Sometimes I Flinch

Earlier in the month, I had a little Facebook spat with another woman in a local progressive women’s group. She objected to my framing of the killing of Sean Hake and we went back and forth for a while. I had the impression she was connected to  law enforcement officer and was taking my analysis on a very personal level (Sean was killed in an officer related shooting), but I was quite irritated that she wasn’t acknowledging my expertise or knowledge to frame the discussion. She said I simply couldn’t handle someone disagreeing with me.

Uggghhh. Moments like this make me flinch.

So I wrote this comment

Do you have any idea what a toll it takes on someone like me to write upward of 100 memorial posts over four years – plus follow ups? To delve into the worst moments of people’s lives and stay immersed for days, even weeks and months? To write so many names that I forget many of them? To search for hours to find real names and real photos and real details beyond “dead trans person found in garage/street/abandoned building” and find words to remind people of the life that was lost? Do you know how guilty I feel when I miss someone or when I’m tired and don’t do their life justice? Or have to answer, over and over, the question “Were they killed because of their gender identity?” To see patterns that frighten me – like the fact that four 23 year old LGBTQ folks in this region have been possibly victims of violence in the past four months? Or that six QTPOC have been killed by guns in the past three years with few convictions? And to try to get people to notice and care? To know that it has to mean something when two trans people the same age who work for the same employer in the same town are both in the news for violent encounters within a month of one another? Most of the world disagrees with me or we would be doing something about this. There would be services, supports, laws and policies in place – that are funded – to do something. We would listen to trans women who are more vocal than me about the epidemic and the solutions. So, yes, by all means – let’s have this discussion.

I can admit that some of my response was personal – I work hard on these ‘In Memoriam’ posts and the follow-up research so I want to be perceived as a credible resource. But far more frustrating is that fact that no matter how much we document and signal boost these epidemics in the LGBTQ community – murder, domestic violence, intrafamily violence – there is always resistance to staking a claim for our identities.

There is a clear difference between saying that a person was shot & killed for being trans and saying that their gender identity is a salient factor in a conversation about the circumstances of their death. But that distinction gets muddied very easily when people back away from the perception of phobia or bigotry.

I wrote a blog post a few months ago about another 23 year old who was killed by gun violence in the middle of the day here in Pittsburgh. My contact was a friend of her mother and specifically asked me to emphasize that she claimed the identity of a black lesbian stud because that was important to her. And she was the second young adult black female masculine of center lesbian murdered in Pittsburgh’s streets in two months. And there are zero resources targeting this group of young people in our region. Zero.

And most of the resistance was to the word stud, not the assassination of a 23 year old woman by someone she considered a friend. I am sure they were outraged by her murder. I hope.

Similar thing with the disappearance of 23 year old Dakota James – lots of people asking me why I emphasized that he was gay in the pieces that I wrote when there’s no indication that his sexual orientation has anything to do with his disappearance. Except it does.

Part of my job, as I define it, is to describe the experiences of LGBTQ folks in this region, for good and for bad. When terrible things happen to us, we should all collectively care. And someone has to track patterns to be able to create appropriate responses. The ESTHER Project at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pitt Men’s Health Study both focused on LGBTQ health because it warranted (and still does warrant) specific, refined attention.

The same is true of crime. LGBTQ people experience all of the crimes the typical population experiences – we are burgled, robbed, assaulted, defamed, defrauded, etc, etc, etc.  And sometimes these crimes are truly random; we aren’t targeted because we are LGBTQ. But all of the time, the circumstances that led to the criminal action and our resiliency to recover are defined by our LGBTQ identity.

Are we treated respectfully by law enforcement? Do we have family support? The financial means to recoup a loss of assets? Do we have health insurance and LGBTQ competent providers to treat our injuries? Access to lawyers and advocates? Are we afraid of being victim blamed or shamed because we were at a club or bathhouse or engaged in sexually intimate contact when we were victimized? Are we fearful of being ‘outed’? Does our state issued ID or other paperwork accurately reflect our name and gender identity? Do we have criminal records that make us look less innocent that someone else in the same situation? Do we have white privilege? Male privilege? Passing privilege? Could there be retaliation? A public record? And so on.

In 2013, I promised myself that I would try very hard to write a post for each life lost to the epidemic of violence against trans women in the United States. It is a way to honor their lives and acknowledge their deaths. I try to also write posts about local LGBTQ people and others who experience violence. It is an imperfect response and perhaps not incredibly effective in terms of systemic change.

Visibility helps people find LGBTQ competent lawyers, fundraise for funerals and memorials, find pastors and funeral home and counselors who are compassionate and kind. Visibility helps to expose gaps in services – such as the lack of supports or programming for young black masculine of center lesbians among our existing youth services. Visibility also means people tell me when closeted people experience trauma so I can try to make those same resources available discretely and with the same urgency.  It is not just me – Persad Center has amazing community safe zone programs led by Ted Hoover, for example. It is a collective effort to address our painful experiences that lends to our collective resiliency to get through them.

It has, however, created this sense of obligation in my heart to write these posts, in part because I can write them and get them circulating because of my social media credibility and in part because I feel bound somehow to the stories of these neighbors. It hurts each time I write and it chips away a piece of my heart to the point that I occasionally have anxiety attacks afterwards.

Some might say that means I should stop. I think it means I’m on the right track. It should be anxiety causing to reflect on an epidemic of murder.

None of this makes me an expert on crime and violence. And it doesn’t make me any sort of savior for swooping in with my words to speak for those we’ve lost. It makes me an ally who wants to take on the task of documenting a trend. I think it matters that our neighbors and siblings are experiencing trauma and violence. I think it matters that we say their names and reflect on their lives. It think it matters that we seek justice for them and be proactive. I think I have a moral and ethical obligation to those things as an ally, even or especially when doing so makes cis het folks uncomfortable.

But I still flinch.

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