Community members gathered in the courtyard at the Santa Barbara Courthouse on Friday evening in recognition of Transgender Day of Remembrance, a date on which people around the world are asked to think about those who have been killed because they were transgender. About fifty people stood in a circle, holding candles and listening to speeches about individuals who lost their lives because “they dared to be different,” as one speaker put it. Tacked to the ground and running down the courtyard steps was a list of known victims of transgendered violence – some with full names and photos, and others with little information other than that they were transgendered and are now no longer alive.
Santa Barbara attorney Lisa Gilinger – who helped organize the event along with staff from the Pacific Pride Foundation, Santa Barbara’s gay and AIDS nonprofit – spoke first. She noted her sense of “outrage and indignation” that anyone, much less so many people, had lost their life as a result of their gender identity. Gilinger’s speech ended with a grim epilogue: The ceremony’s list of slain transgendered people had been rendered out-of-date between the time it was printed out and Friday, so she listed a few more people around the world whom various news outlets noted as having been killed as a result of apparent anti-transgender violence.
Precise and up-to-date statistics about violence against transgendered people is hard to come by, but gay and transgender advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign offers a 1999 study that claimed one in 12 people who defy gender norms – transsexuals, crossdressers and others – will be murdered. (Other research puts that figure considerably lower.) Though no high-profile incidents of anti-transgender violence have made headlines recently in Santa Barbara County, several in attendance at Friday’s vigil noted that it was only on February 12, 2008, that 15-year-old Lawrence King was fatally shot at school by a classmate in Oxnard, just south of Santa Barbara. Leading up to his murder, King had attended school while wearing make-up and heels and reportedly made passes at male classmates.
“No life is lost for no cause,” said Rev. Linda Spencer of Santa Barbara’s Unity Church, who continued that remembering these people and the circumstances of their deaths should be motivation for those still living to “move forward, and stand always on the side of what is just, what is right and what is good.” Much of Spencer’s speech addressed the slain themselves. “You call us to be more, to stand strong, to be what we see to be so,” she said. “You call us to walk the path that we are called to.”
After the ceremony ended, Gilinger said events like this one serve two purposes: to memorialize those who have been unjustly killed and to bring together community members to recognize their similarities and differences. “We all look around at each other. We’re all different. But the penalty for being difference should not be death. It should not be being brutalized,” she said.
Ellin, who declined to give her last name, said that she has come to Santa Barbara’s observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. “I really do honor these people who have given up the most, just for being themselves,” she said. She said the courage they had has made it easier for people like her to make their gender transition. Ellin related a quote that she felt was applicable not only to transgendered people but to anyone who is trying to cope with internal conflict: “By accepting who you are – all of who you are – you can be free. Freedom is power.”