In Remembrance of the Dead...
by Kathryn Page
Whenever I find myself thinking about the murders, it comes down to just one thing: The stories have to be told.
Since August of last year, at least 10 transgender people have been murdered. If I start wondering why such things happen or what kind of persons would do it, I end up using the dreaded pronoun "they" -- both referring to the transgender people who have died and to those who attack, torture, and kill them every day.
I don't want to produce more "theys," groups of "others" for everyone to mourn or condemn. I want to talk about individual human beings who matter to me, because in my world people don't deserve to die because of the way others perceive them.
I started investigating everything last February, when I overheard my friend Andrea saying that another transgender person had been murdered: "That makes a total of seven since last August." A small flurry of email about it had erupted among those who knew, but at the time, no one in the media even seemed interested in the pattern of violence toward transgender people that had steadily increased over the past six months. Anything That Moves had recently reaffirmed our commitment to strengthening ties with the transgender community with a feature focus in issue #18. I felt that we needed to follow through on that commitment by giving the same attention to this story as we did to the Matthew Shepard murder.
Ironically, that commitment had recently come into question as a result of a story we published in issue #18, "I Just Do This to Impress Gay Men." When I decided to cover the murders, I ran to my friend Max, who is FTM, in a panic over my ignorance of the issues surrounding transgender people's lives. I can ask Max any question, no matter how personal or ignorant it may sound, without fear of ridicule or defensiveness. As usual, he was very generous, not only recommending books and other resources, but also talking frankly and openly about his own life. And then he brought up the article we'd published. It was primarily about bisexual issues, but also contained some language which, even during copyediting, had made some of us cringe: words like "mutilate" in reference to FTM operations.
Max talked about the article without rancor and then showed me a west coast 'zine that had published an essay criticizing us about the same article. The 'zine was written by someone who is also FTM, and it was full of intense anger. The writer ranted and raved, but he had a point. People were getting killed, and yet those of us who noticed the language before the article went to press had said nothing about it.
After everyone on staff had read the 'zine's comments, we discussed the issue energetically. Those of us who had caught the references acknowledged that we had been more worried about censoring the author's thoughts than about whether we should provide a forum for such beliefs, especially when they are only tangentially related to the article's main focus. We talked about the differences among "just being PC", preserving the author's content and view, and challenging words that unwittingly perpetuate an atmosphere of ignorance. As a result, our editorial guidelines now reaffirm that all editors are responsible for speaking up and opening a dialogue when something makes us uncomfortable -- just as all of us are in real life.
After talking to Max and Andrea, I began researching the murders in depth. My research led me to trans organizer, activist, Web designer and writer Gwen Smith. She had organized a vigil for the murdered transmen and women, which was held outside the Castro Theatre while it was showing The Brandon Teena Story, the story of another transperson's murder. She had also put together the beautiful and moving Web site Remembering Our Dead.
"Remembering Our Dead" features pictures of the dead: rows and rows of human faces. I was struck by a feeling of personal loss -- who knows what acts of heroism or simple kindness the world may have missed out on as a result of some stranger's act of fear?
My response was to write this account of the most recent stories. I wanted more people to know what was happening, and that it was happening to people who were brave enough to claim the right to be who they are. I don't really know what I would find, if I had to look inside myself for that kind of bravery.
I got the majority of the information about the murders from Gwen and GenderPAC. Most accounts of the stories are outrageously disrespectful and attempt to titillate their readers by emphasizing the sensational aspects of the story. Often, even the queer media doesn't bother to refer to the victim using the person's chosen gender identity.
"Once you could do this to blacks and other minorities, and women, and people with disabilities; but the standards of public discourse have evolved past that," said Riki Wilchins, executive director of Gender-PAC, a transgender activist organization. "Now they're left with us to ridicule with impunity. Gender has become the new socially acceptable form of prejudice."
The first murder I heard about -- the one my friend Andrea was talking about -- happened in Houston. Someone had shot a "suspected male prostitute" in a motel. When they found "him," the papers said, "he" was wearing women's clothing. To me, it sounded like the transwoman had been murdered twice -- first, her unknown assailant had killed her, and then the media obliterated her. They never even mentioned her name; the headline said, "Drag Queen Murder."
It was Feb. 26 at the time, and already eight transgender-perceived individuals had died, three of them in Texas. The other two at least had names: Steve Dwayne Garcia in Houston and Lauryn Paige in Austin. Papers described both as "appearing to be wearing women's clothing." Lauryn Paige's murder was especially grisly, and her murderers were described as "sadistic killers": "There was more than one wound, and they were very brutal in the application of those wounds," according to Commander Gary Olfers of the Austin police.
I tracked the string of murders back to last year, when the violence began to escalate.
August 1998: Four military policemen in the city of Salvador (Bahia, Brazil) force two transvestite sex workers to throw themselves into the sea after humiliating and torturing them. One of them, "Luana" (Junior da Silva Lago) drowns; her body is found three days later in an advanced state of decomposition.
The same month, Fitzroy "Jamaica" Green is murdered in Greenwich Village. The papers, especially the New York Post, have a field day sensationalizing the story. They describe her apartment as a "sleaze emporium," saying the fact that Jamaica was a member of a sexual minority was what killed her. A barely disguised tone of ridicule and disdain characterizes their entire "report".
September: Chanel Chandler is murdered in her New York City apartment; her house is set on fire, probably to cover up what was done. [Ed. Note: Due to the New York District Attorney's lack of readiness to go to trial, the City has released Christopher Lopez and Christopher Chavez, Chanel's alleged murderers, and dropped all charges against them.]
Also in September, Monique Thomas is killed by a man who is later found in her car with her credit cards. When apprehended, he allegedly blames the murder on "some men" who had discovered that Monique was biologically male, as if that would explain everything.
November: Transwoman Rita Hester is murdered in her apartment. The Boston papers all report it as the death of a man and/or a transvestite. Once again, the killer tries to obliterate Rita with 25 stab wounds -- a case of overkill typical in trans murders -- but it takes the media to take Rita's life and make it a lie.
"She wanted it to be known that her name was Rita," the owner of a neighborhood bar comments. "She let everybody know what she was about." The media just doesn't get it.
Skip forward to April 1999: Georgia papers report Tracey Thompson's death as the "fourth U.S. murder of a transperson this year." I don't know who their sources are; obviously they don't include Gwen. Tracey was repeatedly bashed in the head with a baseball bat. Before she died, she told police her boyfriend had done it. She was going in and out of consciousness at the time. The news stories don't say what kind of loving care she got while the police interrogated her; they do say that they found out she was transgendered at the hospital.
I couldn't help but think about Tyra Hunter, who lay untreated on a stretcher for five to seven minutes while emergency medical personnel backed away and made derogatory remarks about her. Like Tracey, Tyra died later of her injuries. [Ed. Note: Tyra Hunter died in 1995. Last year, her mother won $2.5 million in damages from the city government, who finally admitted in court what its EMS staff had said and done.]
June 1999: Emmon Bodfish is found bludgeoned to death in his home in Orinda, CA. Born Margaret Bodfish, Emmon had lived as a man for at least 16 years. His son, Max Wills, dies the following day, an apparent suicide, found in a Santa Monica hotel room with his wrists and throat slashed. Most of the media, including the gay paper The Bay Area Reporter, repeatedly persist in calling Emmon "her" in their coverage.
The transgender people I know talk about childhood years filled with isolation and confusion; of growing up to face a world with too few options and too many people who are dangerous because of their ignorance and fear. I find myself in awe when I realize how they have faced that world and powerfully taken their places in it. A world requiring so much courage just to be the person you know you are creates a lot of quiet heroes, and a few louder ones like Gwen Smith.
When I apologized to Gwen because this article wouldn't be coming out until August, she was gracious: "Don't worry about that. I'm just glad that anyone is talking about it at all."
As I said, the stories have to be told.
Kat Page has recently taken over as head event coordinator for Anything That Grooves, where she poses as Madame Full Charge. She is a polyamorous bisexual Witch who sings the blues, writes short stories and believes that every lesson worth learning happens in the street.
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