It was a simple ceremony, highlighted by the extinguishing of candles in memory of those transgender individuals who have been murdered on streets from New York City to Washington, DC, to as far away as Guadalajara, Mexico, and Istanbul, Turkey.
The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance was formally recognized this year at various locations throughout the city, including, for the first time, at the Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights, which paused on Saturday to honor those whose lives were snuffed out because “of expressing who they are,” said Michelle Abdus-Shakur, office manager at QPH.
“Transgender” is an umbrella term used to describe drag queens, drag kings, transvestites and transsexuals. It does not refer to a person’s sexual orientation.
A rash of bias attacks around the world led to the establishment of the memorial event over a decade ago. According to a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, over 1,500 people nationwide were the victims of hate crimes relating to their sexual orientation in 2010, accounting for about 19 percent of all the hate crimes committed that year. The FBI organizes hate crimes into five categories of bias — bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, ethinicity/national origin or disability — which do not include bias against transgender people specifically, regardless of sexual orientation.
“There is discrimination directed against transgender people in Queens, especially in Jackson Heights, despite the fact it’s the most transgender-friendly neighborhood in Queens, some of it by the police,” said Pauline Park, president of QPH. “It’s about gender variance. If you’re perceived as non-conforming, you are vulnerable to harassment and violence.
“Sometimes they assume someone is engaged in prostitution. Some are and some are not. They’re harassed regardless,” she said.
Park, who is transgender and first became aware of her identity conflict at the age of 4, was herself a victim of a hate crime in 1999, as she walked down 77th Street in Jackson Heights with a gay friend.
“We were attacked by two men. It was clear to me it was because we were LGBT,” Park said.
According to Abdus-Shakur, “Transgender people are too often marginalized. They have been falling behind because mainstream society makes fun of us.”
“People don’t understand,” she added.
She felt that Saturday’s ceremony “showcases that transgender people do live productive and fulfilling lives.”
QPH’s recently appointed executive director, Silvia Dutchevici, noting the light turnout for the event, told those in attendance, “You are the pioneers of the new civil rights movement. We all care about the same things. Together, we can fight discrimination.
“Solutions can be found in communities and all of us learning not to discriminate. We can all learn that we should be allowed to be who we want to be. It’s an opportunity for liberation.”
Remarks were offered by the Rev. Mark Marsh of Victoria Congregational Church, who remembered the victims by saying, “Our world is robbed of their lives and the talents and skills they would have shared.”
Rafaela Anshel, a transgender person who participated in the ceremony, said, “There are thousands of transgender people who have been attacked, verbally abused and murdered simply because of prejudice.”
Park stressed that it’s “important to understand what legislation and law can do” to combat the ongoing discriminatory practices. “Law is an important but weak tool of social change.
“Nondiscrimination laws can help protect us from discrimination, but they cannot eliminate discrimination. Hate crime laws can help reduce hate crimes, but hate crime laws cannot eliminate hate crimes.
“We at Queens Pride House feel it’s very important to provide a safe haven and to recognize the pervasive violence transgenders face in this borough and the city.”