Honoring Lives Lost in 2016: LGBTQIA+ Students Hold Transgender Day of Remembrance Ceremony

Photo by Jeannette LaPointe.

For many Americans, the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that upheld fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples nationwide was the end of the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights. Unfortunately, members of the LGBTQIA+ community know that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Transgender individuals, or people whose gender identity doesn’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth, often face particularly stringent examples of prejudice, discrimination and even outright violence. So far in 2016, at least 21 transgender people have been shot, stabbed or fatally injured in some way, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s website.

That’s where the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) comes in. First conceptualized in 1998, TDOR aims to remember and honor the lives of transgender individuals who have lost their lives to hate-targeted violence or died by suicide throughout the course of a calendar year. On Sunday, Nov. 20, students from SUNY New Paltz’s TRANSaction club worked to bring a TDOR memorial ceremony to campus in SUB 62/63.

The ceremony opened with a keynote speech by second-year sociology major and TRANSaction club president James Baptiste. A trans person himself, Baptiste related the importance and gravity of TDOR to his own process of coming out and staying true to himself.

Baptiste’s speech transitioned into a candlelit vigil for the transgender people whose lives were lost in 2016. Dimming the lights, Baptiste and third-year Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and sociology double major Raine Nel led the vigil, reading aloud the names of some transgender people whose lives were lost. Both club members then passed the torch to other campus community members, each of whom read more names of the deceased to the crowd. After the reading, Nel called for a moment of silence for those who had passed, ushering the candlelit space into an air of gravity and mourning.

The opportunity for education wasn’t lost on members of TRANSaction: second-year international relations major Catherine “Cat” Keefe-Harris prepared an informative PowerPoint presentation for attendees, which they played after a brief intermission. The slideshow featured powerful cartoons, artworks and prose by transgender artists and creators, which Keefe-Harris compiled with the audience in mind. Nel and Keefe-Harris also shared slam poems by themselves and some of their favorite LGBTQIA+ poets.

According to Nel and Baptiste, the entire event took between four to six weeks to plan and execute. As the vice president of SUNY New Paltz’s chapter of TRANSaction, Nel spearheaded their plan to have a TDOR ceremony.

“My main goal with this event was originally just to have it because I know we had one last year, and I knew the person who organized it probably wasn’t going to do it this year,” Nel said. “As time went on, I realized I really wanted people to get out of [the event] that we’re remembering our dead, which is really unfortunate and heartbreaking, but that there are so many other trans people out there who are alive and whose lives we should be celebrating.”

TRANSaction’s TDOR memorial ceremony was the club’s main event for the Fall 2016 semester, Baptiste said. Campus community members can look forward to a series of panels and lectures about transgender issues co-sponsored by TRANSaction in the Spring 2017 semester. Baptiste hopes to schedule the event around Pride Week, an annual celebration of LGBTQIA+ pride across the country.

“Everyone can look forward to that next April,” he said.

In terms of advice for people who want to be allies to the transgender community, Nel offered their perspective.

“‘Ally’ isn’t just any identity that people can put on and wear when they feel like it,” Nel explained. “Being an ally is really about action. If you’re going to call yourself an ally to the trans community, really try to show that in whatever way you can.”