The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners proclaimed Sunday, Nov. 20, as Transgender Day of Remembrance in Multnomah County.
The annual event was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was brutally killed in 1998. Since then, Transgender Day of Remembrance has been embraced as an opportunity to remember transgender and gender non-conforming people killed by anti-trans violence.
The proclamation, co-sponsored by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and Commissioner Sharon Meieran, honored those who have lost their lives because of transphobia. It also acknowledged the immense work ahead that’s necessary to ensure the protection and support of our transgender community.
Hate crimes against trans, non-binary and gender expansive communities are incredibly widespread in our country, said Vega Pederson — so much so that in 2019, the American Medical Association deemed it an epidemic “spreading like an infectious disease,” with the vast majority of victims being Black transgender women.
“Sadly, we have been able to identify at least 29 people who have been killed by acts of anti-trans hate in 2022,” said Vega Pederson. “But we know that list we have is not representative of all of whom we’ve lost.”
To make matters worse, she continued, politicians, including those in Oregon, have used baseless rhetoric to vilify transgender people in attempts to “score political points,” attacking people for using the bathrooms for the gender with which they identify and demonizing children wishing to play sports.
“It reinforces the biases that drive violence against transgender people,” said Vega Pederson. “People need to be called into account for the impacts of the words that they’re using. It’s on all of us to speak out against these actions and push back against hate whenever it rears its head.”
Mikki Gillette, an invited guest and a major gifts officer at Basic Rights Oregon, described the work underway to advance transgender justice.
Gillette shared that when she thinks of Trans Day of Remembrance, she often thinks about the group The Transsexual Menace, a group founded by activists like writer Riki Wilchins in the early 1990s.
The group organized outside courthouses where perpetrators of violence against trans people were on trial. Among their most famous protest took place in front of the court where the people who raped and killed Brandon Teena, a trans man whose story became the basis of the movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” were being tried.
The actions of the organization conveyed messages of support for trans people that were rare for those times, said Gillette.
“That these crimes happen, that they weren’t OK, and that there were many people who cared about them,” said Gillette.
Attending Trans Day of Remembrance proclamations and vigils can be painful, Gillette shared, “because it means facing the fact that trans people are killed because they are trans.”
“But these ceremonies can affirm that the communities we live in and the governments that represent us oppose the transphobia and misogyny inherent in these crimes. The ceremonies affirm that trans people do belong here.”
As the major gifts officer for Basic Rights Oregon, Gillette meets with families grieving loved ones killed in hate crimes, including those of Nikki Kuhnhausen, a transgender teenager killed in Vancouver in 2019, and Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, a Black trans woman who was fatally stabbed in Portland while attending a vigil in 2020.
Those experiences, in part, prompted Basic Rights Oregon to pursue the passage of Senate Bill 704, or the Trans Panic Defense Ban, which prohibits people accused of committing crimes against trans people from claiming that their crimes were justified because of an emotional response they had to learning their victims were transgender.
“While that law helped provide some solace to Nikki and Aja Raquell’s families, I know nothing will replace their lost loved ones for them,” said Gillette. “Each name that is read today is a person, most often a young Black or Latinx trans woman who was loved, valued and cared for; a person with hopes and dreams for their future.”
Gilette said that she hopes taking actions like these carries forward the work that was begun by activists like The Transsexual Menace in order to create “a world where these lives are not lost.”
Following a moment of silence for trans lives that have been lost, Commissioner Meieran read the proclamation.
“The under-reporting of deaths continues to be a trend for those who do not conform to a gender identity. This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of physical violence, emotional violence suffered by those who are gender non-conforming,” said Meieran. “We can’t continue to treat each of these lives that are lost as just a number. We need to take action.”
“This is personal for me,” she continued. “I’m so proud of my two queer, non-gender-conforming kids. I’m so proud of them every day. This needs to be how we embrace all members of our community every single day.”
Commissioner Stegmann thanked the speakers and those who organized the proclamation.
“It’s such a privilege to live and work in a county where we uplift marginalized voices,” said Stegmann. “We’re better for it.”
“It is really important that we take this moment every year… so we show our respect to the families who have lost their loved ones purely because of who they are,” said Chair Kafoury. “My heart goes out to parents who are fearful for their own children, loved ones who are fearful for their family members.”
She continued: “The other important reason for bringing this proclamation is to recommit ourselves to doing the work that’s needed to do so we don’t have to be in a position where families are fearful, individuals are fearful just because of who they are when they leave their homes.
“Our board is very committed to transgender rights and knowing that there’s a lot of work for us to do, we’re committed to doing it.”
Watch the board meeting here.