RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – More than 250 transgender people were killed in acts of anti-transgender violence around the world in the last year, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, honored annually on Nov. 20th at events nationwide, aims to remember those lost.
The Day of Remembrance started in 1999 with the still-unsolved murder of Rita Hestor, a black trans woman living in San Francisco.
Friends, who would later create an international database of those lost, gathered with a candlelight vigil and a reading of names of those killed by transphobic violence.
According to FBI statistics released last week, over 17 percent of hate crimes are committed against members of the LGBTQ community.
The numbers also showed an increase in violence specifically against the transgender community. Nationally, to date in 2017, at least 25 trans people were reported to have been murdered in acts of transphobic violence.
But for Isa Noyola, deputy director at the Transgender Law Center, this increase is something the non-trans community is just now coming to terms with.
“Every year we are seeing our community killed off [as] transphobic incidents increase,” she said. “Because of the rise of transgender visibility in pop culture, we’re seeing a rise in attacks.”
And nowhere is that increase in visibility more notable than with Danica Roem, the delegate-elect in Virginia’s 13th district who made headlines earlier this month for being the first transgender person elected to a state-level seat.
Roem, a journalist based in Maryland before she won her seat earlier this month, was often brought face-to-face with this kind of violence.
In an interview with Courthouse News Service, she detailed the brutal murders of two individuals that she remembers to this day.
“Zella Ziona was dragged into an alleyway and shot in the head and the groin,” Roem said. “[And] Keyonna Blakeney was stabbed so many times that her family dressed her body in a white gown that went to her wrists to her ankles … They still had to put a veil over the open casket.”
Roem said the history of politicians singling out, stigmatizing and ultimately dehumanizing transgender people has allow this kind of violence to flourish.
“And when you dehumanize someone it becomes easier to attack them,” she said. “And it keeps happening.”
Roem plans to attend a Transgender Day of Remembrance service tonight near her home just outside D.C.
In Richmond, violence toward trans people is also all too familiar. Zakia McKensey, a native of the area, trans woman and transgender advocate, has been involved in Transgender Day of Remembrance events for the last three years. She’s often had to read the names of those she knew and loved.
In 2016, Noony Norwood was gunned down in south-side Richmond the morning after her 30th birthday. McKensey read her name. This past February, Chyna Gibson was similarly gunned down on the streets of New Orleans. And today, McKensey will read her name.
“It really hits home,” McKensey said as she readied herself for Monday’s event. She pointed to the disproportionate number of trans people of color, like herself, who are killed every year. “My community is adversely affected by these acts of violence … It’s extremely important to amplify what’s going on.”
McKensey transitioned years ago but has stepped up to lead her community more recently. She acknowledged the issues transgender people face have been more public thanks to negative headlines like proposed laws forcing transgender people into bathrooms aligned with their birth-gender, and steps forward like the election of Roem and other transgender candidates. But despite this progress she says there’s still plenty of work to be done.
She said the media continues to “dead-name” transgender victims by using their birth name instead of the name they identify with and it only further adds to the dehumanization she and Roem are familiar with.
“People don’t recognize them for who they are,” she said. “Transgender people have been getting killed for a long, long time. Due to social media, it’s amplified a little more, but there’s still more work to do.”
McKensey also pointed to the Trump administration as a factor in moving the needle back on transgender progress. The President’s quasi-failed attempt to ban people like McKensey from serving in the military, and calling them a “burden” because of their medical needs, only served to further excuse transphobic attitudes in her eyes.
And while past Transgender Day of Remembrance events always focus on the lives lost over the last 365 days, McKensey said they’re doing things a little different this year. They’re calling it the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resilience and holding a celebration after the otherwise morose reading of names.
“Not only are we mourning, we’re celebrating the lives and the beauty of trans people,” she said. “We are strong and beautiful and we deserve respect and equality. That’s what today is about.”