‘I shouldn’t be thinking about this stuff, but I have to’: On Transgender Day of Resilience, community honors LGTBQ victims of violence in Chicago, Colorado

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Members of the LGBTQ community knew Sunday was going to be difficult.

Nov. 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, held to honor transgender people who have died, and those who have been killed in acts of anti-trans violence.

But Sunday morning brought news of five more people who “deserve to be here,” said Iggy Ladden, founder and director of Chicago Therapy Collective, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ well-being. Five people were killed in a mass shooting Saturday night in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at an LGBTQ bar, Club Q.

“I want to invite everybody in this community that is impacted by the deaths of our trans loved ones or LGBTQ loved ones — we’re in a common struggle, and we need to come together,” Ladden said.

Eisha Love gives a hug to K.J Whitehead during a vigil for Elise Malary on Nov. 20, 2022, in Chicago. Elise Malary was a trans activist whose body was found in Lake Michigan last spring.

Eisha Love gives a hug to K.J Whitehead during a vigil for Elise Malary on Nov. 20, 2022, in Chicago. Elise Malary was a trans activist whose body was found in Lake Michigan last spring. (Michael Blackshire / Chicago Tribune)

All weekend, trans-led organizations held events across the city, including a documentary screening, panel discussion and “trans town hall,” leading up to a vigil Sunday in Andersonville for Chicago activist Elise Malary, whose manner of death is unknown, as well as Martasia Richmond, Tatiana Labelle and 32 transgender and nonbinary people killed in 2022.

A few hours later and a few blocks over, another vigil was held for the five people killed in Colorado. The message at both events was clear: LGBTQ people are not safe, and the community needs support.

Dawn Valenti, a crisis responder in Chicago, organized a vigil in 2016 for the 49 people killed in the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Florida. Six years later, Valenti organized this event to bring the community together.

Outside Nobody’s Darling, a bar that Valenti called a “safe space,” about 30 people attended, holding tea lights.

“We’re here to make sure that our family in Colorado Springs knows that we stand with them,” Valenti said.

Jim Bennett, the director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights, said that while the state offers LGBTQ protections, “we are not as safe as we deserve to be” because of surges in anti-LGBTQ legislation and activism.

Heather, second from left, who chose not to provide a last name, holds her transgender child, Noam, alongside Milargros Burgos, far right, who lost a child to gun violence, during a vigil outside Nobody’s Darling in Chicago on Nov. 20, 2022. The vigil was in memory for the people who died at the Club Q bar mass shooting in Colorado Springs.

Heather, second from left, who chose not to provide a last name, holds her transgender child, Noam, alongside Milargros Burgos, far right, who lost a child to gun violence, during a vigil outside Nobody’s Darling in Chicago on Nov. 20, 2022. The vigil was in memory for the people who died at the Club Q bar mass shooting in Colorado Springs. (Michael Blackshire / Chicago Tribune)

Bennett said he knows the Colorado Springs area well and that it is an “extraordinarily conservative” town.

“They have this one bar, this one place that they can go to where they felt safe and strong, and to have that shattered is just heartbreaking,” Bennett said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned the shooting in a tweet on Sunday, stating: “How many people need to be murdered? How many lives torn apart? Until it actually stops? We don’t have to live like this. And we don’t have to die like this.”

At the Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, Ladden, who uses the pronoun they, said they can still remember the sounds from videos posted at the time of what occurred inside the Pulse nightclub. They said it took a year to be able to again visit an LGBTQ club without that sound playing in their head.

“We cannot be having our safe spaces violated,” Ladden said. “This is unacceptable.”

Noam, a 14-year-old student who lives near Nobody’s Darling, said he saw the news of the mass shooting Saturday night while scrolling on social media. Noam, who is transgender, said his first thought was, “Again?”

When he heard about the vigil, he urged his mother, Heather, to go with him. Noam requested their last name not be used because they have been previously harassed online.

Before a final moment of silence, Noam addressed the gathered crowd.

“I’m only 14. I shouldn’t be thinking about this stuff, but I have to,” Noam said. “Because every time I tell someone I’m gay or trans, I have to weigh the risks and think: Is it safe? Am I in a safe place to tell them?”

The organizations Brave Space Alliance, Life Is Work and Chicago Therapy Collective honored Transgender Day of Remembrance differently this year. Instead of just one day, they turned it into a weekend event, and instead of “remembrance,” they dubbed it “Transgender Day of Resilience.”

The change is part of “a new era” within the community, one focused on bringing trans-led organizations together under shared goals.

“This year, we had events on the South, West and North Side to represent solidarity across the city,” Ladden said.

Jae Rice, the interim CEO of Brave Space Alliance, said the organizations banded together during the search for Malary and after her burial. Malary went missing in March before her body was recovered in Lake Michigan.

Malary was a beloved transgender activist in Chicago, and one of the initiatives she championed was Hire Trans Now, a push to encourage businesses to develop a trans-inclusive workplace. This week, Lightfoot and members of the City Council pledged to support Hire Trans Now, progress that speaks to the power of Malary’s legacy, Ladden said.

Sunday marked the second vigil this year for Malary. On a chalk mural behind the event’s speakers were the words: “Her voice was soft. Her tongue was sharp.”

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Malary’s sister, Fabiana, said she feels proud to call Malary family. With the money from donations supporting Malary’s funeral expenses, Fabiana said she was able to have a pendant made with Elise’s fingerprint on it.

“Every time I feel like I want to cry, I hold onto this pendant,” she said.

Speakers also expressed anger at the lack of action from Chicago and from allies. Angelina Nordstrom, Elise Malary’s best friend, said they feel fatigue and despair as their past pleas for the importance of transgender lives have “fallen on deaf ears.”

“While I am tired of lip service from allies, I am putting a call to action to accomplices to step forward and to step up,” Nordstrom said. “This should not be such an experience where the trans community is an afterthought day in and day out.”

After speakers addressed the crowd, Ladden led a moment of silence. The crowd then moved to a fire ceremony held in a lot next to the Chicago Waldorf School. Over a bonfire and small cups of hot chocolate, the crowd was hushed. Above, the setting sun painted the sky blue and pink.

“The sky said ‘trans rights,’” someone shouted.

mellis@chicagotribune.com

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November 20, 2022 at 08:51PM

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