On a clear, chilly Saturday night in Santa Rosa, approximately 100 community members, college students and local activists gather on the patio outside Brew Coffee and Beer along Healdsburg Avenue.
Clutching plastic cups filled with electric tea lights, a distinct, tangible sense of grief grips the crowd. A poster board, set up near the front of the cafe, lists the names of transgender men, women and nonbinary people who were killed in 2021. In conversation, organizers point out to me that the list has grown significantly since last year’s event.
At one point, a man leans out the window of a passing car, yelling “white lives matter!”, loud enough to be heard over one of the evening’s speakers.
This is what Transgender Day of Remembrance looks like in the North Bay.
Remembering Our Dead
An annual event founded in 1999 by advocate and writer Gwendolyn Ann Smith, Transgender Day of Remembrance, celebrated on Nov. 20, memorializes those who have been killed in acts of hate violence and transphobia. Smith’s prior activism included “Remembering Our Dead,” a 1998 project which timelined anti-transgender murders in the United States and ultimately laid the groundwork for what TDOR is today.
In 2020, TDOR gained national recognition when Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted “Today and every day we must recommit to ending this epidemic.”
But despite the increased mainstream visibility for transgender issues over the past few years, the community still continues to face violence, crime and murder at an alarming rate, TransLife Sonoma committee member Orlando O’Shea says. TransLife Sonoma is a volunteer-run organization which holds educational and social events for the larger LGBTQIA community in the North Bay.
“It’s amazing how things have changed for trans people in the last decade,” he says. “But we’re still in the weeds, we’re still in the thick of things. Things change so slowly, and times feel so uncertain right now.”
In 2021, at least 47 transgender and nonbinary people were killed in the United States, making it the most devastating year on record for transgender people in the U.S. A majority of the victims were Black and Latina transgender women; one of the youngest victims, a Black trans boy named Jeffrey “JJ” Bright, was only 16 years old when he was shot and killed this past February.
For O’Shea, Saturday’s vigil was a bittersweet experience, like it is every year. A 50-year-old transgender man, O’Shea attended his first TDOR event in Guerneville close to seven years ago. Since then, the number of transgender people killed in the U.S. has only increased, along with the ever-present feeling of loss, sadness and despair within the community.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “You want to have hope, but when you’re seeing more people die than the year before, it’s a heavy thing. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, that you’re doing this every year and things are getting worse.”
Still, O’Shea and other organizers recognize the work they do as imperative to the transgender community, no matter how painful the reality of the situation may be.
“This is an opportunity for us to come together and have a moment of reflection and sadness and sorrow and mourning,” Jessica Carroll, director of programs for Positive Images, a Santa Rosa-based LGBTQIA nonprofit, said to me shortly after the vigil. “But it’s also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to fighting for justice and against the transphobia that is so deadly in the world.”
“You can look around and see that there are so many trans people in Sonoma County, but also so many allies and accomplices,” she added.
C.L. Muir, a committee member for TransLife Sonoma and one of the event’s speakers, told me that they felt grateful to be invited to speak and attend.
“When I was first asked to do this, I was scared. It’s such a heavy topic, and I didn’t know what I could personally do,” Muir, a trans man, said. “Seeing so many people come out to show support and show love and remember those within our community who [have been murdered], I was humbled.”
In Marin County, organizers from the Spahr Center held a similar vigil in San Rafael, highlighting the importance of Black transgender voices in the ongoing fight against hate violence.
The Spahr Center, founded in 2015, is Marin County’s only nonprofit serving the LGBTQIA community. They offer services ranging from youth programs to harm reduction to education around HIV/AIDS awareness.
Suzanne Ford, who serves as the president of Spahr’s board of directors, says that having that marginalized voice in a primarily white area like Marin County was one of the organization’s main goals for the event.
“I thought it was really important for a Marin audience to hear a Black trans person talk about the death and violence [transgender people] face in other areas,” she says. “He called on [white, cisgender people] not to just be allies, but accomplices.”
Making a Better World
What does a safe world look like for transgender and nonbinary people, as long as we continue to exist on the margins of society? As O’Shea notes, the answer is not as simple as it seems. Much of the work that needs to be done in order to better protect the transgender community has to come from cisgender allies—or, as Carroll says, accomplices—not necessarily from transgender people themselves.
“More needs to be done systematically,” he says. “Not everything can be done by the transgender community in a day. A safe world is where trans people can exist without worrying about their safety, without worrying about the high level of violence that is perpetrated against them.”
A 2014 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects found that among victims of anti-LGBTQIA hate crimes in the U.S., 80% were Black, Indigenous and people of color; 55% were transgender women; and 50% were transgender women of color.
Due to the intersections of transphobia, racism and misogyny that exist within their identity, transgender women of color are more marginalized than their white or cisgender queer counterparts. This marginalization can lead to employment discrimination, experiences with sexual violence, and poverty and housing insecurity.
As Carroll notes, these issues are typically systemic.
“There is a lot of violence [that people are likely to face when] unhoused, there is a lot of violence in having to do things like survival sex work, there is a lot of [risk of] violence being a person who is lower income or who is poor,” she says. “I don’t think we can underestimate the safety that comes with housing and healthcare.”
In addition, suicide rates remain high among transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, especially adolescents. More than half of the transgender boys who participated in a 2018 survey published by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported one or more suicide attempts in their lifetime, while 29.9% of transgender girls surveyed said that they had attempted suicide at least once.
“It’s a response to the fact that we live in such an unsafe world that people feel like that is their only option,” Carroll added. “[Violence] is preventable if we just cared about each other.”
O’Shea says that while he sometimes feels as if a truly safe world for trans people is a pipe dream, the importance of continuing the work—fighting for those who are still around and remembering those who are not—can never be overstated.
“Is [a safe world] a dream?” he asks. “Yes. But I like to hold out hope.”