It was a moving experience this evening to attend the vigil for Islan Nettles, who was brutally murdered in Harlem on August 17. I fear for my own life sometimes, even though I know that the risk I take in being publicly transgender as a white person who’s seen as male most of the time is nothing compared to the risk to black and Latina trans women, who make up the vast majority of trans murder victims in the United States.
One speaker remarked on the hundreds of people gathered and said, “It shouldn’t take something like this to bring people together.” This resonated with a thought I had when I arrived in Jackie Robinson Park: when was the last time there was such a big gathering of LGBT people in Harlem? When was there such a large trans-friendly space there? When was there so much overt (if silent) official approval for a transgender event?
For years, people from Harlem have had to take the subway downtown to show their gay and trans sides. In 2013, with crime at historic lows, this should not be necessary. Harlem should be a place where trans people can be free to dress as we want, without being attacked.
The vigil was just a few blocks from where Nettles was beaten to death by Paris Wilson. It made me wonder whether Wilson and his friends would have felt quite so threatened by Nettles – and so confident in attacking her – if they saw more support for trans people from their community leaders. Would a regular, positive, trans-friendly event have made a difference, and could it make a difference in the future?
Then I looked over at my friend Brendan Fay who was standing nearby, and I realized I had proof that these positive events work. Fourteen years ago, Brendan got frustrated with the homophobes who refused to allow the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march with a banner in the Fifth Avenue Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. He organized the first annual Saint Pat’s for All Parade in my neighborhood, and has been helping run it ever since. And it’s been bringing the neighborhood together.
Another friend and neighbor of mine is a devout Catholic, who saw the parade as an attack on Catholics. After he wrote a letter to a local newspaper a few years ago complaining about the parade, I spoke to him privately and told him that I’m a transvestite (yes, I used that word) and that when I moved to Woodside from the South Bronx I worried that I would feel just as unwelcome here as I did there. For me the parade changed all that. I saw all my neighbors, of all sexualities and genders, coming out to watch the parade, and I felt like they accepted me. I felt like I belonged.
I told my friend that I saw the parade as a celebration for the whole neighborhood, not just for LGBT people. I said that he and his friends would be welcome to march in it. He asked, “Could I march with a pro-life banner?” I thought that would be a little too divisive, and Brendan confirmed that it would be, but that Catholic organizations with unifying messages were welcome.
Recently, when I posted on Facebook that I was feeling frustrated with certain trans “community leaders,” my friend wrote this comment: “All I can state here is that you have done more to bridge the divide between trans people and the rest of society than any one I have known or met, turning people from prejudice to understanding of the complex issues involved, so rather than be upset at you, I hope praise will be in the offering.” High praise indeed, but I had help from Brendan and everyone else who organized the parade.
This year, in the supermarket, on the day of the parade another neighbor made a comment about “them” getting married, and I told her that I was a transvestite, and that much the parade made me feel welcome. Her face changed, and she answered, “As well you should!”
I hope that Harlem can learn from the successes that Brendan and I have had in Woodside. I hope they can have positive events that bring the community together: trans and non-trans; gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. I hope that community leaders (and that includes religious leaders, and not just the LGBT ones who were a strong presence at this vigil) can take part and bring people together. We all deserve to feel safer, and black people deserve to feel as safe as anyone else.