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Feature Wed Nov 24 2010

Lessons from Death: Chicagoans Reflect on Transgender Day of Remembrance

This article was submitted by Joseph Erbentraut.

Transgender Day of Remembrance Chicago 2010As the temperature plunged and the winds kicked up in the Loop just past 5pm on Saturday, Nov. 20, a gathering of more than 100 people stood outside the Thompson Center, candles in hand, under a large teal, pink and white flag while 14 names were read aloud.

The names belonged to the 14 known individuals murdered last year in the U.S. due to their gender identity or expression. While these peoples' lives may have included happy moments like birthdays and first kisses, parties and joyrides, this night their entire existences were condensed into only a few short sentences describing each of their lives' tragic final moments: Strangled. Stabbed. Punched repeatedly and grabbed by the neck. Shot in the chest.

Shot in the chest -- that was Chicagoan Sandy Woulard, a black 28-year-old trans woman counted among the 14 transgender Americans memorialized in the twelfth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) with ceremonies across the globe.

Candice Hart, vice chair of the Illinois Gender Advocates, a leading transgender advocacy organization in the state, said the lives memorialized during TDOR highlight many of the deep-seated prejudices faced by the trans community in Chicago and elsewhere.

"These deaths are a constant reminder to us of how far we still have to go and, for me, the day gives me a lot of energy to say these individuals did not die in vain," Hart said. "They have highlighted these inadequacies and biases that exist in our society so that those of us who are living can do something to make change."

Woulard was found lying on the street near a church at 7500 S. Halsted around 3am on Monday, June 21, and died less than an hour later. When the story hit the press via a Sun-Times article later that week, Woulard -- who was believed to have identified and presented herself as a woman for at least the last seven years, according to a friend quoted in the Windy City Times -- was offensively referred to as "a man dressed in women's clothing," a designation that insulted transgender advocates who sent the Sun-Times a letter asking that a correction be printed.

No such action was taken, and Woulard's murder remains an unsolved crime that, until Saturday's remembrance ceremony, went mostly unaddressed by other media outlets and LGBT community leaders. When the dearth of coverage of anti-transgender "hate" murders is compared to the outpouring of dismay in response to the spate of anti-gay bullying-related suicides in recent months, some activists question where today's LGBT movement's priorities lie.

Owen Daniel-McCarter, an attorney with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, said he was outraged by the way the city's gay and lesbian media and organizers largely ignored Woulard's murder. The tragedy, ironically, occurred less than a week before Lakeview's annual Pride Parade.

"If Sandy had been a white person or had lived in a different neighborhood of Chicago, her death would have been politicized in a very different way and that says something about our movement," Daniel-McCarter said. "The lack of response to her death reflects the sense from our community that someone like Sandy is disposable and we are complacent in that."

Some advocates say one reason Woulard's murder received little attention in mainstream press was the high likelihood she was engaging in sex work at the time of her death. Put bluntly, her life -- one lived in the margins for reasons beyond her gender identity -- proved problematic to the white picket-fence, middle-upper class image some LGBT organizations work to maintain.

"But there's a reason why people commit survival crimes," Daniel-McCarter added. "To me, this is a reminder of how much work we have to do to expose some of the racism and classism within our queer movement."

A disproportionate representation of the transgender community -- most notably trans women -- engage in sex work at least partly due to high levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness in the community. When joined with high levels of discrimination in access to affordable, gender-affirming and culturally competent health care (like that offered by the endangered Howard Brown Health Center), many trans-identified people have little choice but to paddle against the stream.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey [PDF], a survey of 6,450 trans people first reported last November, nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents reported being fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of their gender identity -- which employers are legally allowed to do in 39 states (excluding Illinois) who do not have trans-inclusive job discrimination laws. Nineteen percent had been or were at that time homeless and 15 percent of respondents lived on less than $10,000 per year or less -- double the rate of the general population.

In terms of health care, nearly one in five respondents to the survey reported being refused care from health providers due to being transgender or gender non-conforming, and 28 percent said they had at one time experienced harassment in a medical setting. Forty-one percent of respondents had attempted suicide at least once.

Here in Chicago, transgender people face many of the above issues and in recent experiences have butted up against obstacles in working to better the lives of those still living -- often the second part of the conversation at TDOR events like Saturday's ceremony. Perhaps surprisingly, obstacles to progress have found a stage in "LGBT-friendly" pockets of the city.

Transgender Day of Remembrance Chicago 2010

Many transgender Chicagoans have reported being harassed by the city's police department, most notably in East Lakeview. While several advocates acknowledged police harassment as an ongoing problem dating back to at least the 1960s, recent reports have surfaced of Lakeview police making "prostitution sweeps" and bringing in transgender women of color they suspect to be engaging in sex work.

Benjamin Perry, an organizer with Gender JUST, described the experience of one woman who he knew who was picked up during a sweep this summer.

"They humiliated her and took her to prison, lifting up her skirt and showing her private parts to men in the cell and calling her a man," Perry said. "It's sad that just because she doesn't fit our society she is harassed and looked down upon. She's simply living her life the way she chooses to live it."

Daniel-McCarter considers the level of police harassment and exposure to violence many trans people experience on a near-daily basis as a sign of where more advocacy is needed from the entire LGBT community.

"As a movement, I think we need to move towards prioritizing the people in the most dire situations -- those whose lives are literally at risk," Daniel-McCarter said.

As part of an effort to better the harsh realities facing many transgender Chicagoans, activists from more than a dozen different groups across the metropolitan area banded together this summer to form the first-ever Chicago Transgender Coalition (CTC). Upon formation, one of CTC's emerging goals was to foster a better relationship between the community and CPD.

Lois Bates, transgender health manager at Howard Brown and one of the leading voices who created the CTC, noted the coalition is in its early stages in addressing the disparities in resources facing trans Chicagoans.

Christina Kahrl, another member of CTC and a board member of Equality Illinois, the state's leading LGBT advocacy organization, described the conversations with CPD as "an opportunity [they] cannot let slide." Kahrl was optimistic for change.

But some community leaders have taken issues that trans activists may no longer be leading the cause for change on an issue that directly affects them. At a point that remains unclear, the discussions between CPD and trans organizers became the domain of the Lakeview Action Coalition (LAC), an organization working on social justice issues concerning many communities including LGBT people.

LAC executive director Jennifer Ritter said her group has already submitted their policy recommendations to the department, loosely based off a similar policy implemented in 2006 in Washington, DC, including directions including asking arrestees what pronouns they prefer, and searching transgender people in less invasive and demoralizing ways. LAC also recommended CPD reconsider their current practice of housing imprisoned trans people either by their birth sex or in isolation, rather than by the sex with which they identify.

Ritter noted trans people were included "in various levels of its development."

"It wasn't hard to improve upon Chicago's policy on these issues," she added. "But it's going to be tough. CPD can have an old-school mentality and so this is about shifting that. We're talking about a whole culture. The policy is one step and we're hoping we have high enough levels of relationships to make that change but implementation is another question."

Malic White, a trans activist who attended several early meetings on the policy changes proposed, admired LAC's intentions but said few trans-identified people otherwise active in the community's activist circles have been involved with the process. White, and other activists with which Gapers Block spoke, seemed unaware the proposed policy had already been submitted to CPD.

"The idea is that this policy is supposed to keep trans people safe, but this process is definitely not going to work," White said. "Most of the people drafting this policy for the transgender community are not trans-identified, which is definitely a problem."

Further, White questioned the depth of research LAC made into the Washington, DC, policy's effectiveness in practice. As recently as late September, transgender activists in DC voiced concerns over police officers continuing to violate the city's policy by targeting trans women for arrest -- the crime of simply "walking while trans" -- and placing them in cells with male inmates.

When asked why no activists have brought this concern up with larger LGBT groups in the city to address the problem, one source who asked to remain anonymous said the trans community is nervous to be too outspoken about the police harassment for fear of the policy remaining unchanged. Jose Rios, the CPD's LGBT liaision, based in the 23rd District where the sweeps are said to have happened, did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.

Despite the criticism of LAC, Bates -- who said she has been involved throughout the policy process -- defended the organization, saying action on police harassment against trans people has been "a long time coming" and noting that no other groups have stepped up to take on the issue.

While some transgender activists remain disappointed by the developments of community conversations with CPD, many organizers point to other positive steps being taken to protect the community's safety and wellbeing in other ways. In response to complaints of "policing" of transgender people using the bathrooms at the Center on Halsted, Gender JUST lobbied aggressively to have bathrooms re-signed as trans-inclusive. Another organization, Genderqueer Chicago, has led efforts to recognize businesses in the city who pledge to keep bathrooms safe and accessible to trans people.

IGA is also considering creating its first-ever job fair, catering to trans-friendly companies looking to extend much-needed employment opportunities to the community.

Above all, transgender activists are urging fellow members of their community to remain strong and resilient while confronting the discrimination they still face here in the Windy City.

Bates hopes trans Chicagoans will continue to educate potential allies and push for more visibility in the places that matter -- ranging from political realms like the city's commission on LGBT issues to simply going about one's everyday life with unabashed pride against all odds.

"The trans community is kind of invisible, and we need to change that in those important places so people know we matter as well," Bates said. "It's a cause that nobody else can do for us that we have to do for ourselves."

"We need to remember that we are important, to step into the forefront and make some movement for ourselves."


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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