By: Andrea Keckley
On the evening of Nov. 19, Jesse Power, a senior at Farmingdale State College, stood on the stage of a campus auditorium and introduced himself to the audience as “the boy who had to tell his parents that I was never their little girl.”
From behind a podium, he told the rows of students, staff and community seated before him his story of growing up as a transgender man. They listened as he told them his story of growing up as a transgender man.
“Everything that is considered so easy for cis guys can be so hard for someone who is trans,” he said. “For example, using the bathroom, getting called on in class, having a photo ID or buying clothes can lead to an emotional breakdown. I can’t even go to the bagel store with my friends, because as soon a I’m about to order, the person at the counter says, ‘what can I get for you ladies?’”
But Power told his audience, “I will not apologize for who I am.” And neither would any of the four other trans voices who spoke at the Transgender Resource Center of Long Island’s (TRCLI) vigil for Trans Day of Remembrance, an international holiday meant to memorialize the transgender people who were murdered in hate crimes. Twenty-two transgender Americans were reported to have been killed between the time of last year’s Trans Day of Remembrance and this one’s, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
“I wanted to be the voice for other people when they can’t speak out for it, and I wanted to be able to honor the lives that have been lost,” Power said. “Hopefully through education and supporting not only the trans community but the LGBT community as whole we can end all of this.”
Transgender advocates on Long Island have spent years advocating for local legislators to expand legal protections for trans people. The community members who gathered at Farmingdale State College took time to reflect on the social progress and setbacks the trans community has encountered throughout the year, as well as what they hope to do in the future.
The recent local elections may create new opportunities for progress, Barbara Salva, head committee person for Long Island Transgender Day of Remembrance and deputy executive director of the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition (LITAC), said.
“We (LITAC) have pounded on [the former Nassau County legislature’s] desk to modify the existing laws and regulations in Nassau County to cover the transgender people,” she said. “They have refused to do that. Now, with the new election, I believe it is a possibility.”
Nassau County executive Laura Curran discussed the importance of working to make progress on a local level during the vigil.
“Our police have a zero-tolerance policy to hate crimes and prejudice and to bias in all its forms, and I am very proud of that fact,” Curran said. “It’s just so incredibly important that we all stand together to say ‘not in our county, not on our island, and not in our country.’”
But this year has also been filled with tense relations between the trans community and much of the federal government.
This Trans Day of Remembrance comes around a month after the New York Times obtained a leaked memo revealing that the Trump administration has considered redefining gender as something solely determined by one’s biology. Doing so would define the term “transgender” out of existence.
“This federal shift towards aggressive transphobia cannot be divorced from the contest of the steadily increasing number of the murders of TGNC (transgender non-conforming) reported in the United States,” Kylie Madhav, a member of the NYC LGBT Center and the keynote speaker of the night, said of the memo during her address. “Yet, not all is as bleak as it might feel. We have faced targeted violence for decades, yet we have simultaneously secured more protections from ourselves and our family members.”
But conversations on ways to gain equality for trans people were not limited to just politics, but also included an emphasis on educating people.
FSC student and founder of the student group Love over Hate spoke Hannah Ventaloro about the importance of fostering understanding at the event.
“Love Over Hate and Farmingdale Pride has chosen to work with the Long Island Transgender Day of Remembrance Committee because we feel that education about the trans community and visibility around the challenges trans people face is extremely important for our trans community to give a voice and to learn more about,” Ventaloro said.
“For the people here who don’t know much about trans people, thank you for going out of your way to learn more about trans issues and to become more of an ally towards the LGBTQ+ community.”
People who attended the event got to learn more about the experiences of transgender people through segments referred to as “trans voices,” when transgender individuals discussed their journeys.
“As a young transgender person growing up on Long Island I was bullied in response to my gender expression and behaviors,” Aiden Kaplan, one of the trans voices, said. “For many of those years, I had not yet realized I was a trans person, but I knew well that the harassment I experienced was due to society’s reaction to who I was.”
Many trans voices like Jordan Esposito also spoke about what it was like to discover their identity, and how having a community of fellow LGBTQ+ individuals helped them in their journeys.
“As I got older and matured and met new and different friends and I became exposed to a world that I didn’t know existed, I first learned what being transgender really was, and all of a sudden that light bulb went off,” Esposito said. “Things fell into place, and I realized that that was me.”
Towards the conclusion of this event, the vigil was held. Each of the American victims’ names, ages, towns of residence and causes of death (if known) were read out loud. Each time a person read a name, they placed white flowers on the memorial designed for them. The numbers of victims reported from each included country were also read during the vigil.
Eighty-two percent of the victims were women of color, 64 percent were under the age of 34 and at least 74 percent of the known victims from the 2017-2018 year were misgendered in initial police or media reports on their deaths, the HRC also reports.
Data on violence against transgender people is often incomplete or unreliable, as deaths can go unreported and victims not identified as transgender, per the HRC. This means there is a sizable likelihood that the number of trans Americans killed in hate crimes exceeds 22.
“While I’m excited about the program we have for you here tonight, I’m also mad as Hell,” Dr. Erica Jayne Friedman, advisor for Love over Hate said at the event. “I’m mad as Hell that as a community we have to hold this memorial event again. I’m mad as Hell because it shouldn’t take loss, it shouldn’t take death, to acknowledge the existence and humanity of others.”
Nov. 20 is the official date of Trans Day of Remembrance. The event began as a way to honor Rita Hester, a trans woman who was killed in 1998. It has since served as means to honor and memorialize trans people lost to hate crimes, raise awareness to the issue of violence against trans lives and more.
“Many of these folks died in a way that confirms society’s uncaring attitudes,” Casey Brady, one of the trans voices, said. “Shot multiple times, stabbed, mutilated, burned, drowned, left to bleed to death and ultimately dumped like trash. Sadly, so many of those people that we remember tonight lead lives filled with injustice in one or multiple ways.”
“We’ve seen far darker days before, and our light could never be extinguished,” Madhav said. “And if we keep our history in mind, how can we doubt that we will outlive that which tries to terrorize us. We’ve overcome before, and we shall overcome again.”