Joy Morris, born and raised in Chicago, passed away in December 2014 after 30 years of life’s twists and turns that had left her physically broken and mentally depleted. An ex-drug abuser, an ex-sex worker and a HIV patient, Morris was fighting for one thing her whole life – to be respected as the woman she knew she was.
Morris was among 22 trans women memorialized Friday during the first Transgender Day of Remembrance organized by the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) at Columbia College Chicago, which also hosted the event. Under the dim lights, more than 150 people closed their eyes and observed a moment of silence in honor of the trans women who have died this year. Some wiping away tears and some pounding their hearts with their fists, they recalled the memories of their friends and family whose faces were projected on a wall one by one at the memorial service.
“Living in Chicago as trans is not easy,” said Alexis Martinez, 64, a Chicago Latina trans activist, who was one of the speakers of the day. “They are murdered, beaten, raped and left to die in the streets.”
While mourning the dead, the advocates and the trans community aimed at raising awareness about the transphobia, racism, criminalization and violence targeting transgender people, especially trans women of color.
Owen Daniel-McCarter, attorney and co-founder of TJLP, a transgender rights group that provides criminal legal services to low-income and street-based transgender people in Illinois, said 2015 has been a deadly, traumatic year for most transgender communities in the U.S. Some transgender people have been murdered, victims of HIV or suicide.
The number of trans women who have lost their lives this year stands at 22 in the U.S. and about 300 internationally, according to Daniel-McCarter.
“It is a low estimate because their deaths are rarely investigated and they are misgendered whenever they are reported to the law enforcement agencies and when they are documented in the media,” Daniel-McCarter said. “There's a lot of disrespect toward trans people just because of who they are.”
Daniel-McCarter said there has also been a disproportionate number of trans women of color in the criminal legal system; the study from the National Center Transgender Equality estimated that about 54 percent of black transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
“That was of a survey of non-incarcerated people, so we can only imagine the number is even more,” Daniel-McCarter said.
Among the advocates who spoke at the event was Maritxa Vidal, 56, a Cuban born transgender woman and a board member at TransLatina Coalition, a national transgender advocacy group. Vidal said “something has to be done in the laws.”
According to Vidal, gender discrimination is making it difficult for transgender people to secure jobs and forcing them to turn to illegal activities or sex work. That, in turn, often exposes them to a greater risk of violence.
“Even though my sisters are willing to work, they are not able to get a job because people hate them,” Vidal said. “We are transgender women but before anything, we are members of society, residents of this country. We have the same right as anybody else to realize the beautiful American Dream.”
During the event, Monica James, of TJLP, the emcee of the evening, who has survived years of police targeting and testified before the UN to the abuses inflicted by cops and courts on trans women of color, also called for solidarity to fight against the realities of a racist injustice system, hate violence and gender norms.
“Our lives matter and no matter what they say on the outside, our lives matter,” James said. “It's so important that we get together, organize, strategize and envision ourselves, taking our rightful place, our right to be safe, our right to have jobs, our right to have housing, our right to have healthcare and our right to have love and dignity amongst all things.”
The coordinator of the LGBTQ Office of Culture Community at Columbia College Chicago, Lex Lawson said while he lauds the increased visibility and awareness of transgender issues, anti-trans violence and discrimination has been as brutal and frequent as ever.
“We have a very long way to go,” Lawson said. “We cannot say, ‘I've never heard of trans people’ anymore but at the same time, that's not enough. That's not even close to enough.”
The messages shared by speakers resonated with participants, most of whom were part of LGBT communities in Chicago.
“More people should be aware of the persecution that the trans community along with anybody who doesn't fit into the perfect model of heteronormativity that's pervaded in this country for generations,” said Emaan Abidi, student at University of Illinois at Chicago, who identifies herself as bisexual. “We are not asking much. We are just asking for justice, respect, recognition and the protection that we all as human beings deserve from society.”