Students hold Trans Remembrance Vigil to commemorate lost lives
As a child, Vanessa González-Siegel had issues with mirrors. Unable to recognize her own reflection, she thought a stranger was following her around.
It was not until her second year at Rutgers that she understood why.
González, like the 700,000 known transgender adults in the United States, has encountered her own share of violence and discrimination.
And to commemorate the transgender individuals who lost their lives to violence this year, González led Tuesday night’s annual Trans Vigil and Queersgiving Dinner. The event was hosted by LLEGO, a Rutgers LGBTQ advocacy group, and consisted of a candle-lit vigil outside of the Center for Latino Arts and Culture on the College Avenue campus.
About 40 members of LLEGO stood in a quiet circle, lighting candles for the 21 known transgender people who were murdered and 18 who died by suicide this year. Each time a candle was lit, the name of a victim of violence was read.
This year, the number of transgender deaths due to violence was at an all-time high. Every 29 hours, González said another trans person is murdered.
González attributed this historic statistic to increased visibility of the trans community in recent years.
“The number of murders hasn’t actually gone up. The number of (murders) being reported has gone up,” said González, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
High-profile figures, such as reality star Caitlyn Jenner and television actress Laverne Cox, have made transgender individuals more visible to the public. But celebrities such as Jenner do not accurately represent the marginalized transgender people hit hardest by transphobic violence, González said.
“We have to keep in mind that she is a very wealthy person who has lived a very privileged life and does not have the experiences that most people have,” she said. “While we love and celebrate them, we can also critique them.”
To begin the vigil, the first candle was lit in memory of Eyricka Morgan, a transgender Rutgers student who was murdered near Douglass campus two years ago.
“It was that year that our former president, Shawn Bedassi, enacted the Trans Vigil, along side the Queersgiving Dinner,” said Da’shon Holder, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
In 2013, Morgan was fatally stabbed in her home on Baldwin Street, according to The Huffington Post. González said the police and the media mis-gendered Morgan in reports and articles.
“That is a very common occurrence with trans people of color," González said. "And what does that tell you? It tells you who matters and who doesn’t.”
González’s personal journey into trans activism began with Morgan’s murder. González met Morgan twice and naturally gravitated toward her.
“I was seeing part of myself in her. I wanted to meet up with her and talk to her and see if that could help me, and then I got the news that she was murdered,” González said.
Morgan’s murder scared González into delaying her transition.
“I thought, ‘What am I transitioning into? This reality of violence would be my life. Let me not transition and be safe,’” González said. “Unfortunately, for my mental health, that was not the answer. I was very depressed and had social anxiety. Being around a group of more than five people would make me cry.”
In December of 2013, González admitted to herself that she was transgender. Three months later, she publicly came out as one of the first openly transgender students enrolled in the Douglass Residential College.
Almost immediately, she was interviewed by multiple media outlets, including the North Jersey Record and Campus Pride. As a self-proclaimed introvert who, “watches Netflix and pets (her) cat” on Friday nights, González said she felt overwhelmed.
But the memory of Morgan inspired González to share her story.
“I thought about Eyricka again, and how she was an activist in HIV prevention and health. I wanted to carry out her legacy and not let her name die,” González said. “I had no one there to help me in the beginning of my journey and I wanted people to know that they can come to me.”
And a friend to turn to is important at Rutgers, where González said there is still work to be done to make transgender students safe on campus.
While Rutgers is progressive, González said students are still being housed in residence halls that are not aligned with their gender identity, which she describes as an “act of violence.”
“Walking into your dorm room to your roommate, probably having never met a trans person and not knowing what transgender is, can only be a violent encounter,” González said. “Very rarely will that person be like ‘Oh you're transgender? Cool, what are your pronouns?’ That is not the reality.”
The University’s solution, she said, is housing transgender individuals in “random” single rooms on Cook campus.
“It’s very isolating and it is saying, ‘You’re the problem,’ not that the culture is the problem,” González said. “It’s saying ‘You are disrupting this normalcy, so let’s remove you to maintain normalcy.’”
The University has made efforts to create a safe environment for transgender students. Last year, the school began its preferred-name policy, which allows students to use preferred names instead of legal names on Sakai, class rosters and Rutgers Electronic Student Grading System.
But campus administration needs put more emphasis on the policy, she said.
“There was one professor who said ‘Well I reserve the discretion to call you by your legal name,” González said. “She continually called me by my legal name for the rest of the semester.”
González closed the vigil by giving students a moment to reflect on how they can make a difference for the transgender community at Rutgers. The question she posed to the circle: “What are you doing?”
After the final candle was lit in the name of “strength,” students had a moment of silence and then blew out their candles to commemorate the lives of the names that were read.
“We will survive, we will overcome, we will conquer and we will live,” González said. “While this is a day of bereavement, there are also a lot of trans people who are doing very well for themselves, who are very happy, who are thriving and surviving.”