A year ago today, faculty, students and community members gathered on Colorado State University’s campus to celebrate and to mourn transgender lives.
There were speakers, poetry readings and a libation hosted by CSU’s Black and African American Cultural Center. And there was the reading of the names — a ceremony in which attendees read, out loud, the names of every transgender person who was killed in acts of anti-trans violence within the last year. At CSU’s ceremony, organizers wove a long string through the audience. For every name that was read, a bead was added to the string: another human life lost.
November 14 through 20 is Trans Awareness Week, a time for spreading understanding about transgender issues, including disproportionate violence against transgender and gender nonconforming people. The week ends with Transgender Day of Remembrance. It was founded back in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor Rita Hester, an African-American trans woman who was murdered in Massachusetts the previous year. Now, the day is honored with vigils across the country and the world. It creates a safe space for communities to come together and remember people whose lives have been erased.
It’s a somber day. In normal times, it’s a day to share hugs and tears and stories, to grieve together, to reflect, and to support one another.
“There’s so many names to be read. And they come from all over the country. And most of us have lived where somebody’s been murdered,” said Laura MacWaters, who runs Eclectic of Northern Colorado, a trans, nonbinary and intersex support network for north Coloradans. “I’ve lived within a mile or two of four people that’ve died in other years. This year, it was two people that died within a mile of where I used to live. Most of us have stories like that. So it feels very immediate and personal to us.”
“It’s so important for our community to read those names,” said Marvyn Allen, the Health Equity and Training Director at One Colorado, Colorado’s leading LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. “So many of these folks weren’t visible in life. And when they were, they were victimized for it.” Even in death, Allen said, their identity is sometimes erased. Often, police or news reports misgender or “deadname” an individual, using the name they were assigned at birth rather than the name they lived by.
Maggie Hendrickson is the Assistant Director of the Pride Resource Center at CSU, and one of the organizers of CSU’s annual TDoR vigil. Years ago, before Hendrickson worked at CSU, they were invited to speak at another TDoR ceremony shortly after coming out as trans. Hendrickson was nervous, because they weren’t fully out yet. But after they spoke, two young people around the age of 18 came up to Hendrickson, saying they’d never met a trans adult or an adult that uses they/them pronouns.
“That has always stuck with me,” Hendrickson said. “They were just so excited, because they don’t see adults. A lot of these kids are like, ‘I didn’t think I could live past 30. I don’t see older trans people.'”
Hendrickson said that the students who visit the Pride Resource Center often feel futureless or hopeless, and that it’s important to give them opportunities to see that they might be happy, that they might have a future.
That message has an added sense of urgency this year. HRC reported that as of November 19, at least 37 trans individuals have been killed in the U.S. this year, the majority of which are Black and Latinx trans women. That’s the highest number ever recorded, and the actual number is likely higher, because trans and gender non-conforming people are often misidentified or misgendered in reports. Back in May, Jayne Thompson, a 33-year old white transgender woman, was killed by Colorado State Troopers in Mesa County. She was initially misgendered and deadnamed.
“I don’t really like focusing too much on the numbers,” MacWaters said. “Because we don’t want to be numbers.” Instead, events on Nov. 20 focus on the individuals and their lives. Cagzmier Jumper, the Lead Peer Specialist and Harm Reduction Specialist at Transgender Center of the Rockies, a health center that provides a range of gender-affirming services and resources, said TDoR is a way for her to honor one of her own friends who lost her life to violence in Texas about a year ago.
“It’s a specific time that I can really just celebrate her life and remember her and all the other individuals that have lost their lives to senseless violence,” she said. “It definitely touches home, also, because I’m a Black trans woman. And honestly, I’ve been in plenty of situations where violence was involved and I could have been on this list with these individuals myself.”
Much of the day is about supporting one another through grief. It’s about hugging, holding hands, offering each other someone to lean on during an emotional time. But this year, with COVID-19 cases rising and Colorado counties increasing restrictions, it was clear that it wouldn’t be possible to honor TDoR in that way.
“I knew that it was really important that we recognize this day,” said Sable Schultz, the Manager of Transgender Services at the Center on Colfax, the Rocky Mountain region’s largest LGBTQ+ center. “The isolation a lot of us are feeling because of stay-at-home would just sort of be added onto if we didn’t at least have some sort of commemoration for this event.”
The Center collaborated with PLUME and the Trans Center of the Rockies to put together a virtual TDoR event via Twitch. Cagzmier Jumper, who is representing the Center of the Rockies, thought a Twitch stream would create opportunities for the community to engage in real time via the comment section. The event will be a mix of prerecorded messages from community organizations and individuals, woven together live by a team of MCs. It will feature poetry, music and performance. Speakers will share memories of individuals who have passed.
CSU is also navigating ways to engage the community in a virtual TDoR. It has been hosting a series of remote events throughout Trans Awareness week leading up to Friday’s vigil and has built a Trans Remembrance Altar with photos and names and handouts. The campus also hosted a name-change workshop, a virtual “Trans Meme Monday” and a Trans and Nonbinary meetup. On Tuesday, it hosted keynote speaker Schuyler Bailar, an NCAA Division 1 swimmer from Harvard and LGBTQ+ advocate. Bailar is the first openly transgender NCAA D-1 swimmer, and the first openly transgender man to compete in any D-1 NCAA men’s sport.
“We wanted to spread the focus not just on death and violence, as often is a narrative for trans people,” Hendrickson said. “We want to celebrate lives, and think about our futures as trans people.”
But Hendrickson said that moving events online has provided an opportunity for ill-intentioned people to enter those spaces. On Wednesday night, CSU hosted an “Imagining Trans Futures” Panel via Zoom to answer student questions about things like parenting, transitions and navigating career opportunities.
“We were Zoom-bombed by people who came in to kind of spew some anti-trans and racial slurs at the event,” Hendrickson said. “It really shook up all the people who attended, for sure.” They had to end the meeting, pause for a moment, and then restart it. They were particularly cautious about who they let back in from the waiting room.
Now, Hendrickson’s team is trying to find a way to make today’s event accessible to anyone who wants to attend, but also secure enough to prevent future harassment. They’ve decided to close the chat, and will only enable certain people to unmute themselves.
“We know that if you cast a wide net, sometimes we can pick up some rotten apples who want to come and try to ruin it,” they said.
Marvyn Allen said that One Colorado will be hosting a live reading of the names via social media, but it won’t be quite the same.
“A lot of the healing and resilience of the LGBTQ community, and especially the trans and non-binary community, is us being together physically in a space, and being able to be visible together,” Allen said. “When you think about a memorial or a funeral how important it is to mourn with folks who share your loss… We’re gonna be missing that a lot this year. ”
Virtual TDoRs might also reach individuals who typically wouldn’t be able to access an event like this one. Many parts of the country don’t have resources for trans people. Now, anyone with internet access can find them online. Schultz and Jumper say they’ve had people attend their services from Pueblo, the Western Slope, the Four Corners and other parts of the state.
Jumper said that by posting about online resources via social media, she’s seen more ally support as well. A cousin of hers recently reached out after seeing one of her posts, wanting to learn more.
“I definitely think it does push the narrative of getting the knowledge of trans issues and trans people in general out there to the public,” Jumper said.
A 2018 research report by One Colorado Education Fund assessed barriers to healthy living for LGBTQ+ Coloradans. The survey showed that 77 percent of transgender respondents reported feeling down, depressed or helpless at least several days a month, with 16 percent reporting feeling down, depressed or hopeless nearly every day. It also showed that 41 percent of transgender respondents reported having thoughts of suicide, compared to 6-percent of the general population.
“I think a lot of people point to statistics like that to show why there’s something wrong with trans people,” Hendrickson said. “But I always try to make sure people reframe that to be that they are navigating ongoing bias and discrimination. And oftentimes, a lack of family support. And isolation. So that obviously would contribute to those statistics, rather than it just being something inherently wrong with them.”
Michal Duffy, the Education and Program Manager Out Boulder, an LGBTQ+ center serving the Boulder area, is also putting together a virtual vigil. They said they’ve been thinking about how to gather people online in a way that considers their mental health.
“We talked a lot about how we can bring people together and not create more anguish, not wanting to trigger people who might be at home alone, tuning in virtually,” they said. “So that was a challenge when people are feeling already isolated and disconnected because of the impacts of the pandemic.”
Out Boulder is doing a virtual vigil at 6 p.m. via Zoom.
CSU is hosting a virtual ceremony at 12 p.m. on Zoom.
Mental health resources:
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255
Colorado Crisis and Support Line: 1-844-493-TALK (8255)