On Wednesday I went to a vigil in Harlem for Islan Nettles (pronounced [i’lan]). Earlier this month, a young man named Paris Wilson saw Nettles as an attractive woman and flirted with her. He then decided that she was “really a man” and felt humiliated in front of his friends. He attacked her, first verbally and then with his fists, hitting her until he smashed her skull. She died a few days later.
It was important for me to go to that vigil. This is a danger that I face, as someone who may sometimes be seen as a man in a dress. As a white person who lives in Queens and goes out in Manhattan, my danger is much lower than those faced by nonwhite people who live and go out in poor neighborhoods, but I deserve better, and people like Islan Nettles deserve as much safety as I do.
I was moved to see Nettles’ mother, sister and uncle stand on stage and demand justice for their loved one, with the silent support of many other family members. I was gratified that politicians like Scott Stringer and Inez Dickens helped to get space in Jackie Robinson Park at such short notice, and then stood with us in the crowd instead of dominating the stage. I was glad to see lesbian and gay religious leaders call out their colleagues for their lack of support. I appreciated seeing nonwhite trans women like Chanel Lopez and Laverne Cox take the stage for justice and safety.
There were aspects of the event that concerned me. The event was run by relatively gender-conforming lesbians and gay men, who might not have been able to completely appreciate the specific dangers faced by black trans women like Nettles. There was an older queen who was presented as a friend of Nettles, but their relationship wasn’t entirely clear to me. Was she Nettles’ gay aunt? Or just an acquaintance?
Overall I came away heartened to see that many people coming together for justice and safety. I’ve occasionally worried, if I were murdered, how many people would care about some trans person? Seeing hundreds of people at this vigil was a bit reassuring.
There were a number of trans people in the audience who were heckling the stage. Some said, “Let the trans people speak!” Some corrected gender references made by people on stage, yelling “she!” when someone said “he,” and “woman!” when someone said “man.” This has become a major issue, and I’ll write about it soon, but I wanted to give some background first.