On the night of April 28, 2012, Tiffany Woods had a hard time sleeping. The program manager of Fremont-based TransVision, which provides health services to transgender clients, spent much of the night tossing and turning, so when one of her former employees, Terry Washington, called her cellphone just before 7 a.m., she didn’t pick up. When more calls started coming in, Woods knew something was wrong. Washington’s voicemail delivered one of the most shocking pieces of news she had ever received in her long history as a transgender advocate in the East Bay.
“I hate to disturb you, Tiffany,” Woods recalled Washington saying in his message. “Brandy’s been shot. And she’s gone.”
Not Brandy, she thought.
Brandy Martell, a 37-year-old transgender woman who had worked for Woods for four years, was shot and killed by a gunman while she and her friends, a group of transgender women, sat in a car near the intersection of 13th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland in the early hours of the morning. By 7:40 a.m., Woods, who is also a transgender woman, was at the crime scene taking photos of Martell’s body, covered with a blanket, lying on the street.
“I heard the gunshots, ran over to the car, and see her there taking her last breath,” recalled Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who happened to be in the area — a popular hangout for the trans community — at the time. “I’d never experienced somebody dying in front of me.” A week later, Moore, who was then involved in sex work, had an emotional breakdown and decided to get off the streets. She now works for TransVision.
It’s unclear who killed Martell or why. Oakland police spokesperson Johnna Watson said the department is committed to finding Martell’s killer. “We do not want this case to go forgotten,” she said.
But some feel it already has. Several friends of Martell believe her murder was a blatant hate crime, because such crimes are all too familiar for transgender people, who often experience violence and discrimination because of the simple fact that their gender identity and expression do not match the ones assigned to them at birth. Even in the liberal East Bay.
“We prepare for death,” said Ms. Will, an Oakland transgender woman and longtime Bay Area activist. “We all wonder when it will be our turn.”
Transgender rights advocates in Oakland will continue to call for justice for Martell on November 20, which marks the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, the highest-profile event for the trans community in the country — and a depressing reminder of the grim challenge facing this population. Since Martell’s death, there have been several attention-grabbing local cases of violence involving transgender victims, notably the controversial death of a trans woman, Kayla Moore (no relation to the aforementioned Kayla Moore), while in Berkeley Police Department custody, and, recently, the case of a gender-nonconforming (or “agender”) teenager, Sasha Fleischman, whose skirt was lit on fire while on a bus in Oakland.
Although data on hate crimes against transgender people are hard to come by, studies show that transgender people are disproportionately victims of violence compared to the broader LGBT community. A 2012 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which collects data from LGBT organizations around the country, found that the problem is particularly acute for transgender women of color. Around half of all victims of anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2012 were transgender, and all of them were women of color. (This is the first year that law enforcement agencies will be reporting hate crimes based on gender identity to the FBI, and data won’t be published until 2014.) According to Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project, there have been 238 killings of trans people in the last 12 months worldwide — sixteen in the United States. The global count has been climbing overall since 2009.
While transgender people face widespread mistreatment — they were 1.67 times as likely to experience threats and intimidation compared to LGBTQ non-transgender survivors and victims of violence in the 2012 anti-violence report — studies and interviews with advocates show that trans women are particularly vulnerable. They face higher rates of discrimination, violence, sexual assault, and poverty. Some are victimized by male partners because they are ashamed of being with them. Others deal with violence associated with sex work. For the women who struggle daily with abuse and harassment — from strangers, boyfriends, and, in some cases, police — it can feel as if society has accepted this reality as the norm, or at least is choosing to ignore it.
“We’re expendable,” said Breonna McCree, an African-American transgender woman and close friend of Martell. “We expect there will be no justice.” McCree, who is a public health specialist, said that when she used to be a sex worker she and other women had the traumatizing task on multiple occasions of helping police identify transgender friends who had been murdered. “[Violence] becomes part of everyday life.”
Just one week before her death, Martell was sitting in the living room of McCree’s Oakland apartment, talking about the miracle of their survival thus far.
Martell, McCree recalled, told her, “‘I’m surprised someone hasn’t killed me off yet.'”
On a chilly Friday evening earlier this month, Kayla Moore and two co-workers from TransVision parked their cars at the dimly lit corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 16th Street, just outside of the hustle of downtown Oakland. It was after 10 p.m. and the November First Fridays street festival had ended, but for many bars and clubs, the night was just beginning — as was their night shift. They were there to reach out to sex workers, offering them condoms and handing out fliers.
“You hear that? Gunshots,” Terry Washington, who works as a health education specialist with the program, said to the others. “We have direct orders to get out of here early.”
It was the first time the three had done outreach since the September First Fridays when a 21-year-old woman was shot and killed — shortly after they had asked her if she would be interested in TransVision’s services. She appeared to be gender-nonconforming, or “masculine presenting,” they recalled, though the advocates did not speak to her for very long. A stray bullet reportedly hit the victim, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to her family. (OPD did not respond to the Express‘ requests for details regarding the homicide or the shooting involving Martell, and would only confirm that the incidents occurred.) According to Woods, however, the police are investigating whether the shooting stemmed from a comment made about a transgender woman. (Woods said she communicates regularly with cops about the search for Martell’s killer.)
“What we do is not glamorous,” Woods said during an interview at her Fremont office, where she has a memorial wall honoring local transgender “sisters” who have died over the years. The wall features around forty names — six that the group considers murder victims and most others who died from AIDS — along with various newspaper clippings that display a lack of sensitivity in the media to the transgender community. “What we do gets no attention,” said Woods. “We don’t get invited to conferences. But what we are doing is changing lives.”
The main work of TransVision, a program within Tri-City Health Center, is HIV prevention and education, as well as non-HIV primary care for transgender men and women, including access to hormone treatment. Woods, who lives with her wife and three children in San Leandro, co-founded the program a decade ago in response to the death of Gwen Araujo, a seventeen-year-old transgender woman who was beaten and strangled to death by four men in Newark on October 3, 2002.
TransVision is part of a growing community of organizations who are working on transgender issues in the East Bay. In the last year, four other organizations that work with the transgender community have moved or expanded into Oakland. Meanwhile, advocates have helped advance both state and federal legislation designed to protect transgender people from discrimination. Still, trans advocates in Alameda County say resources for their causes have been sparse, and they have even struggled at times to get support from within the LGBT rights movement.
There isn’t enough support for those who are homeless, who face housing and job discrimination, and who are victims of domestic abuse, activists say. Some transgender people may also suffer from mental health problems stemming from family rejection or physical abuse. These issues may not be as headline-grabbing as same-sex marriage, but they are some of the most pressing needs, advocates say.
In a survey of 573 male-to-female transgender women with a history of sex work in Oakland and San Francisco (published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health), more than two-thirds reported being ridiculed or embarrassed by family members because of their trans identity. One-third of the group reported “daily verbal harassment in adolescence and extreme difficulties in handling the harassment.” One quarter said they were physically assaulted in adulthood because of their gender identity or appearance.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of black respondents said they had experienced homelessness (five times the national rate). Transgender people experience poverty at twice the national rate (for trans people of color, it’s four times the national rate), noted the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ 2012 report on hate violence.
This data only scratches the surface of the daily struggle for transgender people. “You have to be on guard all of the time. We go through this every day,” said Trisha Wilson, a 52-year-old transgender woman who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. “It’s the constant harassment — the fear that someone is going to jump on me, going to attack me, going to stab me. I’m cautious wherever I go.”
Wilson said whenever she gets “the look” from passersby, she knows it means trouble. Sometimes, they laugh at her. Other times, the harassment is more threatening.
Jasmine McKay, a 29-year-old transgender woman and health educator who works in Oakland, recalled a time when three men circled her at an Oakland BART station as she pretended to listen to music on her headphones. “They kept walking back and forth around me,” she said. “I heard them talking, ‘Is that a man? Is that a woman?'”
In the past, McKay would speak out when she was being harassed and shout back, “I am a woman!” — especially when she was beginning the process of her transition.
“Now, I’m like, whatever,” she said. “I’m not going to start any trouble.”
McKay said threats have also come from partners. “There’s such a power dynamic with women and men in general, but especially in the trans community. It’s like your being trans allows a man to have power over you. They choose whether they want to be seen with you or not, if you’re worthy to be seen or not. And if you are with them, they’re doing you a favor.”
Janetta Johnson, program coordinator with the Oakland-based Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, said she gets especially frightened when men purposefully refer to her as “he” or “sir” or “mister.” “That’s about the time that somebody is getting ready to attack us. … It brings up a lot of trauma. They start off by saying you’re not who you think you are. That’s a big, scary thing.”
“I don’t think many people understand the degree to which many trans women experience harassment and scrutiny in so many areas of their lives,” said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, which recently relocated to downtown Oakland from San Francisco. “Many gay and lesbian people don’t realize how much that [violence] is still happening for trans people.”
In the recent case of Fleischman, sixteen-year-old Richard Thomas has been accused of intentionally setting fire to the eighteen-year-old, who was wearing a skirt and who, according to the teenager’s family, identifies as neither male nor female but as agender. The alleged violence happened on an AC Transit bus while Fleischman was sleeping.
At Thomas’ arraignment, his mother, who identified herself only as Ms. Jackson, told the Express that she didn’t know why her son did it. “He is very remorseful. I am so sorry to the victim’s family and to the victim.” Yet prosecutors have charged Thomas as an adult and with a hate crime because the suspect, according to the criminal complaint, “stated he did it because he was homophobic.”
(Hate crime charges are rare in Alameda County. Only four were filed or initiated in 2012 and five in 2011, according to the office of District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, although the specifics on the nature of the alleged biases in the cases weren’t readily available.)
“We’re dedicated to ensuring that justice is served when these crimes are committed,” said Teresa Drenick, spokesperson for O’Malley, regarding the Fleischman case. “And we are equally committed to working with the community on the prevention of such actions.”
Sometimes, however, the actions of law enforcement officials can have the opposite impact — with devastating consequences.
Around noon on February 12, 2013, Arthur Moore dropped off groceries at the downtown Berkeley apartment of his adult daughter, Kayla Moore. About twelve hours later, he got a call every parent dreads: His child was dead.
Kayla, 41, was a transgender woman who died during a struggle with Berkeley police inside her apartment. The death of Kayla, who was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, has sparked debates about access to mental health services, police brutality, and law enforcement sensitivity toward LGBT people — especially transgender women of color. Last month, the police watchdog group Berkeley Copwatch, with help from Kayla’s sister, Maria Moore, released a report on the incident, in an attempt to analyze what went wrong on the night of February 12. Kayla’s family and Copwatch both argue that officers displayed gross insensitivity toward Kayla’s transgender identity, as well as negligence in their handling of a mentally ill person. They have recommended that Berkeley police reform its mental health crisis response policies and that the department take disciplinary action against the involved officers.
“She was transgender. She was African American. She was mentally ill. She was the trifecta of everything that the officers did not want in that building,” said Maria. Kayla’s family is now preparing a wrongful death lawsuit against the Berkeley Police Department.
Berkeley police officials declined to comment on the specifics of the Copwatch report, but according to their own 348-page investigation report, Kayla was pronounced dead an hour-and-a-half after police officers arrived at her apartment, having responded to a call from her concerned roommate. According to the roommate, Kayla was intoxicated, argumentative, and off of her medications. When police officers arrived, Kayla allegedly became agitated and paranoid about their efforts to apprehend her. Police said she became “increasingly aggressive” when an officer told her she would be going to the police department for a warrant stemming from a San Francisco case (that was unconfirmed). During an initial struggle, two officers and Kayla, who weighed 347 pounds and was unarmed, fell onto a mattress on the floor, the report said. At that point, she was lying on her stomach.
The officers called for backup. Three more officers arrived to help restrain Kayla and eventually she “appeared to be calming down” and “suddenly stopped resisting.” One minute later, police reported, her chest stopped moving and she had no pulse. She was transported to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center where she was pronounced dead at 1:34 a.m. The autopsy report stated the official cause of death as “acute combined drug intoxication.”
“I call bullshit,” Maria said of the autopsy report. “It was the struggle that killed [Kayla].”
For Maria, one of the most disturbing parts of the police files was a transcript of an interview with an officer who repeatedly refers to Kayla as “it.” In a copy obtained by the Express, the file reads: “From what I could tell and I — again I couldn’t tell if it was a male or female because I could te- I could see that there appeared to be long braids. Um, and I remember asking … is it a male or a female?” the officer said.
“That part hurt the most,” Maria said, through tears. “It really struck a chord and showed their lack of sensitivity and their lack of training.” The police report also refers to Kayla by her birth name, Xavier, and uses male pronouns.
The Copwatch report stated that this uncomfortable attitude toward Kayla’s gender and body “may have played a critical role in the officers’ decisions about how to respond or what first aid they were willing to provide when she stopped breathing.”
“Kayla was dressed as a woman. She had her little moomoo on, her wrap around her head,” Maria said. “Even if you’re not sure of the gender, don’t refer to someone who is dead as ‘it.’ It’s just not okay.” She said she questions whether the officers did everything they could to help revive her sister. “It makes me wonder, did they just not want to touch her lips? Did they just not want to touch it? I don’t know.”
According to Elysse Paige-Moore, Kayla’s stepmother, the police report shows that Kayla felt frightened specifically because of officers’ insensitivity to her transgender identity. “I don’t think [Kayla’s] reaction was strictly, ‘I’m in physical danger.’ Clearly, part of it was also, ‘Who I am is in danger. I feel threatened by these people. No, I’m not safe. I’m not respected.'”
Jennifer Coats, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, refuted that notion. “One of our goals in the department is to make sure we treat everyone with respect and dignity,” she said. “It’s one of our core values. … We treat you with respect regardless of your gender identity.” She added that officers always try to use preferred gender pronouns and “address each individual as they want to be addressed.”
But Louise Monsour, a licensed marriage and family therapist and director of clinical training at the Pacific Center in Berkeley, which provides mental health services for LGBT people and their families in Alameda County, said she has offered the Berkeley Police Department free trainings to ensure cops are sensitive and respectful when interacting with the LGBT community. “We were told that it wasn’t really needed,” said Monsour. “My experience is that there are very few large law enforcement agencies that are comfortable with the transgender community.”
In response, Coats said all officers receive training in cultural diversity and discrimination in the police academy, and that the department has hosted LGBT trainings in the past. She confirmed that the Pacific Center has presented information on its training, and said the agency would be interested in doing something of this nature in the future.
Berkeley police also offers “crisis intervention training.” Training coordinator Jeff Shannon said the program trains officers to “look for opportunities to de-escalate suspects. … It’s part of professionalism to use the least amount of force possible.” He added that the goals of the program are to increase the safety of both suspects and officers, and to divert those with mental health challenges “away from the criminal justice system where they don’t belong and back to the community for treatment.” The class includes a section on LGBT and diversity issues and “awareness-building.”
However, the courses are not mandatory. According to Shannon, only eighteen current police officers have taken crisis intervention training classes, and only seven of them work patrol.
None of those officers were at Moore’s apartment the night of her death.
Growing up in South Berkeley, Kayla, then known as Xavier, was always very feminine. “It was never an issue [in the family],” Kayla’s sister, Maria Moore, recalled. “When I was three years old, one of my fondest memories of Xavier was him in my nightgown I got for Christmas, walking around in it, looking so cute,” she said. “He came out [as gay] when he was thirteen, but it wasn’t a shock. He was in full drag at that time.”
“My brother taught me how to put makeup on, taught me how to dance,” added Maria, who is 39, two years younger than Kayla. Their father and stepmother, who still live in Berkeley, were always accepting of Kayla’s sexuality and gender identity, she said.
Xavier transitioned to Kayla about fifteen years ago, Maria recalled. She took hormones regularly but ultimately decided not to undergo surgery. “She knew she was a girl,” Paige-Moore, Kayla’s stepmom, said. “Her core identity is that she is female.”
But Kayla struggled with violence because of her transgender identity, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness, Maria said. She estimated that Kayla, who worked at times as a phone sex operator, was badly beaten at least several times a year.
“It’s really alarming,” she said. “So many times, Kayla would just come back [home] beaten to a pulp, because she had to fight off these guys. She was the victim of so much abuse. … It was the relationships she got into or the assholes on the street. It just happened too many times.” Maria said people often think of transgender women as drug addicts and sex workers relegated to the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and in a way, that neighborhood was sometimes the only place where Kayla felt safe or accepted.
According to Kayla’s family, the daily threats of violence and discrimination contributed to Kayla’s mental instability. “I don’t know how anybody who identifies as transgender doesn’t struggle with some stress disorders,” Paige-Moore said. “Even though transgenderism is not a mental illness, it carries with it its own set of stresses.”
Monsour of Berkeley’s Pacific Center explained it this way: “People don’t come for treatment because they are transgender. They come for treatment because of the way other people treat them.” She estimated that her agency sees about fifty to sixty transgender individuals a year. “They are losing their jobs. They are not being offered jobs. They are being harassed in the workplace. Their family is kicking them out.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in the transgender community, noted Davis of the Transgender Law Center. “It’s real and it takes a toll.”
The consequences can be deadly. Just this month, Woods said she received emails from the concerned friends of two transgender women who had posted suicidal messages on social media, one who was hospitalized as a result. Both women, she said, had dealt with various forms of family rejection in their lives. Soon after, Woods also learned of a 25-year-old transgender woman from Concord — identified as Natalie Nereza — who apparently jumped to her death onto Interstate 680 in Walnut Creek on November 6.
Advocates say the mental health challenges for some transgender women stem from, and are greatly exacerbated by, their long and complicated relationships with the criminal justice system. Janetta Johnson, of Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, spent three-and-a-half years behind bars in a medium-security federal prison for a drug offense. Johnson transitioned to a woman at the age of seventeen, but because she never had gender reassignment surgery, she was required to serve her time in a men’s prison. As a result, she said she was frequently victimized, assaulted, taunted, mistreated, and denied medication, yet she had no safe or reasonable way to speak up, she said. Out of more than 1,300 inmates, Johnson said she was the only transgender woman at her federal correctional institution in Oregon, where she was sent after her arrest and conviction in San Francisco.
“They do everything in their power to make you devalue yourself,” she said. “The criminal justice system tries to strip you of your identity. Just because you go to jail, it doesn’t mean your transgenderism stops or your transition stops. … I felt like I had been so stripped of my identity as a trans person.”
Johnson said that her cellmates regularly sexually assaulted her. Guards sometimes forced her to strip just because they were curious about her body, she said. Health-care providers interrupted her hormone therapy, for no apparent reason, which exacerbated her depression. She picked her battles.
“The only reason I managed was that I very carefully and selectively and strategically negotiated with people that wanted to take advantage of me sexually,” she said. “I felt so humiliated, so degraded.”
Inmates are discouraged from reporting rape or assault because they will be placed in solitary confinement or segregated housing allegedly for their own protection, Johnson added. She said she spent about six months in segregated housing — at one point with a cellmate who demanded sexual favors from her on an almost daily basis.
Chris Burke, spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that segregated housing is used “to keep an inmate safe,” but noted that it can also be used for disciplinary reasons. He said that inmates who want to report an assault can go through a grievance process, and that with transgender people, “We do treat gender identity disorder inmates on a case-by-case basis.”
Johnson was released from prison on May 12, 2012 and moved into a halfway house in the Tenderloin. Five days later, she suffered a severe panic attack and was hospitalized. Fortunately, Johnson had been in contact with the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project while in prison, and eventually got a job with the group. But she said it has been a long road to emotional recovery. Part of her work involves helping transgender clients navigate the process of reentry after incarceration, and she said it can be re-traumatizing for her to even discuss abuse and violence.
“I’m just crying and crying and crying when I’m hearing all this stuff,” she said, describing some training sessions she has attended for work. “There are times I just wanted to scream.”
Many transgender women reentering society after prison often feel like they have no recourse if they are assaulted or victimized. “Once you become an ex-offender, you can never be a victim,” she said, explaining that she would be very reluctant to call police if she faced violence today for fear of being re-victimized or arrested.
In other words, the obstacles transgender people face — lack of job opportunities, housing, and support — are amplified for ex-offenders, Johnson said. “[In prison], the transgender community … is to be used and not respected. The only thing [others believe] we’re really good for is to suck somebody’s dick and get fucked in the ass.” Once outside of prison, she said, it can be challenging to find any sources of income other than sex work. Finding basic mental health support can also be a struggle.
Johnson grew angry while relaying a story about one of her current clients, who was recently released from a twenty-year prison sentence and was unable to get an initial intake appointment with a mental health professional for more than a month after being released. Inmates, she explained, are essentially on their own in navigating social services, making it very easy to slip through the cracks.
“I am so fucking outraged at the response of mental health care and medical care for someone who is being released from prison, after doing twenty fucking years,” she said. “How do you not make sure this person is okay?”
Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project and the Transgender Law Center are two of several trans-specific groups new to the East Bay. City of Refuge, a ministry that does HIV prevention and works with the trans population, also relocated from San Francisco. (The high cost of rent in San Francisco has generally prompted the moves.) At the same time, AIDS Project of the East Bay this year launched a new East Oakland-based project called the Transgender Resources and Advocacy Center for Youth, or TRACY House, which is supported in part by a federal grant for African-American transgender young people, ages 13 to 29. The community center hosts private support groups and has drop-in hours throughout the week.
Some see this influx of services in Oakland as an encouraging sign for the East Bay transgender community. These organizations bring social services to the East Bay as well as new layers of activism. But programs like TransVision still wrestle with the lack of trans-specific funding for work outside of HIV prevention and treatment — an area in which resources are already limited. TransVision currently has the only Alameda County contract specifically for transgender HIV education and prevention services. The program has generally received most of its funding from the Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, which provided $70,000 in fiscal year 2012. (The department funds other HIV agencies that have transgender clients, but those organizations are based on specific service categories and not population). TransVision also recently secured a new federal grant through 2017 to support transgender women of color with HIV.
Advocates say increased support is much needed in the East Bay, considering that, just like the organizations themselves, transgender people priced out of San Francisco are moving across the bay. “It just seems like more and more of our clients and our community members are locally living in the East Bay,” said Davis, executive director of Transgender Law Center. “This brings us closer to our mission.” (Transgender Law Center, however, remains focused on impact litigation and policy, not on direct services.)
Meanwhile, positive movements have occurred on the national level — notably when the US Senate this month passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which, for the first time, included specific protections for transgender people (a sticking point in past ENDA debates). Congress also passed a new version of the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year, which includes protections for gay and transgender citizens.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation into law that boosts the rights of transgender students by enhancing anti-discrimination practices. AB 1266, which goes into effect in January, ensures students can participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, that are consistent with the student’s gender identity. The law is the first of its kind in the country.
But it has also sparked organized opposition from a coalition calling itself Privacy for All Students, which is working to repeal the measure with backing from the groups behind the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. This month, the coalition announced that it collected enough signatures to qualify for the November 2014 ballot. (Opponents frame the law as a danger to students, claiming male students will be able to shower with girls.)
“They have decided the sky is going to fall if we actually allow our kids who are transgender to stay in school,” said Davis.
He argued that this legislation is significant in the broader fight for transgender rights, noting, “every civil rights movement … has had a bathroom moment.” He cited attempts to maintain “whites only” bathrooms, resistance to adding women’s restrooms at newly co-ed universities, and the fight for bathrooms accessible to disabled people. With every victory, he said, “We actually move our culture to a more humane space.”
Is the fight for transgender rights on track to be the next major civil rights movement? One of the biggest obstacles to making that happen is the lack of visibility of trans people.
“Our very existence makes people uncomfortable,” said Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski, who became the first transgender person in the country to hold such a position when she was elected in 2010. Davis said that only about 10 percent of Americans personally know a transgender person, and Kolakowski could only name one other transgender elected official who currently holds office in the country.
Kolakowski said a fundamental challenge with trans visibility is that many in the community don’t want to identify as transgender at all and have little incentive to do so given the risk of violence and discrimination. “I’m not transgender. I’m a woman. I’m a man. … To them, it’s a transitional phase.”
She added, “Given the stigma, many people who can pass [as the gender they’ve transitioned to] try to do so. And the group of people that can’t pass can’t get work and are marginalized.”
Despite this roadblock, Kolakowski said the fight for transgender rights is “the next civil rights issue. … It’s not just that we’re going to be trendy or something. This is a fact.”
The attacks from national conservative groups will further push transgender rights to the forefront, she said, exposing the public to more trans people — who, she argued, are uniquely valuable members of society given that they are so determined to live as their authentic selves that they are willing to put up with all of the hardships that come with transitioning.
“What started out as this little sort of fringe issue for people is now going to start taking more and more of the spotlight, and the answer to that is real simple,” Kolakowski said. “The transgender community has to step out into the light and let people know who we are. That’s the only way we are going to be successful.”
This month, as transgender people around the world honor victims of transphobia, the conversation in Oakland will be particularly pressing — especially given the recent attack on Sasha Fleischman. The victim’s family said the teenager’s burns required multiple surgeries.
“It’s unfathomable,” said Jason Overman, spokesperson for Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, the first out lesbian on the Oakland City Council, who will speak at the Transgender Day of Remembrance at City Hall, alongside Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland Interim Police Chief Sean Whent, and Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney. “We obviously still have work to do.” The fact that the perpetrator in the case was swiftly charged — with hate crime enhancements — “demonstrates how far we’ve come,” he added.
Still, for those who have been forced to mourn the loss of loved ones because of homophobia or transphobia, the “hate crime” label can feel pointless — a stiffer sentence that will only go so far in preventing future violence. “A human being was lit on fire,” Woods said. “Let’s just process that for a second.” It is a lot to take in, she said, especially considering current opposition to basic anti-discrimination policies for transgender youth.
Foremost, Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremonies are about remembering the deceased. “Brandy [Martell] should’ve been on a sitcom,” said McCree. “She was one of the funniest people I ever met in my life. Once she met you one time, she could imitate you to a tee.”
“She was a very, very warm-spirited person,” said TransVision’s Kayla Moore. Woods said Martell had the unique ability to never make enemies, a characteristic that made her an especially effective team member.
“She was becoming the woman we all wanted to be,” added McCree.
Martell is one of many who will be honored on November 20, more than a decade after the first Transgender Day of Remembrance. Activists first held the event in 1999 to honor Rita Hester, an African-American transgender woman killed in Allston, Massachusetts the previous year.
Her murder remains unsolved.