The University of Michigan Spectrum Center hosted its annual memorial to honor and commemorate the lives of transgender individuals lost in acts of transphobia and cis-sexism at the Michigan League on Tuesday night. The event recognized the impacts of anti-trans discrimination, as well as to reflect on the power of the trans and non-binary community.  

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was created in 1999 by transgender activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to remember the life of Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman who was murdered in her own apartment in 1998. Since then, the day has commemorated the lives of many transgender people lost to violence and thus begun an important tradition of recognizing the many who fight for the rights of their community.  

Raivynn Smith, program specialist for events and partnerships at the Spectrum Center, highlighted the fears that many transgender individuals have of coming out and presenting themselves in the world. Smith said she hoped for a day when Black trans women could not only exist, but thrive, and non-binary children could grow up without the fear of violence in their own homes.

“Maybe one day I can wake up and breathe knowing that my community is safe. However, today, unfortunately, is not that day,” they said. “I hold my breath for over 350 trans and gender nonconforming people that we know of were murdered this year … My people are drowning in the ills of the world, drowning at the hands of transphobia and misogyny and racism and poverty and deep discrimination.”

Smith’s introduction was followed by a performance by the Out Loud chorus, a community chorus group dedicated to creating safe spaces for LGBTQ folks and their allies. The Out Loud Chorus is a performance group that uses music as an outlet and is a community to promote open environments where gender non-binary individuals can feel welcomed. They performed two songs that paid homage to the deaths of their peers and reflected on the power of the trans community.

“We try very hard to get people to think about acceptance and LGBTQ issues in the general population; it’s part of our mission to educate people and hopefully reduce discrimination,” Tim Hamann, a member of Out Loud Chorus, said. “The way we do that is by changing gender pronouns in music, flipping things upside down, taking traditional songs and changing them.”

The memorial concluded with the invited speaker, Nursing graduate student Vidhya Aravind, speaking about her narrative and the personal impact the memorials have on her every year. Aravind has been doing activist work for years to create local change within her immediate community. Aravind has led multiple advocacy efforts for trans students on campus through the Graduate Employee Organization and other channels.

Aravind began by speaking about the disproportionate violence against trans women of color to highlight the intersections of racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia.

“It’s a full-blown crisis,” Aravind says. “I want to be clear and say that transphobia is a cis problem but I don’t know what it will take for them to shift their opinions on such a massive scale. Our bodies’ very existence challenge capitalist and colonialist structures so much.”

She expressed her desire to focus on growing the strength of the trans community rather than trying to fight against the inevitable nature of cis mindsets. Such bottom-up solutions, Aravind said, are indicative of her acceptance of the structural nature of anti-trans violence. She argued it is a systemic problem where anti-trans or anti-Black thoughts cannot be reformed and where assimilation will never be enough.

“Promises of not being the grotesque creatures they think we are continue to remain unheard,” Aravind said.

She recognized, though, there is a future for the community. She said her fight is not against the cis community but rather, with the community of supporters and allies. She desires to build a world for the trans community rather than change the anti-trans world they live in right now.

“I still think there’s hope to be had. There’s hope in a different world where instead of fighting for cishet change, we become a resilient enough community that they can’t touch us,” Aravind said.

The last 30 minutes of the memorial was open to any attendees to speak about their personal experiences. Erica, a member of Out Loud Chorus who requested her full name not be published, also shared her story. After transitioning at 13 and getting kicked out of her family’s home, she went years without having a proper community. She described her experience of finding herself through the Out Loud Chorus and spoke of her gratitude.

“It was the first time that I had a group of people who accepted me for who I am,” she said.

Aravind’s last words to the audience were a call to action.

“Practice radical and creative compassion,” Aravind said. “Especially when you feel uncomfortable doing so.”

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