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Mourning losses and honoring transgender heroes
Cleveland--“Today is usually reserved simply as a day to mourn the loss of our everyday heroes--those gender-variant people who chose to stand up for what they felt, rather than hide behind society’s norms,” organizer Jake Nash told the crowd assembled for Cleveland’s fourth commemoration of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
His plans for the November 18 event went far beyond mourning, instead becoming a three-part event.
The first part, “Remembering Our Dead,” took people on a candle-lit march from the Cleveland LGBT Center to Cleveland Public Theater’s Old Parish Hall venue a block away. A solid wall of marchers carried candles and placard memorializing transgender people who died in the last year.
Once at the second venue, an old church on the theater’s campus, several speakers addressed the crowd, which had grown to over 80 people.
Stacia Pugh and Rebekah Miller recited poems they had written, while Diane Frank gave an impassioned speech and read a prayer sent to her by her rabbi. Frank also recounted the trepidation she felt when her primarily LGBT congregation, Chevrei Tikva, merged with a mainstream synagogue, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.
“I always feel a bit like a canary in a mine,” she said.
While she did get some strange looks from teenaged girls, she joked, everything went smoothly.
The most validating experience since the 24-year-old queer congregation merged with Fairmount Temple, however, was when she was out and ran into a woman from the synagogue who greeted her warmly, not because she knew her or knew anything about her, but simply because she had seen her around.
Others spoke about their personal experiences, while the band Early Girl performed a new song, “Love Think,” written specifically for the occasion.
Each person who had carried a placard then brought them up to the front of the church and lit a candle, then the video for Christine Aguilera’s song “Beautiful” was projected onto a screen on the altar, ending the first part of the evening.
A nod to the present
For the second segment, “Acknowledging Our Present,” the crown moved from the church to the parish hall, where the inaugural Illumination Awards were presented.
The new awards, presented “in recognition of lighting the way to increased acceptance for the transgender community,” were presented following public nominations and voting.
Randi Barnabee won Transgender Legal Advocate, while Jaime Bishop at the Cleveland LGBT Center took Best Program developer. Adam Apple, leader of the Cleveland Kings and Girls, and singer and actor Kathy Harvey were each given Transgender Performer of the Year awards.
TransFamily founders Karen and Bob Gross received Transgender Allies of the Year, while Michael Spivak of Case Western Reserve University School of Law and Ellie Long of Kent State University both received College Student Activist awards. Organizers intended to give out a High School Student Activist award as well, but no high school students were nominated.
Jake Nash’s wife Erin won Supportive Spouse, while the Cleveland LGBT Center was given Most Honorable Allied Organization.
Nash himself was given Transgender Activist of the Year and Transgender Leader of the Year in the open voting, leading to two bouts of blushing, tears and his voice trembling under the weight of his emotion.
“I have to tell you that I was very humbled by the ovation given to me when Sue announced the awards,” Nash said. “I don't think I deserved an ovation. I am just doing what needs to be done so our community will be safe, able to work with out fear of losing our jobs, and so people get educated, that's all.”
At the end of the awards ceremony, Cleveland city councilors Jay Westbrook, Joe Cimperman and Joe Santiago went up to the stage, presenting Nash with a resolution honoring the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
“I was just tickled. It is just incredible,” said Nash. “And it’s about time, because the city of Cleveland still doesn’t have any protections for transgender people. While there is one for sexual orientation, there isn’t one for gender identity.”
“This is the very beginning, and for them to even acknowledge the fact that we’re here and acknowledge the fact that transgender people do get victimized is a big step.”
Nash said that Westbrook came up to him afterwards.
“When everything was done, Jay Westbrook came up to me and said if we needed anything, to call on city council because they’re here for us. I will take him up on that.”
Guests were then treated to a massive spread of food, almost all of which was donated by LGBT-friendly restaurants in the area, like It’s It Deli, Dianna’s, Gypsy Beans and Bakery, Phoenix Coffee, A Better Place, Papa Nick’s Pizza and Subway, while Giant Eagle donated a gift card to round out the offerings.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the fact that all these businesses stepped up,” Nash said. “The interns arranged all of that. They went to all the restaurants up and down Detroit and the area.”
Nash credited the Cleveland LGBT Center interns with doing a lot of the legwork putting together the event, along with TransFamily, Stacia Pugh and Damien Montassi, Maya Simek of the center and Ellie Long from KSU.
Patrons could then move between the church for a full Early Girl set, and the hall, where DJ Hawk provided music.
It was the first time the Cleveland commemoration took place in multiple locations, and the decision to do so was deliberate at every level.
“I literally wanted to go from ‘Remembering Our Dead,’ moving into a new portion in a new place for ‘Acknowledging Our Present,’ ” Nash said.
By having the candlelight vigil go from the center to the church, it brought attention from the community at large, as cars stopped at the intersection read the signs, along with people looking out the windows of Gypsy Beans and Bakery.
Nash was also in Columbus the following night for that city’s commemoration, an annual candlelight vigil and presentation that brought in about 70 people.
Under the theme “Remember, Honor, Empower,” Chris Cozad, president emeritus of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization, told the crowd, “It is because we cross gender roles and refuse to fit into any boxes that they hate us. That makes them hate us. That makes them beat us. That makes them vote against us.”
The Cleveland services avoided mention of this fall’s controversy over the U.S. House passing a gay and lesbian Employment Non-Discrimination Act after gender identity had been removed. But the Columbus event, perhaps because of its location in the state capital, went down that political road.
“With ENDA, we knew that no matter how the vote went, Bush would veto it,” Cozad said. “It makes me sad that we’re not united. We have a long way to go.”
“I stand convinced today that tolerance is not enough, even though tolerance is better than intolerance,” said Meral Crane of the Gender Dysphoria Program of Central Ohio. “We must affirm and celebrate diversity. This is a time to unite and do something about it.”
Shane Morgan, one of the event’s organizers and the head of Trans Ohio, summed it up succinctly.
“We are everybody. Sons, daughters, friends, coworkers, police, firefighters, physicians, lovers. We are everybody,” he said. “We must remind our allies to help us stop the hate, stop the violence.”
Kaizaad Kotwal contributed to this report.