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Transgender community remembers the fallen

By: Myles Barker and Nikki McCabe

Well over a hundred people gathered Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in northeast Fresno for the 10th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

In addition to a number of transgender people reflecting on their experiences through short stories, poetry and dancing, the event also included a resource fair, an art display, a memorial reading and a free dinner.

The purpose of the event was to raise awareness and honor transgender people who have been murdered or committed suicide in the past year. A recent report from the Human Rights Campaign, in partnership with the Trans People of Color Coalition, stated the number of killings of transgender people this year has nearly doubled from last year, with 21 murders nationwide.

The event was coordinated by local organizations such as Professional Out Women, Trans-E-Motion, and Kids Like Us Fresno. Fresno State’s United Student Pride and Fresno State Rainbow Alumni and Allies club also supported the event.

The closest to home of those murders was Kenton Craig “Casey” Haggard, a Fresno resident who was stabbed in the neck and died earlier this year.

Zoyer Zyndel, chairman of Trans-E-Motion – a nonprofit local support group for transgender people – hosted the event, which ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Zyndel, who also tutors at the Writing Center at Fresno State, said he was both amazed and happy with the turnout from the community and loved seeing others share their stories about the difficulties of being transgender.

“I like seeing people being educated, and I like seeing the emotion,” Zyndel said. “Even though it is really heavy sometimes, I like that we are here to make the best out of a bad situation in terms of bringing education and understanding to a community that otherwise wouldn’t know transgender people exist.”

Zyndel said he admires those who encouraged the transgender people who spoke about their experiences to open their hearts and speak their minds.

“I like that everybody came out to help and that so many people stayed throughout the whole thing because it is a pretty lengthy program,” Zyndel said. “We only do this once a year, so we want to make sure we definitely honor these individuals who died the best way we can with a mixture of reverence, somber and a couple happy moments here and there.”

Zyndel added he hopes those who didn’t attend will someday and begin to see transgender people as human beings and not sexually deviant and perverse individuals.

“I hope others take the message that they matter, and I hope others understand that they are powerful and can speak out against transphobia, which is the irrational fear and prejudice of transgender people,” Zyndel said. “I want them to know that every comment counts, and they potentially can save a life whether it is dispelling myths and misconceptions or just brightening a person’s day so they don’t take their life.”

Earlier in the day, fans of renowned authors gathered to hear readings and discuss the book topics.

Featured author, Dr. Lillian Faderman, spoke about her book, “The Gay Revolution,” which was recently made a New York Times Editors’ Choice.

Faderman, who was an English professor at Fresno State eight years ago, is internationally known as a scholar of lesbian history, literature and ethnic history.

She said her book encompasses the history of the struggle for LGBT individuals and the fight for civil rights, starting from the mid-20th century to present day.

“I came out into the lesbian community, we were called gay girls then, in 1956,” Faderman said.“It was a time when we were all considered criminals, crazies, sinners and subversives.”

Faderman believes the world has made big leaps toward improving LGBT rights.

“Congress and the Supreme Court have passed bills or ruled on issues that have been very supportive to us, much more than I could possibly have dreamed of,” Faderman said. “The progress has been absolutely remarkable.”

Award-winning journalist and former White House correspondent Kerry Eleveld also came to discuss her new book, “Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency.”

While reporting for The Advocate, an LGBT-interest magazine, Eleveld covered President Barack Obama’s pathway from campaigns to the White House. Her book looks into how LGBT issues had been addressed during Obama’s presidency. Eleveld said she wrote about this experience to encourage everyone to have a voice in our government.

“I was convinced that I had witnessed something extraordinary,” Eleveld said. “As I watched it unfold, I was convinced that average people, who protested all throughout California, all throughout the nation and then all throughout the world, especially following Proposition 8 that they had made a difference. At the highest levels of government, straight up to the White House and the president himself and eventually hopefully herself. You can make that difference.”

Robin McGehee, coordinator of the event and co-director of Professional Out Women, said the event also served as a fundraiser for the Fresno LGBT community center in its effort to expand. The event was able to raise over a $1,000. McGehee explained what she thinks events like this do for the community.

“The ability to get everyone in one space and not only socialize but actually be educated about the fight for equality, the fight for dignity, the fight for continued justice in our movement is a really exceptional thing if you think about it happening in the Central Valley,” McGehee said.

She said she believes the fight is not over and there is need for more change.

“Unless more people speak out and really make an effort for change, then people feel emboldened to do such acts to other people and we have to stand up as a community and say no more,” McGehee said.

Leslie Hille, vice president for United Student Pride attended the event and said he felt very motivated by both of the speakers. Hille, a junior political science major, agrees with both Faderman and Eleveld that more people need to take action in changing government.

“As an LGBT person, it’s important because these next few months it’s going to be very important with who we choose for our candidate and who we want to represent us,” Hille said. “That’s something that we need to really critically focus on is who’s going to represent the LGBT community in a way that is positive and something that we want to change.”

Jess Fitzpatrick, vice chairman of Trans-E-Motion, said it was really exciting to inspire the transgender community members to express themselves in an environment that encourages that.

“Transgender Day of Remembrance is trying to make people aware that transgender people are people and that because we are as much a part of the human experience as everyone else and there is no reason to view us as dangerous, perverted or criminal,” Fitzpatrick said. “Violence against our community is violence against all of us.”

Fitzpatrick said the event is especially important to honor transgender people who suffered horrendous and violent deaths.

“It is a way to give an opportunity to the brothers and sisters that have died to remember them and to give them a sense of respect and bring their humanity back,” he said. “It honors our dead, and it lets the rest of the world know that what they do to us is painful, cruel and sad.”

Curtis Ortega, a Fresno State alumnus, said he has a lot of investment in the community, whether it is dealing with transgender or gay individuals and admires those who live their lives the best they can regardless of what anyone else thinks.

“This particular event is more about commemorating those who have been lost and remembering them in a good light and also acknowledging an underlying cultural or societal sway towards equality, which is very important,” said Ortega, who graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in psychology. “It is important, especially for transgender people, because there’s a lot of murders going on, a lot of suicides going on and it is not apparent in the general population.”

Ortega said he hopes others learn to accept others who are different than them because we are all human and we all have a right to express ourselves where we see fit.

“I would hope others take from this event an underlying understanding that it could be your neighbor, it could be your brother or it could be your sister,” he said.

Teddy Alvarado, a senior culinology major at Fresno State, was invited to attend the event to serve as a sign-language interpreter. Alvarado said even though no one at the event needed his services, he still got a lot out of the experience by learning something new.

“It still was a great experience to be here and listen to the transgender community because as a LGBT member myself, I really don’t understand and don’t really know about the transgender community,” Alvarado said. “This is actually my first event and I thought it was very inspiring and a very moving event to go to, especially now knowing that all these murders occur across the world to these great people that you don’t hear about on the news.”

Alvarado said he hopes others become more aware of the hardships transgender people face and how communities can come together to help make their lives easier and worthwhile.

“You don’t hear about the person that committed suicide. You don’t hear about all these transgender people being murdered, and I hope that others start to understand what the transgender community goes through,” he said. “It is very different in just knowing who they are and knowing the entire aspect of their culture, their community and their identity.”

For Fresno State graduate student Janine Minner, the event was an eye-opening experience and exposed her to a world she didn’t know existed.

“It was really, really good, there were a lot of really energetic and motivated people,” Minner said. “I got into it because I felt very uneducated, so my goal was being able to at least understand and be an ally.”

Minner said another reason she attended the event is because she wanted her 6-year-old daughter to be accepting of others no matter what they look like or whom they identify as.

“I want to create a world where however she decides to be, she is accepted,” Minner said. “Everybody comes in different shapes and colors, and we should be there for each other as people and not judge others based off of what they look like or what you perceive as right or wrong.”

In an effort to raise more awareness for transgender people, Zyndel and others are putting on a march through the Tower District.

The march starts at 6 p.m. on Friday Nov. 20 at the Fresno LGBT Community Center at 1067 N. Fulton St. The march will come to a close at the Tower Theatre where speakers will talk about the transgender community, the issues they face and how others can help.

For more information, call (559) 464-5806 or email transemotion@gmail.com.