The lives of transgender people lost to anti-trans violence over the past year in the U.S. and worldwide were honored on Nov. 20, at D.C.’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance held at the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington.
Close to 200 people turned out for the event, which included presentations mostly from D.C. area trans activists who reflected on how the loss to hate violence of their fellow transgender men and women and those who identify as gender nonconforming has motivated them to become committed advocates for trans rights and justice.
The event, known as TDOR, was founded by transgender activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith to memorialize the 1998 murder of Rita Hester, a trans woman of color who lived in a Boston suburb. What initially began as a web-based project by Smith has since grown into an international day of action held each year on Nov. 20 in more than 200 cities worldwide.
Rev. Elder Akousa McCray-Peters of D.C.’s Unity Fellowship Church performed the event’s ritual of recognizing the transgender people lost to violence through the Pouring of the Libations, which includes pouring of a liquid into a bowl while reciting a prayer.
“We pour today for our brothers and sisters of the nation’s capital,” she said. “We pour for your friends who lost their lives,” she said. “Each drop is for you today.”
Lamont Akins, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, read a statement from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser expressing support for the D.C. TDOR. He also read an official mayoral proclamation issued by Bowser declaring Nov. 20 as TDOR Day in the District of Columbia.
“We see you and we stand with you,” he quoted Bowser as saying.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) read a separate proclamation approved unanimously by the Council recognizing Transgender Day of Remembrance. Grosso told the gathering that the Council has also passed a separate resolution he introduced opposing the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn civil rights protections for transgender people that had been adopted during the Obama administration.
Longtime D.C. transgender activist Earline Budd, who has served as coordinator of the D.C. TDOR for nearly a decade, said she believes the event this year “went really, really well.”
Budd noted that the 2018 D.C. TDOR planning committee decided to focus mostly on transgender speakers rather than city elected officials and the police chief, who have spoken in past years. Budd said those officials were invited and were told they would be welcome to attend the event.
“I’m just so excited about how it went down and the fact that I was able to hand over the baton to my future generation,” Budd told the Washington Blade in an interview immediately after the event.
She was referring to remarks she made at the conclusion of the event in which she told the gathering she was mentoring a new set of organizers and leaders for the D.C. TDOR that would take the lead role next year while she remains involved to help guide them.
Budd also noted that while the event this year was aimed at drawing attention to the loss of lives of transgender people to violence, she had a glimmer of hope from the fact that there has not been a murder of a transgender person in D.C. since the July 4, 2016 shooting death of trans woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds.
D.C. police have arrested four male suspects for Dodds’ killing. All four are being held without bond pending trials. Trials for two of them are scheduled to begin in January.
Eleven other trans women have been murdered in D.C. since the year 2000. Police have made arrests in six of those cases, including the Dodds case.
Among those who spoke at the D.C. TDOR on Nov. 20 was Jazmin Sutherlin, a transgender woman who serves as an official with Heart to Hand, a Prince George’s County based health services organization that assists people with HIV/AIDS. Some might have called Sutherlin’s impassioned 32-minute speech the equivalent of a State of the Union Address for the transgender community.
Noting that the trauma of dealing with the murders of trans people each year has been intensified by the anti-trans policies of the Trump administration, Sutherlin called on the trans community to unite, remain strong, and resist the temptation to withdraw out of fear.
“This is not the time to give up,” she said. “This is the time to push yourself up like never before because it’s your opportunity to open doors for yourself and others,” she said. “It’s your time to use what you know as a trans person to change the world,” she continued.
“We’re not supposed to be hidden. We’re supposed to live our lives out loud…We are here to teach the world about diversity,” Sutherlin told the gathering. “We’re here to tell people it’s OK to be who you are and it’s OK to experience yourself and to share yourself.”
Also speaking was Allyn Cropper, a transgender man who told of his experiences as an out trans person in the U.S. military. He did not disclose which branch of the military he’s in but said he has sought to educate his fellow service members on what being trans is all about.
“I did meet some people who were out to get me, but for every one person like that I met three more people that inspired me to carry on with who I was,” he said. “And they wanted to learn. They wanted to know what it means to be trans and what was trans,” he told the gathering.
“So while I’m in the military I make it my duty not only to serve honorably but to be a great example of what trans people look like in the military and also to make sure I take time out to talk to and educate people to let them know we’re not scary, we’re not monsters,” he said. “We’re not this picture that we’re made out to be. We’re people just like anybody else.”
Both Cropper and Sutherlin drew a prolonged, standing ovation from the audience.
Other transgender community members who spoke at the gathering included veteran trans activist Dee Curry; D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Bobbi Strang, who served on the D.C. TDOR planning committee; Alexis Blackman and Minister Omar Clarke of the Metropolitan Community Church; trans activists Gibby Thomas of Damien Ministry; Kiesha Allure, an official with the LGBT community services center Casa Ruby; and trans activist Elle Michelle.
Beverlyn Mack, the mother of murdered D.C. trans woman Na Na Boo Mack, also spoke at the event, thanking trans activists and members of the LGBT community for supporting her during what she said was a trying time when she lost her daughter.
Among those attending the event were eight officers of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Special Liaison Branch, including members of the branch’s LGBT Liaison Unit. Among them was Lt. Jessica Hawkins, a trans woman who is the former supervisor of the LGBT Liaison Unit.
Budd said she invited the unit members to attend with the full approval of the TDOR planning committee.
Trans activist Lourdes Hunter, who was scheduled to speak at the D.C. TDOR, posted a message on Facebook saying she decided not to attend after learning that D.C. police officers would be in attendance.
“I don’t do trans events with police and guns,” she wrote in her posting.
Trans community advocate Ashley Love, who staged a one-person protest at last year’s D.C. TDOR by shouting that D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who attended the event, should leave the event, called this year’s D.C. TDOR an improvement for trans people.
“With so many Black and Latina women of trans experience killed in 2018 by male violence and transmisogyny, it was healing to have this year’s vigil offer a safer space to mourn than years past,” she said in a statement.
But Love created a stir among organizers of the D.C. TDOR by saying in her statement and in a Facebook posting that the D.C. police officers attending the Nov. 20 TDOR were “swat geared cops” and members of the department’s SWAT team that frightened trans attendees.
A police spokesperson told the Washington Blade the officers attending the TDOR were wearing regular police uniforms that had been changed recently in style but that the uniforms “absolutely were not” SWAT uniforms or SWAT gear, which police use when they expect to confront a potential violent situation.
“Those are the new uniforms that were issued recently, which was widely publicized in multiple media outlets,” said Strang of the TDOR planning committee. “The allegation that this was tactical or SWAT gear is a specious accusation,” she told the Blade. “Apart from Ashley and the unnamed activist, I know of no other complaints.”
Strang was referring to one other trans activist who spoke on condition of not being identified and who expressed the belief that the officers attending the D.C. TDOR were wearing SWAT gear.