San Jose’s transgender community gathered to mourn their dead on Sunday. At a somber ceremony inside the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors chambers, elected officials and community members gathered for the national Trans Day of Remembrance.
Per tradition, readers in black placed long-stem red roses on a podium draped with the trans flag, then read the names of 99 of this year’s victims as their faces flashed on screens above. One reader broke down and had to let organizer Aejaie Franciscus finish reading for her.
Danielle Yuan, 29, a Fremont resident with a pink-orange bob, came to the memorial because one of her friends was egged last week.
“It’s scary to be ourselves, but visibility is important,” she said. “When everyone knows we’re people, too, it’ll be harder to just murder us and leave us in the streets.”
2016 marked the deadliest year on record for trans people, even before President-elect Donald Trump and his anti-LGBTQ coalition started prepping to move into the White House. As of Nov. 10, 23 trans people had been killed in the United States—most of them trans women of color—out of almost 300 murders across the globe. County Supervisor Dave Cortese called the deaths “a worldwide holocaust.”
Nori Herras, a longtime activist and out trans woman, called Nov. 20 “one of the few days of the year that you’ll see a gathering of trans women in public, because many of them don’t feel safe leaving the house.”
Santa Clara County has modeled itself as a beacon of inclusivity, and this year it became one of just three counties in the country to create an Office of LGBTQ Affairs. In March, the county became the first in the nation to raise the pink and blue transgender pride flag.
“Our county is responsive to the needs of our community,” said Maribel Martinez, who identifies as queer. She heads the new county office, a co-sponsor of the memorial with the Billy DeFrank Center, an LGBTQ nonprofit in San Jose founded in 1981
But even in Silicon Valley, which has a more “conservative” LGBTQ population than, say, San Francisco, many trans people still live in fear.
“As a trans person of color, I do not feel safe enough outside of work to be out,” said Frank Peña, a youth outreach worker at the LGBTQ Youth Space in downtown San Jose. He added that the election has resulted in a drop in attendance at the Youth Space. “Our numbers are down. People are staying home.”
For all the flag raisings and speeches of well-intentioned allies, trans people in Silicon Valley are struggling. Trans women often have a harder time getting hired because of lingering stigma. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, as President-elect Trump campaigned to do, many trans people will lose access to health care and hormones, since they are more likely to be uninsured than the rest of the country. Of particular relevance to San Jose, Asian-American and Latino trans people are six times as likely to live in poverty.
“A lot of people profess to be allies, but there’s still a stigma associated with trans people,” said Crystal Haney, a co-organizer of the Nov. 20 memorial.
Advocates estimate that Santa Clara County is home to about 3,500 trans people, who are notoriously “hard to find,” according to Herras, who for 13 years did outreach for the Billy DeFrank Center. Much of work included talking to “the girls”—trans women—in bars and clubs. Herras left her position last year and the DeFrank Center lost its only trans employee.
All but a few of the trans people killed by violence this year were people of color, but both organizers of this year’s event and all but a few of the speakers were white. For the past 11 years, Herras, who is multiracial, had organized the event. “It was for the community,” she said. “It was for us primarily, to mourn our brethren.”
This year, the event moved to the towering county building because organizers wanted a bigger, “more central” venue and to “raise visibility,” according to Martinez. Haney acknowledged that the building, which is across from SJPD headquarters and on the same block as the Department of Corrections, could have been “a bit” intimidating for a group of people with a history of negative interactions with the police, but not enough to forgo a larger venue. Lance Moore, a white trans man active in the community for 15 years, thought the new location was a “powerful symbol” that would bring trans visibility to the “wider community.”
The majority of speaking time went to elected officials, such as county supervisors Ken Yeager—the first openly gay man to be elected in the county—and Cortese, as well as the latter’s wife, Pattie, who serves on the East Side Union school board. In a stark contrast to San Francisco’s Trans Day of Remembrance, the event did not included Spanish translation and no outreach was conducted to Spanish speakers in San Jose, despite this region’s larger Latino population.
Before she left the center last year, Herras ran the Trans Powerment group, a support group for Spanish- and English-speaking trans women. She had been an HIV tester, given out condoms at malls and run the seniors group, all the while mentoring her “kids,” newly out trans women who needed a mentor. “It’s tough out there for 99 percent of the girls. People in the community just came to feel safe,” Herras said. “In the good days, the place was packed.”
But in September 2015, Herras said, the DeFrank Center board changed a policy that stopped drop-ins, instead requiring people to make appointments to see her. In December, she left the DeFrank Center over what she called “white elitism” among the board.
Gabrielle Antolovich, the lesbian president of the DeFrank Center, insists that she and the DeFrank Center board support trans women of color. “I’ve been extremely inclusive and asked for them to come” to the support group, Antolovich said. “We make sure we greet them. I’ve gone out of my way to do that.”
After the election, the DeFrank Center held a group conversation that was attended by 60 people. On Facebook, the Center’s top two action items were to donate to the Center and attend Gay Bingo, as well as calling on supporters to wear safety pins.
The Youth Space, by comparison, organized a Nov. 19 workshop for trans youth and adults who want to legally change their names before Inauguration Day. People are afraid that the process might become impossible after Trump takes office. More than 30 people attended from as far away as Hollister, seeking legal counsel to begin the process of matching their ID with their new gender and the name they wish to be called.
“Young people are really good at organizing,” Peña said with a laugh.
The process can be prohibitively expensive—up to $500 for the legal name change, new identification and copies of the paperwork. Many trans people, who struggle to find work because of their gender presentation, do not have that kind of cash on hand.
Alexia Nuñez, 38, attended both the Youth Space workshop and the Trans Day of Remembrance. She read from the list of names of the dead “in hopes of honoring those who chose to live their lives on their own terms,” she said. Nuñez identifies as trans as a way of showing that she doesn’t “live in the shadows.”
Peña was equally steadfast. “We might be in survival mode, but we’re not going back,” he said.