas, was riddled with bullets a mere block from her home. Hearing the broken-hearted story from Sakia Gunn’s mother about the shoddy treatment from Newark authorities and community leaders and later seeing it first-hand in 2004 when our march from West Orange into Newark had only six white faces – four NTAC members and two local PFLAG parents – and was briefly refused entry into the city by police even after organizers had received permits. Hugging an activist friend, Ethan St. Pierre, who was shaken and teary-eyed after having making his very first speech in Boston recounting his aunt, trans woman Deborah Forte, being brutally murdered and having to go to the morgue to identify her body. There’s no way to adequately relate experiencing this.

I still recall vividly the long battles and the acrimony over the years of merely having trans people covered by hate crimes. Struggling with conservatives just as we did with the Human Rights Campaign or the Anti-Defamation League for protection. Vehemently arguing with Mara Keisling and Lisa Mottet at the 2003 IFGE convention as they agreed with HRC and ACLU lawyers, and tried to convince me, that “gender” would include “gender identity” due to congressional intent. Less than six month later, finding out first-hand from our own local District Attorney’s office that they didn’t “give a damn about,” nor had the time nor budget to research what congressional intent was as they were following the letter of the law as written in Texas, and nothing beyond.

Even something as indirect as political campaigning paid off. Being an Obama delegate won me few friends in the GLBT community during the primaries. From my lobbying experience though, I knew Hillary Clinton’s fondness for incrementalism and lack of knowledge on trans people just as well as I knew Obama’s full-scope approach to rights. Trans folks, including myself, fought hard during the campaign up to the national convention and all the way up until election day. That night, 1000 miles from home in battleground Dayton, Ohio, I knew we’d finally won our rights to be included when Ohio was called for Obama and later when it became official that President Barack Obama would soon occupy the White House.

We were branded as pariahs, had our characters impugned and reputations ruined for standing firm on trans inclusion. It was worth it. We now have what we set out to achieve: coverage, rights, recognition. Finally, federally, we’re now human.

The Hate Crimes Bill is a watershed symbolic victory for Trans Americans. But beyond the symbolism, we remain vigilant. It’s an important first-step, but not the final goal.

"You've got to speak out against the madness,
You've got to speak your mind, if you dare.
But don't – no don't now try to get yourself elected...." — Long Time Gone, Crosby Stills Nash & Young