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Activists won’t let Chicago forget that black trans lives matter

A community in pain rallies for TT Saffore, a black trans woman killed in Chicago last month.

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As the sun set on a temperate fall evening October 5, roughly 200 people gathered outside the Wellington United Church of Christ in Lakeview to honor the memory of TT Saffore—and join a call to action.

Saffore, 28, was found murdered September 11 in West Garfield Park, making her the 20th known transgender or gender nonconforming person lost to violence in 2016, according to local and national news reports. Nearly all were trans women of color, and sadly, 20 is most likely a conservative estimate. The murders of trans people often go unreported or are otherwise unknown because initial reports often misgender victims; it's usually not until trans community members speak out and claim the dead that the public learns of their deaths—and their lives.

LaSaia Wade, a member of the Chicago Trans and Gender Nonconforming Collective, which organized the event, was among the people who came to mourn her slain trans sister. She also attended Saffore's funeral September 30, and during the service, one thought looped through her mind: "It could be me," she said. "Will it be me?"

At 29, Wade is a young woman by most any measure, yet she considers herself old for a black trans woman. Some statistics suggest that the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is just 35 years. That fact is even more appalling when compared to the average lifespan for white cisgender women living in the U.S.—81 years.

Within the broader dialogue about black lives, trans and gender-nonconforming people don't receive the same levels of solidarity or empathy offered to black cisgender men killed by police officers or racist vigilantes. But Chicago activists refuse to let that keep them down. They rallied to ensure that Saffore's death isn't forgotten—and to remind everyone that black transgender lives do indeed matter.

As the vigil began, organizers invited the group to call spirits and beloved ancestors into the space by speaking the names of the deceased. Many of the names called, including Saffore's, belonged to trans people who've been killed.

The gathering would "begin with tears and end with celebration," Wade said in an interview the day before the event. While Saffore's death was cause for grief, Wade noted, she and the other collective members planned the evening to generate more fellowship within their community, and to build power for change.

"It's lonely doing [this] work. It's sad doing the work that I do," Wade said. "Nor do people try to understand. And if they do, they try to block it out because it's not their life. People mean well, but they can still go home and not worry about these things. . . . To understand these issues is to understand your privilege."

Among the privileges many cisgender people take for granted, she said: not fearing for their personal safety while using the restroom, not worrying about finessing every minute detail of personal appearance—even down to hair follicles—so as to appear passable, not having to field constant, invasive questions about their genitalia.

"I feel it's important for me to come out in solidarity for trans women because they're my sisters at the end of the day, and their lives matter as well," said Olivia Pearson, 24. Pearson, a black cisgender woman, traveled all the way from Roseland after learning of the event on Facebook. She noted that because some people don't believe trans lives are valid, “people will justify their murders . . . [They] don't see [trans people] as being superimportant to what we're fighting for."

The #SayHerName campaign aims to bring greater attention to the violence and brutality that regularly befalls black women. - CARLY RIES
  • Carly Ries
  • The #SayHerName campaign aims to bring greater attention to the violence and brutality that regularly befalls black women.

With the sunlight fading, some participants bowed their heads over candles, while others held signs calling for an end to the overpolicing and criminalization of trans and gender-nonconforming people.

"The police don't love us—they want to see us dead, they want to see us locked up," said Ms. Afrika, a black trans elder. "I was in solitary confinement for three years. I've been there. . . . I know what it's like, and now I'm bringing it to the community."

Police officers stood just a few feet away, fronting police vans and paddy wagons, and watching and listening intently.

The day of the vigil, the collective had published online a statement and platform outlining their grievances with the government and the mainstream LGB community. The statement was also read aloud that night.

"We know that the state does not mourn the loss of Black lives," the statement reads. "We know the names of Black women lost to violence are held up even less than those of Black men. We know queer, trans and gnc deaths are often hushed by Black communities in addition to being ignored by the state. We accept none of these realities."

"The choice of [the vigil's] location is not coincidental," the statement continues. Although many resources for trans people are available in the neighborhood, Lakeview "is also the site of the hyper-policing of queer and trans homeless youth, the racist displacement of poor, black and brown communities, a meeting place for the crossroads of oppression at which black, trans women find themselves."

In the platform, the collective calls for government funds to be redirected away from militarization and policing to black and TGNC communities in the form of employment protections, fair and affordable housing, better society-wide gender education, and accessible gender-affirming health care for trans and gender-nonconforming people; it also seeks the decriminalization of sex work, the end of solitary confinement, and the abolition of prisons.

Days after Saffore's death, members of Black Youth Project 100 and other black activist organizations participated in an advocacy day on Capitol Hill for trans-specific issues. (The group addresses these issues in its website Agenda to Build Black Futures, as does the the Movement for Black Lives in its platform.) Employment protections and health care were among the policies the groups brought up with lawmakers.

In an interview last week, Fresco Steez, digital strategist for BYP 100, pointed out that black trans and gender-nonconforming people experience some of the worst overlaps of the structures that sustain poverty and compound to create a constant state of trauma. According to a 2013 study of transgender labor issues, black trans women face extreme poverty, with 34 percent reporting an annual household income of $10,000 or less.

Violence against black trans women also has deep roots in racism and white supremacy, Steez said. Rigid gender norms were imposed on black people during slavery—a time when the bodies of black people were literally not their own—and left no room for gender self-determination.

"We have to rid ourselves of that structure," Steez said. "We have to rid ourselves of pie-in-the-sky goals of what masculinity looks like."

A vigil attendee - CARLY RIES
  • Carly Ries
  • A vigil attendee

Pearson and others noted that trans women are subjected to often deadly intimate-partner violence by men who feel "deceived" or who may feel conflicted about their own desires. Only by rejecting such toxic masculinity, they say, can we fully protect and accept all gender identities.

Throughout the evening, vigil attendees railed against oppression through poems, speeches, and chants. The march spilled onto Halsted Street, and some demonstrators even shut down traffic for a brief time.

Before they parted ways, attendees ended an otherwise somber vigil with a celebration that, for decades, has served as a symbol of the unique strength and creativity of black, queer, same-gender-loving, and trans communities: a vogueing session. Participant Myah Brown led it off with an expressive performance filled with fluid hand gestures and duckwalking, spinning into dips and drops on the pavement.

"We do this for TT," attendees chanted, with hands clapping. "We do this for TT."   v


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