December 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
3 trans women among 36 dead in Oakland fire
Ghost Ship, gay news, Washington Blade, Oakland fire

The Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland reportedly operated without city permits. (Screen capture via KPIX5; courtesy YouTube)

At least three transgender women were among the 36 people who lost their lives in the Dec. 2 fire that destroyed an Oakland, Calif., warehouse where a concert was being held when the fire broke out.

The warehouse, known as Ghost Ship, served as an artist collective, makeshift concert hall, and artists’ residence that Oakland authorities said operated without obtaining the required city permits and in violation of fire and building codes.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire but speculation has surfaced among those who worked and lived in the building that sparks from a faulty electrical appliance such as a refrigerator may have been the cause.

The trans women identified as being among the victims of the fire were Cash Askew, 22, an Oakland guitar player in a goth-pop duo named Them Are Us Too; Feral Pines, 29, a musician active in the Oakland and the San Francisco Bay area’s artist scene; and Em Bohlka, 33, a poet with a master’s degree in literature who, among other things, had worked as a barista while writing poetry and practicing photography.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported several dozen members of the transgender community and their supporters gathered on Dec. 5 at Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to pray for the victims and offer support for their loved ones.

“The fire was horrendous,” the Chronicle quoted Rev. Cameron Partridge, 43, a transgender priest at San Francisco’s St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church as saying at the gathering.

“We’re realizing increasingly that there were a number of trans folks there that were part of our community,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Derick Ion Almena, 47, the leaseholder for the warehouse and leader of the artist collective who managed its operations, apologized for the tragedy in a Dec. 6 interview on NBC’s “Today” show. He said he and his wife, who lived in the warehouse with their two young children, were devastated.

Almena declined to respond to questions, however, about allegations by Oakland authorities that the warehouse was operating illegally as a residence and concert hall because it lacked basic safety features such as a sprinkler system.

“I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents,” he said. “I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m incredibly sorry,” he said.

According to Almena, LGBT people were part of the concept of the warehouse’s use as artist collective.

“It started off as an initial dream, an idea that we would have a facility and a venue that would host everything from at-risk youth to the gay community to artists that couldn’t perform anywhere to performance art and alternative arts,” he said.

A joint statement issued by five LGBT advocacy organizations on Dec. 7 expressed concern that local authorities in the Oakland area and news media outlets were being disrespectful to the transgender victims by not identifying them by their correct names.

“As we continue to mourn the lives of those lost in the tragic Ghost Ship fire, it is essential that we do everything we can to preserve the dignity of the transgender victims by honoring and respecting their names and gender identities,” the statement, which was released by the statewide LGBT group Equality California, says.

“Use of a transgender person’s birth name rather than their correct name is not only inaccurate, but is deeply disrespectful to the individual,” it says. “In a time of tragedy, use of birth names, or ‘dead naming,’ is demeaning, offensive, and causes needless additional pain to those who are already suffering from the loss of those they loved,” the statement says.

The organizations signing the statement, in addition to Equality California, were the National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National LGBTQ Task Force, Transgender Law Center, and the Trans Assistance Project.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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