The sidewalk was saturated from one of the season’s first rains as a silent procession of several dozen people holding candles walked along a San Mateo stretch of El Camino Real. They gathered around a large banner in the night as the lights from passing cars illuminated their message: Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Thursday’s vigil served as an opportunity to acknowledge the 25 people who lost their lives to violence this year alone. But it also marked a call to action, and with it an important message.
“There’s been a movement to shift from transgender day of remembrance, to transgender day of resilience,” said Lisa Putkey, program director of the new San Mateo County Pride Center. “This day is about remembering and honoring the lives we’ve lost to anti-transgender violence, but also a time for the community to come together, to unite and protect trans lives and take action to stop this violence.”
The gathering came just a few days before the national Transgender Day of Remembrance Monday, Nov. 20. It was also the first time the event was held at the newly opened Pride Center in San Mateo where purple walls, bean bags, informational fliers, artwork and knowledgeable staff have been fostering a safe gathering space for the LGBTQ community.
This year, advocates are hoping to raise awareness about issues transgender people face and the intersectionality of racism, sexism and misogyny in the recent violence inflicted on the community. Dr. Jei Africa is a psychologist and head of the county Health System’s Office of Diversity and Equity. He is a transgender man who noted 21 of the 25 people who were killed in the country this year were people of color, and the majority were African-American transgender women.
“The transgender community is one of the most marginalized communities just among our population in general. And safety remains to be the biggest issue for the transgender-diverse population,” Africa said. “I think the Pride Center represents that welcoming and safe space where people can talk. We’re not just mourning the lives that have been lost, but really coming together and saying, ‘we are a resilient community.’”
Statistics highlight some of the challenges transgender people face, including higher rates of suicidal ideation, homelessness, substance abuse, isolation, discrimination, job insecurity and violence, Africa and Putkey said.
But the everyday is just as important to recognize and advocates hope to educate teachers, health care workers, the media and the community about how small actions have an effect,
“People laughing at pronouns, or mis-gendering folks or trying to stop someone from using a facility because they assume they’re a different gender than what they identify as, or not letting your little boy play with dolls. We’re constantly policing gender all the time, and all those little micro-aggressions add up and add to a culture that normalizes larger acts of direct physical violence,” Putkey explained.
It’s also important to recognize that even the progressive Bay Area is not immune to prejudices thrust upon the LGBTQ community. In response to an increasing number of youth who have reported instances of bullying or a lack of sensitivity from educators, the Pride Center is starting an initiative to conduct trainings with San Mateo schools, Putkey said.
Gilbert, who preferred not to give their last name, is the youth program coordinator at the center. The 23-year-old said transgender youth frequently report hurtful experiences such as bullying at schools, not being accepted at home and mental health issues that stem from insensitive encounters.
“For me these days of reconvening and remembering and honoring the folks that have passed, that were really stolen from us, is to remind ourselves that we need to do something and actually talk to one another and find ways to really mobilize and teach each other about what anti-trans violence looks like,” Gilbert said. “Because it’s not just murder, it’s not just the cultural violence that leads to suicide, it’s also the things that people do on the everyday basis. It’s comments like, ‘oh that woman looks too man-ish.’”
Gilbert noted nearly 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and hopes places like the Pride Center can offer a safe space for them to connect with others and just be themselves.
“Anti-trans violence is still here, it’s a thing,” Gilbert said, adding the annual service “is the day we reaffirm our commitment to fighting for our trans brothers and trans sisters our trans siblings who are no longer here with us and those of us that are still here today and might face this kind of violence.”
Dozens of people gathered at the center on El Camino Real where a ceremony included speeches, personal testimonials, laughs and somber reminders.
The Pride Center offers an array of services including group forums, counseling sessions, discussions with medical professionals about the process of transitioning and social activities. Africa noted a recent study found there are nearly 1.6 million transgender people in the United States and, while recognizing challenges unique to the community, he said his primary message is for people to recognize commonality.
“We’re normal people like you. To normalize us, means you can see us anywhere,” Africa said. “The specialness is that we’re human beings and we’re all connected at that level.”
Visit sanmateopride.org for more information.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106