About 100 people rallied in St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village Wednesday to mark the Trans Day of Remembrance, an annual event honoring people whose lives were lost because of anti-transgender violence.
“We want to lift up their lives, but also to celebrate the resilience of our community,” said Jamal Lewis, the communication coordinator at the Audre Lorde Project, the LGBT community center that organized the event.
The international Trans Day of Remembrance is held on Nov. 20 but many communities celebrate it a few days earlier during Transgender Awareness Week, Nov. 13 to 20. The goal is to raise the visibility of transgender and gender nonconforming people and the issues they face, organizers said.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 25 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. so far this year, compared to 23 in 2016 and 21 in 2015. Nationally, it is the deadliest year on record for transgender people, the organization said.
The FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics also highlight that violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people is on the rise with 130 gender-identity bias offenses reported in 2016, compared to 118 in 2015 and 109 in 2014.
“There is growing visibility of transgender people and with that growing visibility comes increased hostility,” said Ashe McGovern, legislative and policy director at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. “The increased number also has probably something to do with increased reporting, as there are now more sorts of mechanisms for reporting the violence.”
However, the available data is still incomplete, McGovern said. “The real numbers are much, much bigger,” he said.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the audience stood as the names of the transgender people murdered this year were read aloud. Everywhere in the church, candles and pictures showed their names and their faces.
The atmosphere was solemn but also full of hope. Cheered by the audience, Sheneeneh Maria Smith, a transgender woman of color wearing a long, green sequined dress, performed Stephanie Mills songs.
Other speakers encouraged trans and gender non-conforming people to uncover their gender identity.
Leslie La Rue, 36, who transitioned to female three years ago, was one of them. She called on the audience to “not hide in the shadow anymore.”
La Rue works as a nurse practitioner fellow in Mount Sinai Hospital’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery. She said most of her clients had problems when men found out that they were transgender women.
“I believe once the girls in our community can come to the understanding that it’s okay to tell people: ‘I’m trans,’ it is going to save their life,” she said in an interview a few minutes before her speech.
According to La Rue, trans people should assume their gender identity, whether they did surgery or not. This is what she’s been doing in her neighborhood, in Harlem.
“I ride the train to work, from work, I walk the streets all day, all night, I’m never having issues with anyone picking on me, messing with me,” she said. “I do believe that slowly but surely, we’re coming to a point where everybody is accepting.”
La Rue said she was surprised by the positive reaction she received in her hometown of Paris, Texas, when she visited after her transition. She describes it as very small and very religious.
“A lot of people who know me were like ‘Oh My God, you look amazing,’ ‘you look like you’re happier,’” she said. “I can see that they’re growing and becoming more accepting, even in a little backwoods town like that. So I do believe we’re moving forward.”
However, La Rue’s optimism wasn’t shared by all trans people and activists at the memorial service. Because of President Donald Trump’s attempts to ban transgender people from the military, many fear that violence and discrimination are becoming commonplace.
“Just a few days before the election, I was punched in the street by one guy. It was very sudden, and of nowhere” said Leah Gouh-Cooper, 29. Originally from Scotland, Gouh-Cooper has been living in the U.S. for 12 years. “Obviously, people were feeling amped up, not in a good way.”
But several people also saw Trump’s election as an opportunity for gender minorities to stick together and to stand up.
“If we had Hillary as a President, things may have stayed in the status quo – maybe,” said Gaël Krajzman, 29. “But if we have someone who is so horrible, it pushes people who were not activist before to become more activist. For people who were doing the work before, they continue to do the work, but are getting more involved.”