In deadly year for trans people, activists mourn those they lost, push authorities to keep people safe

HYDE PARK – Roman Benjamin, 7, was the first Saturday to light one of 47 candles in honor of transgender and gender nonconforming people who have been killed in the United States this year.

Roman’s candle was in tribute to his aunt, Disaya Monaee Smith, a 27-year-old black transgender woman who was shot and killed on September 6 at a hotel in Dolton.

Porsche Smith-Lewis and Tamesha Jones, sisters of Disaya Monaee Smith, paid tribute to their late sister at a Transgender Day of Remembrance event on Saturday.

“We’re going to let the nephew light his candle because he loved Disaya very much and misses her so much,” said her mother, Porsche Smith-Lewis, one of Monaee Smith’s siblings.

The Hyde Park Memorial was part of this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which takes place on November 20 each year to mourn deceased community members. This year’s ceremony, hosted by black and trans-led organizations Brave Space Alliance and Life is Work, follows the deadliest year on record for trans people.

Saturday’s event was part a vigil and part a town hall for trans people to discuss issues facing their community. While the organizers provided a space for mourning, they also celebrated the transgender leaders who are still alive and urged elected officials to better stand up for them.

“I want to make sure that this space doesn’t feel like we’re having a meal, even though each year we face multiple deaths, especially in our own city,” said LaSaia Wade, Founder and Executive Director of Brave Space. Alliance. “As we communicate today, we celebrate the lives we have lost and we celebrate the lives that are still here. “

Credit: Provided
Brianna Hamilton, 26 (left) and Disaya Monaee Smith, 27.
Credit: Provided
From left to right: Tiara Banks, Tyianna Alexander and Courtney Eshay Key.

“The pain we suffer on a daily basis”

Murders of transgender people hit a record high nationwide in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 47 transgender people have been killed this year, compared to 44 transgender people killed in the United States in 2020.

Including Monaee Smith, at least five black transgender women have been murdered in the Chicago area in the past year:

The ceremony also paid tribute to Dani Achiaa B., also known as transgender and non-gender-compliant pioneer and activist, Mistress Velvet, who died by suicide in May. Velvet was an early member of the Brave Space Alliance board of directors, Wade said.

Credit: Provided
Dani Achiaa Boachie poses during a demonstration.

More than 60 people attended Saturday’s event, including members of the transgender community, allies, city aldermen and state lawmakers.

During the town hall, several transgender people called on elected leaders to direct more funds to organizations led by blacks and trans.

Trisha Lee Holloway, head of trans and non-binary community health for Howard Brown Health, the city’s largest LGBTQ-affirming healthcare organization, said trans people face additional barriers to care and housing . More social services that can meet these needs would improve the quality of life for transgender people and reduce the number of trans deaths, she said.

“We’re here to do sex work, steal for our next meal and go through so much, so it’s important for us to really take the time to understand where trans and non-gender binary people are so that we can take them to the next level, ”said Lee Holloway.

Credit: Jake Wittich / Block Club Chicago
Trisha Lee Holloway lights a candle at Saturday’s Transgender Remembrance Day Vigil.

The need is even greater for organizations like Brave Space Alliance and Life is Work, Wade said. These groups are on the ground with trans people every day and better understand the needs of the community. But their groups don’t get the same amount of funding as large North Side-based organizations like the Center on Halsted or Howard Brown Health, she said.

“We are the ones who respond to our communities the way we respond to our communities,… but when we ask for funding, we don’t get it. We get the pennies that flow from the biggest organizations, ”Wade said.

Courtney McKinney, communications and outreach coordinator for Brave Space Alliance, said substance abuse can also be a common problem within the transgender community, and trans people need better access to therapy and treatment. advice for treatment.

Stephanie Skora, chief operating officer of Brave Space Alliance, said the transgender community needs “money, resources, support and legislation,” including laws that decriminalize sex work, make the safer industry for transgender people and ensure criminals can change their names in the state of Illinois.

“We have invited elected officials into the room because we want you to understand the pain we experience every day, when we wake up and see on our news feeds that another of our sisters has been murdered in these streets. “said Zahara Basset, Founder and CEO of Life is Work. “As we sit here today, please listen, take notes and find a solution. “

Credit: Jake Wittich / Block Club Chicago
Ald. Pat Dowell speaks at the Town Hall for Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who said she was “here to learn,” said the way Chicago funds community groups is “not sensitive.”

“The fact that large organizations get funding and that small organizations that have a genuine connection to our communities aren’t is not new,” said Dowell, who chairs the city’s budget committee. “It’s happening in other areas, like violence prevention, community development, and health care. “

Dowell encouraged transgender people to contact their elected officials and ask to be invited to meetings with the city’s black, Latino and progressive caucuses to ask for more funding.

“I think it’s a two-way street,” Dowell said. “We can be an advocate, but we also need to hear you, and we need to hear you out loud. “

Credit: Jake Wittich / Block Club Chicago
State Representative Lamont Robinson invited members of the transgender community to Springfield to meet with other elected officials to discuss the needs of their community.

State Representative Lamont Robinson, who represents Chicago and is the first openly gay black person to serve in the Illinois Legislature, also invited members of the transgender community to visit Springfield in January or February to meet more elected officials, including Speaker of the House Emanuel Chris Welch. They can share their experiences and apply for more funding for their organizations, he said.

“We need to see you and other lawmakers to understand the issues in our community that we face on a daily basis because the fight is hard,” said Robinson. “They’re kidding us in Springfield, but we can change that because they need to see your face and hear your stories.”

Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rep. Robin Kelly, County Commissioner Kevin Morrison and State Senator Robert Peters were also in attendance.

Niya Rechice, welfare program manager for Brave Space Alliance, said she was grateful to see so many elected officials in the room, but many of them had never been in contact with groups like Brave Space. Alliance until Saturday.

“I’ve never seen any of you step foot in organizations when we’re out there doing the job,” Rechice said. “There are 41 days left in this year, and I challenge each of you to go into these organizations and see what we’re doing firsthand.

As Smith-Lewis’s family mourn their own loss, she said she wants to stand in solidarity with all deceased transgender people and their families.

“I’m here for my late sister, Disaya Monaee Smith, but I’m here for others too,” said Smith-Lewis, who brought a large pride flag in the colors of the trans flag. “It’s not fair that these women are murdered just to be who they really are, so from now on I’m going to be there for any program I can attend or give whatever I need to. support the community and honor my sister. “

Credit: Jake Wittich / Block Club Chicago
Saturday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event included a candle-lighting ceremony in honor of the 47 transgender people killed so far in 2021.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America body member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across town for Block Club Chicago.

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