The temperature dipped into the 30s the evening of Nov. 20 in New York City, but that didn’t stop more than 100 trans folks and their allies from gathering on the Christopher Street Pier along the Hudson River, historically a safe space for LGBTQ New Yorkers of color, to enact the 20th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in memory of the many trans people, mostly women of color, who have been brutally murdered.
In the past year alone, 311 trans and gender-nonconforming people were reported murdered worldwide, including 30 in the U.S.
Organized by New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and Gays Against Guns, the vigil convened around a large circular stone platform, along the edges of which white-clad Gays Against Guns members, their faces obscured by white veils, held placards with the photos and bios of 20 trans folks, mostly women of color, killed in the U.S.
In the crowd were Ceyenne Doroshow and Renée Imperato. “This year we lost 311 trans [people],” said Doroshow. “We need the police, and also humanity, to back the fuck off. We need to live and should be entitled to live, period.”
Imperato invoked the still-unsolved 1992 death of transgender activist pioneer and icon Marsha P. Johnson. “Her body was taken from this water right here,” said Imperato, pointing at the Hudson River. “We have a number, 311, for those who were killed this year, but that’s just those we know of.”
Once the vigil began, NYTAG’s Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker read the names of those lost to violence in the past year, imploring the crowd to “Say their names!” — which the crowd did.
When Doroshow got up to speak, she emphasized, as did others, the importance of stable housing in keeping trans people safe. “I live in a safe place, but not many girls have that privilege,” she said.
She also said that people in the trans community needed to stop tearing one another down and unite against a common enemy, transphobia. “Cut the petty shit out,” she said. “We need to stand up and be heard articulately.”
But that angered Gia Love, who yelled out, “Don’t succumb to respectability politics!” She later took the mic to say that trans folks shouldn’t have to be “articulate” to have their safety and basic rights respected. “It’s politicians’ jobs to understand our stories the way we tell them.”
Trans men of color spoke as well. “The past few years [of transitioning] have been the most liberating yet terrifying years of my life,” said Josiah King of Black Trans Media. And Zane Silva, who identified himself as “a trans black Latinx Christian man,” said, “For me, resilience means the ability to recover quickly from tough things.”
The importance of the vigil’s setting was also not lost on participants. NYTAG cofounder and executive director Kiara St. James said, “When I first moved to New York in the mid-90s, [the piers] were a safe space” where trans and queer folks often stayed until dawn. “They weren’t as polished looking as they are now,” she said, referring to the dramatic facelift the piers have received from the city since the early 2000s, making them a popular exercise and hangout area for the neighborhood’s professionals. “Now the piers are policed, and they close at 1 [a.m.]. This is what gentrification looks like.”
Some participants spoke of their own brushes with violence. Only recently, “a man in the Bronx insulted me,” said Cynthia, an intern at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, named for the trans activist icon who died in 2002. “I saw the rage in his eyes, and I saw that his friend had a gun. So for me, Transgender Day of Remembrance is also about us just walking the streets daily trying to survive.”
She added: “Sylvia Rivera fought with the knowledge that we would not give up. Let these names [of those who have died] burn in your heart to fuel your desire to live.”
Before the vigil started, St. James noted that the many trans folks of color who have died of HIV/AIDS were also among the remembered. “Violence isn’t just a physical act,” she said. “HIV was so devastating to a lot of trans folks, in particular black and Latino, because of a lack of policies that were affirming and inclusive of us. We’re fortunate that we live in a city that has had local protections [for trans people] since 2002, and statewide, we finally passed GENDA in January.” She was referring to New York State’s trans-inclusive LGBTQ nondiscrimination law, which took years to get passed.
“Where New York leads, we hope that the rest of the nation will follow,” she said, adding that trans-led organizations still needed major funding to gain political traction. She noted that pharmaceutical giant Gilead, which manufactures the blockbuster drugs Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate) and Descovy (emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide) for both HIV treatment and prevention, had that very day announced it would give a total of $4.5 million to several trans-led groups nationwide.
Was it problematic to accept money from a company that has come under so much fire from HIV and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) activists for its $1,600-a-month sticker price on those drugs, especially when the U.S. government owned the patents? (The U.S. government recently sued Gilead over the issue.)
“It is problematic,” St. James replied. “At the same time, trans-led organizations have never been able to get money from pharma or corporations. Other LGBT organizations have tended to be prioritized. So those organizations that are leading the call-out of pharmaceutical companies also have to be accountable for how they have not supported trans-led organizations.”
The vigil ended with a sidewalk march (accompanied without incident by police) up Christopher Street, concluding with a brief ceremony in the small Stonewall National Monument park across the street from the Stonewall bar, site of the anti-police uprising 50 years ago last summer that is widely seen as the official start of the modern LGBT-rights movement.