Multiple Transgender Day of Remembrance events were held in New York City on Nov. 20, including an annual Washington Square Park vigil and a well-attended gathering at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan.
In the late afternoon, public high school students in Washington Square Park led a powerful memorial and candlelight vigil honoring the lives of 72 trans people who died in the past year. The action was organized by New York City Youth for Trans Rights and The Clinton School GSA and involved Gays Against Guns.
The group New York City Youth for Trans Rights, which brings together high school and college students in the city, was formed in February to protest the killing of the trans teenager Brianna Ghey. Members of the Clinton GSA held a Transgender Day of Remembrance action last year, but just within their school community; this was their first time holding space for Transgender Day of Remembrance in a public park. It is the usual routine, however, for Gays Against Guns, which gathers annually for a public Transgender Day of Remembrance event.
“Trans Day of Remembrance means acknowledging the fact that people have died because they were trans,” said Alex Carroll, a senior at Harvey Milk High School, and one of the founders of New York City Youth for Trans Rights.
“Being here today is a privilege for us,” he added. “A lot of people don’t make it and we want to remember them. Think about how many people we don’t know are trans who we have lost as well.”
This year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance observances coincided with ongoing concerns over the murders of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The Human Rights Campaign, which tracks violent deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming folks, has counted 26 people killed so far this year after recording 41 violent deaths last year, 59 in 2021, and 45 in 2020.
Thalia Kahanov, 16, a trans teenager and co-organizer of the Clinton School GSA, said Transgender Day of Remembrance fosters a community-oriented atmosphere.
“Looking in front of me are all of these trans and queer people who are huddled around together laughing, and I think that’s the most important thing,” she said. “I think that’s why I like doing this so much, to see a community form. … It’s sad to see it has to take loss for people to realize the value of their community, but at the same time it gives me hope that we can continue on and form a stronger community and continue to survive.”
Kahanov said the task of researching the names and stories of the trans people who lost their lives over the past year was difficult for her. “It’s so personal to see all these people, and sometimes there’s that jarring moment when I’m researching the names and I see someone who somewhat looks like me,” she said.
Speaking to the several dozen people assembled around a raised platform in the park, Kahanov said, “The loss of our trans siblings should not be just something we should mourn, but a call to revolution. … Every breath we take as trans people, every moment of joy, every moment of silence is a form of resistance in a world that does not want us to live.”
Multiple generations of queer and trans youth joined together at the vigil alongside Gays Against Guns activists who were dressed in white as “Human Beings” to represent trans and non-binary people who lost their lives to gun violence last year.
Claire, 16, a co-organizer from The Clinton School, appreciated the age diversity at the event and emphasized the point that individuals should not feel shame about their identity.
“I am non-binary but I am very feminine presenting and I don’t owe anybody masculinity or androgyny, and nobody owes any part of society anything except for being themselves,” they said. “If you are able to be yourself, then that’s enough, and if you aren’t, that’s OK; there are people out there who will always support you and love you.”
Valerie Napoletana, 39, a trans woman and member of Gays Against Guns, said she was blown away to see young people honoring trans people’s lives.
“I lose people every year,” she said. “But seeing groups like this, seeing young people being able to come out and be themselves gives me hope. … It’s lovely to see the trans community especially grow, because that wasn’t even a word when I was growing up.”
At the same time as the memorial, 10 Gays Against Guns activists, veiled and dressed in white, silently held up photos representing the trans people that had lost their lives in the past year.
“We really still need to bring attention to the increased violence and hate towards our community, and this is a different way to protest,” said Ti Cersley, Gays Against Guns’ vice president. “We’re not yelling, we’re not screaming, we’re paying tribute in a way to people who are not lucky to be alive as we are.”
Among others in attendance included 16-year-old Layla, an 11th grade student at Clinton High School who said she feels “really supported” at her school’s GSA. She wanted to show solidarity with slain trans individuals and stand in support of her friends who organized the event.
“I think it’s important to remember the amazing trans people that were cast away and are no longer here, and to teach the next generation of kids to be kind, to accept everyone,” Layla said. “Trans people are still being killed at an alarming rate in 2023, and that needs to be stopped.”
Miu, 16, underscored the point that the experiences and fears of transgender individuals must be validated.
“I think Trans Day of Remembrance is really important because violent crimes against trans people are at an all time high, and I think it’s really important for people to know that,” Miu said. “And I think it’s important that trans people know that there’s a community that is backing them.”
Transgender Day of Remembrance at the LGBT Center
Later that evening, just blocks away, people slowly packed into a meeting room at the LGBT Community Center for a night of speeches, performances, food, and readings of the names of transgender individuals who have been killed. The somber vigil incorporated artistic themes, poetry, memorial displays, candles, and photos — and speakers delivered remarks against the backdrop of a projector circulating the names and faces of slain transgender people.
Several performers delivered impassioned remarks touching on grief and identity, all awhile voicing a message of collective remembrance. Multiple speakers stressed the point that there are different ways to remember lost loved ones because everyone mourns in their own way.
“I have been a transgender woman for 26 years and I have seen many of my trans siblings brutally killed by hate crimes,” Michelle Cintron, who serves as the LGBT Center’s purchasing manager, said during an opening speech alongside Micah Fedenko. Cintron, like others, further acknowledged the likelihood that some deaths of transgender individuals have gone unreported.
“People with sisters, brothers, aunts, daughters, and sons — lives taken much too soon,” Cintron said.
Mercy Kelly, a visual artist and advocate, commanded the microphone from the back of the room as she read multiple pieces. One of Kelly’s pieces was called “Is It True?”
“Is it true,” Kelly read, “that we choose our bodies before we are born? I believe it is my divine purpose to dispel the myth that fat people are jolly. I am not jolly. I am a natural disaster. I am a hammer and all of you look like nails… I am not jolly, and if my body is big, let it be because it is a centralized way of joy for me, for myself.”
Linda La, a spoken word poet, read from pieces such as one called “I Don’t Dream While I Sleep; I Dream While Awake,” in which she said, “It is misunderstanding that creates strangers out of old friends; it is what we leave unsaid that dries up the mouths of all the salivating love in the end…”
In a nod to the discomforting nature of discussing death, the evening’s emcee, Nereyda Luna, led a moment of meditation with the entire room during which she encouraged individuals to stretch their shoulders, take deep breaths, and release tension. The evening concluded with a reading of the names — including a moment of silence for each person — before serving a hot dinner for the dozens of attendees scattered across the room.
One attendee, Bianka Van Kartier, decided to stop by after hearing about the event from two friends.
“At first I said to them that I couldn’t make it,” Van Kartier said. “But then at the last minute I decided to come out.”
Van Kartier especially enjoyed watching a performance by Princex Aimis, who delivered spoken word poetry. Van Kartier recalled suffering injuries in an attack several years ago and wondered aloud what it would have been like to perform at the event.
“It was a great event,” Van Kartier said. “I was really impressed with it.”
Other Transgender Day of Remembrance events around the city
Several other events marking Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20 included an afternoon vigil at Queens College as well as a joint event between Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Exponents, which serves people impacted by HIV/AIDS, substance use, incarceration, and behavioral health challenges. On Nov. 18, the Staten Island Pride Center held a Transgender Day of Remembrance. Make the Road New York, Caribbean Equality Project, and other groups also joined together for a Transgender Day of Remembrance event on Nov. 19.
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Dashiell Allen reported from Washington Square Park. Matt Tracy reported from the LGBT Center.