United in Remembrance and Conversation: Working Together to Make Our Community Safer for Transgender Individuals

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by Emily Ostrowski

On November 20th, YWCA Clark County hosted members of the community for a vigil, followed by a facilitated community conversation in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance. Since its inception in 1999 Transgender Day of Remembrance is meant to memorialize those who have lost their lives due to transphobia and draw attention to the increased threat of violence trans people have and continue to endure.

Thirty-three participants joined us for the vigil and many stayed for the community conversation. The community conversation consisted of three groups. Each group was posed a series of questions centering on issues faced by the trans community in Clark County, and ways in which we can make our community safer. (You can read a comprehensive overview of the questions and responses here.)

Since 2013, The Human Rights Campaign has tracked 128 known anti-transgender homicides. The true number of anti-transgender homicides is likely higher due to under-reporting. In their report, the HRC points to several legal and societal issues that contribute to a lack of LGBTQ legal protections when it comes to housing, education, employment and health care, which they say exacerbates poverty and exposes trans people to violence.

With a lack of protections also comes a level of distrust in governing and institutional bodies. Many trans and gender nonconforming individuals who attended our community conversation expressed feelings of distrust towards law enforcement, school administrations, and the medical community, and suggested that increased training for police officers, EMTs, and educators would be valuable.

“Lack of trust stems both from historical trauma, and current experiences of prejudice and bias from community systems when trans and gender nonconforming individuals do not present within strictly defined cultural norms,” said De Stewart, an Advocacy Specialist with our Sexual Assault Program. “This places trans people at greater risk for violence as youth are less likely to seek support from family members or educators, have lower graduation rates from high school, and fewer educational and job opportunities. All of which can lead to joblessness, homelessness, and at-risk behaviors just to survive. Trans individuals are also less likely to seek emergency room or medical treatment for fear of being mis-gendered, misunderstood or being treated differently because they are trans.”

Stewart, one of the facilitators for the event along with Jenn Harley and Carmen Huizara of our public policy committee, was inspired to hold a community conversation after the vigil for the first time this year in part because of how consistently she hears from the transgender community that they wanted an event that, “both recognized the loss of lives due to anti-transgender violence, while also wanting something that would help move the community forward as opposed to feeling stuck in mourning.”

She also believes that education is the first step to destigmatize and create wider acceptance of the trans community. “It is my belief that most of the anti-transgender rhetoric we hear is due to a lack of knowledge around the issues that transgender individuals face,” said Stewart. “Many people say they have never met someone who is transgender, when in all likelihood, they have. I saw this as an opportunity to humanize the transgender experience while supporting the trans community and Vancouver as a whole.”

YWCA Clark County has long supported LGBTQ rights, and we regularly collaborate with community partners in providing opportunities for education. In January 2017 we co-hosted a Community Town Hall as well as the showing of Gender Revolution at the Kiggins Theatre in May. We also provided space to hold events for LGBTQ identified youth like the Queer Prom, the Monster Ball, and the Triple Point Harvest Pride dinner. Our public policy committee advocates for the rights of trans individuals in Olympia, including fighting successfully to prevent I-1515 and I-1552, discriminatory “bathroom bills”, from making the ballot in 2016 and 2017.

While we pride ourselves on being advocates and allies for the LBGTQ community we know that just like the community we live in, we still have work to do in creating a safe place for trans individuals. A critical first step we’ve taken is to offer our staff pronoun buttons to wear, which provides a safe opportunity for trans individuals to self-identify.

Above all we promise to work with our community to make sure we are all continuing to educate ourselves on how best to support and respect the trans and gender nonconforming individuals in Clark County.

“I consistently hear expressed that education and respect are the main things allies can do to support the transgender community”, said Stewart. “One community conversation participant said, ‘You don’t have to understand it to respect it.’ Respect that this is a trans individual’s experience and ask how you can be supportive.”

We’d like to thank all our community partners and everyone who came out for the vigil and community conversation, as well as everyone in our community who has committed their time and donations to further YWCA Clark County’s mission to promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

Special thanks to: