On Saturday afternoon, Utahns congregated inside the Capitol to commemorate the trans and gender-nonconforming people worldwide who lost their lives to violence this year. The event was hosted by Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, an organization that seeks to improve the lives of transgender, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary Utahns. The service also sought to celebrate the resilience of the local trans community.
The event recognized Transgender Day of Remembrance, a national observance held on Nov. 20 each year to shine light on the toll of violence against transgender people, who are at least four times more likely to experience violent crimes than cisgender people, including sexual assault, battery and murder, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The tradition began in 1999 to memorialize the death of Rita Hester, a Black transgender woman murdered in Massachusetts.
At the vigil, speakers read the names of over 400 trans and gender-nonconforming people killed this year at the hands of anti-transgender violence globally, in what Human Rights Campaign called the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans. Guests shared stories about being transgender, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary in Utah. Performers played music to uplift the audience and honor those lost.
Salt Lake City resident Joann Haines opened the event by playing music with Native American flutes. She took up the instruments because they made her feel better from her post-traumatic stress disorder after her Marine Corps service and a tumultuous childhood. She now owns over 30 types of flute.
“The flutes helped me so much that I wanted to pay it forward and give something back,” said Haines. “I hope to heal and put out healing and love to everyone so that maybe we can all get along and be healthier and happier.”
Haines recalls growing up knowing she was transgender but not being able to say anything to her foster parents, or later, her regiment in the military. At that time, she did not know where to go for help. Today, she is impressed by the facilities available to the LGBTQ community through Utah’s Pride Center, Veterans Affairs services and other organizations.
“I am very fortunate to be here,” she said. “People want you to be dead because they don’t understand you and have all of these prejudices. But in the end, everyone wants the same things: a safe place to live, a good job so they can have what they want, and they want peace, love, healing, medical care and education to make their lives better.”
Alexis Ledezma, a copywriter and interpreter who grew up in Mexico City and Provo, shared her story at the event as a Mexican trans woman in Utah. She spoke of the combination of racism, xenophobia and transphobia she has experienced, from strangers flashing white supremacist tattoos at her, to hateful language, to her car being shot at while she was driving with her wife.
“Everything is connected, and the brunt of this violence is against Indigenous, Black, brown and trans women,” said Ledezma.
“I was told in so many ways and I believed for so long that I wouldn’t be able to have the type of life that I wanted,” she said. “I like to think of my beautiful and supportive family as an F-you to those who tried to kill my spirit.”
The event moved Murray resident Jeri Brummett, who observes the day every year. As a transgender woman, she’s forced to consider the threat of violence on a daily basis.
“Each trans person lives with the understanding that violence can happen to us anywhere,” said Brummett. “The statistics say we are attacked, hospitalized and killed to a much greater degree.”
Jennifer Lynn, who rose to read names at the event, was overcome with emotion.
“I’ve avoided coming all these years because I knew that would happen,” said Lynn. “It hit me pretty hard. You can say the names in your head, but when you say them out loud, it automatically becomes real.”
Candice Metzler, who organized the event as Executive Director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, was impressed by everyone working together to make it possible.
“People want to see change,” said Metzler, on her main take-away from the day. “It’s not always so clear how change is going to happen, but we have to give more awareness and have people recognize this kind of violence. We have a lot of work to do in the United States, and we have to also as a country start holding other countries like Brazil accountable for some of the human rights atrocities we see happening there.”
Metzler, who is also a therapist at the Utah Pride Center, celebrates the strength of her peers.
“The transgender community is not a bunch of victims,” said Metzler. “We are a community of incredibly strong and creative people with a lot of resilience in the face of a lot of challenges in life. We’re more than our victimization, and we go out every day and live our lives like everyone else, and we’ll continue to do so.”
Correction Nov. 23, 2021 • This story was updated with the correct spellling of Joann Haines.