The name of each transgender murder victim was read in somber tones:
Lamia Beard, Virginia. Keyshia Blige, Illinois. Tamara Dominquez, Missouri. Amber Monroe, Michigan. Shade Schule, Texas. K.C. Haggard, California.
Seated on the Arizona State Capitol lawn, dozens of people gathered to commemorate their lives on Transgender Day of Remembrance Friday night. Some dabbed at tears as the list stretched on to include nearly 100 individuals killed around the world, including 35-year-old Kandis Capri, whose shooting in a west-Phoenix parking lot in August prompted her family to call on the U.S. Department of Justice to open a hate crime investigation and sparked candlelight vigils across the country. Some closed their eyes, as if in prayer. Others fixed their gaze on the flickering flames of the candles they held.
“Every time I hear about another transgender murder, this fear just comes out; it feels like an act of terrorism against my community,” said Selene Denlinger, 20, an Arizona State University student with a brunette bob and pretty, pink lipstick, who identifies as transgender. “It’s very sobering to hear all the names read and realize how many people we’ve lost.”
In the United States, reports of anti-transgender violence more than tripled between 2013 and 2014, FBI statistics show. Still, activist groups, such as Human Rights Watch and the Anti-Defamation League, say the numbers represent only a fraction of the violence directed at transgender people because the vast majority of incidents go unreported or are not formally recognized as hate crimes. Last year, at least 21 transgender people were murdered, which is more than any other year on record.
“We gathered today to remember not just the lives of these men and women, but also the lives of those whose deaths were not recorded,” said Christopher O’Connor, a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit Trans’ Spectrum of Arizona, which organized the candlelight vigil.
Most of the murder cases, including the 1998 murder of Rita Hester, whose death inspired the first Transgender Day of Remembrance, have not yet been solved.
Juli Myers, a Phoenix-based, transgender writer and activist who spoke at the vigil, listed a number of “suspects” complicit in their deaths, starting with state legislators and conservative activists who push laws that marginalize transgender people, such as banning people from using showers or toilet facilities designated for the opposite sex.
“The combo pack of ignorance, lack of education, and fear — these are killers,” she said. “What we have and what we are is vastly misunderstood. People just don’t get [it], and they don’t seem to want to.”
Even among the LGBT community, transgender people often struggle to find acceptance, she said. Earlier this year, for example, a group of gay and bisexual men and women filed a change.org petition asking the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, among others, to “drop the T” from the LGBT acronym. The transgender community’s ideology, the group argued, is “ultimately regressive and actually hostile to the goals of women and gay men” because it codifies “classic gender concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine,” seeks to encroach on “traditional safe spaces” segregated by sex, and encourages young children who might otherwise grow up to be “well-adjusted gay men and women” to take puberty blocking drugs and surgically alter their bodies. The petition, which was broadly condemned by human rights organizations, garnered more than 2,000 signatures.
Many people refuse to accept gender identity issues are “real,” Myers said, because “they can’t readily see the thing that we know is there.”
“While intersex people, who are born at about the same regularly occurring rate as trans people, still face a great stigma, most people are willing to accept that their condition is real because they can usually see what makes someone intersex,” she said. “But when a child whose internal identity conflicts with their physical reality one day points to their genitalia and asks, ‘Mommy, when is it going to fall off?,’ people seem unable to stop automatically assuming that the child is mentally ill or possibly under the influence of Satan.”
By far, though, the biggest threat to transgender lives, Myers said, is “ourselves.”
“When it comes to snuffing out the life of a transgender person, no one can compare,” she said.
Forty-one percent of transgender individuals try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (New Times' Michael Lacey delved deeper into this issue in October cover story "The Trapped Lives of Transgender People").
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Myers speech brought back dark memories for Shirley Austin, 60, of Gilbert. She fought suicidal thoughts for decades, beginning at age 13 when she first fully accepted that she was transgender. Austin continued to live as a man, even marrying and having children, while secretly wearing women’s clothing underneath his masculine attire, until recently. Now on his fourth month of hormone therapy, the tall, broad shouldered blonde with kindly eyes, said “I’m pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Milo Neild, who said he also contemplated killing himself while struggling to come to terms with his gender identity, summed up his journey poetically in a speech for the crowd: “It’s not about the darkness we have endured but the light we have come to love and embrace.”
He said he hoped the candlelight vigil, and other events like it, help transgender people who have not yet found their peace to understand they are not alone.
“Imagine our community as a powerful stained glass window, shining our light and truth for others,” he said. “I dare you to shine.”