In solidarity with victims of transphobic violence around the world, Vassar students and staff raised their candles and stood in silence. The vigil, held on Nov. 20 and cosponsored by the student group TransMission, the LGBTQ Center and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, was a memorial inspired by the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day of national awareness to commemorate all transgender lives lost to violence this year.
The day was initially created to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman of color who was killed on Nov. 28, 1998. She was stabbed at least 20 times in the chest in her apartment by an unknown assailant. Her murder–like most anti-transgender murder cases–has yet to be solved.
As part of the ceremony, JD Nichols ’17 read aloud the names of the trans black women who reportedly died this year. After each name, a bell was struck and allowed to reverberate until there was again silence. Following the reading, LGBTQ Center Student Intern Christopher Rodriguez ’19 issued a period of silent meditation to mourn the victims.
Rodriguez explained the proceedings of the vigil, writing in an emailed statement, “The names were read to bring awareness to the fact that these are actual people being killed by transphobia. Adding a name to the body makes it more personal and it makes people reflect on the fact that these are human beings who were hurt. The bell was rung after each name in order to add emphasis and allow reflection.”
Transgender violence is an issue of importance for many in the Vassar community. Questions such as “How should the campus move forward?” and “What kinds of changes are needed to mitigate violence at Vassar?” come to the surface and resonate among Vassar students, yet often these thoughts dissipate into time unanswered.
Nichols discussed why they thought vigils, and specifically this vigil, are necessary for the community. “It’s very important to take time out of your day to memorialize something,” they said.
The vigil served to bring students together for support, but it was also intended to bring about reflections on the victims of transgender violence each year. “The purpose of the vigil was to remember the trans lives lost this year due to transphobia,” Rodriguez stated. “It was also meant to bring awareness to the amount of transphobia still present in our country. It also gave a platform to trans people and allowed for their stories to be recognized and brought to light.”
While the vigil offered students the chance to unite in solidarity and reflect on those lost this year, the statistics of the number of transgender deaths are an under-representation of the frequency at which transgender murder occurs. Director of the Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center Judy Jarvis noted the limits of the statistics due to the nature in which they are reported in an emailed statement. “The list is never even complete, given how many murders of trans people are not reported as hate crimes or not reported at all,” she said.
Nichols pointed to another reason that there are fewer reported deaths than the actual number. “There have been countless trans people who have been murdered,” they explained, “and the news reports report them as the gender that they were assigned at birth, it reports their given name at birth and there is no indication that they were trans even though transphobic and transmisogynistic violence may have been the very reason for their murder or their death.”
Trans Black Women may have been a focus of these vigils for many reasons. One central influencer is the fact that Hester herself was black. However Nichols recognized other nuances in this intersecitonalty as well. As they explained, “There is intersectionality between their gender and race; both are contributing factors to racist violence. The violence against them particularly is magnified and heightened by their identity as a trans person or specifically as a trans woman,” they said. They continued, “If we don’t specifically center and memorialize trans women of color, then their murders and suicides will continue unchecked because we won’t even be attempting to remember them to bring awareness to the fact that they’re being killed.”
While most programming at Vassar is targeted towards fostering fun among students, the vigil gave administrators and faculty an opportunity to derive comfort from community. Josselyn and Davison House Adviser Capria Berry explained why she came to the event. “I came to the event to support our students. I wanted to show up to let students know I care about this community and all of the lived experiences students come to campus with. I hoped to gain a moment to be in community with other Vassar folks and remember those transgender lives lost and ones who are struggling,” she said.
Although the Transgender Day of Remembrance is fundamentally designed to memorialize transgender victims of violence, Nichols suggested that the concentrated hatred against black trans women is more extreme. “There is a lot of anti-black violence, there is a lot of racist violence, but the violence against them particularly is magnified and heightened by their identity as a trans person or specifically as a trans woman.” They also drew attention to the need for greater public attention to these issues, “If we don’t acknowledge these problems or these trends then we can’t address them. If we don’t specifically center and memorialize trans women of color then their murders and suicides will continue unchecked because we won’t even be attempting to remember them to bring awareness to the fact that they’re being killed.”
To many, this position of recognition of transgender issues is essential in the effort to move towards a more accepting community. LGBTQ center intern Ally Fernandez ’18 elaborated on what it means for her to support the transgender cause, stating, “I recognize my place as an ally.”
She continued, “It was important to me because allyship is this constant thing; you can’t just say ‘I support transgender people’ and then not do anything, and especially holding the position that I do at the LGBTQ Center, it’s important for me to set an example of what an ally looks like, regardless of the identities that I personally hold or the politics that I have.”
For all students feeling targeted by violence because of gender orientation, there are available resources for getting help. “Students who experience transphobia or any kind of gender-based harassment or violence should certainly reach out to me so I can work to figure out how to be the best advocate for them–often there are very different steps and needs depending on the situation and the students’ preferences for how to resolve it,” said Jarvis. “Alternatively or in addition, students can submit a bias incident report or reach out to Kelly Grab in the Title IX Office, given that gender identity and discrimination are covered in our school’s nondiscrimination policy so we can work to hold people accountable for individual incidents of transphobia and/or verbal or physical violence towards trans students.”