Metro Weekly

“We. Can’t. Breathe!”: Trans Activists Remember Lost Lives

On Friday night, members of D.C.'s trans community rallied to remember the dead and call for more funding and support services.

DC Safe Haven’s vigil and rally commemorating the 2023 Transgender Day of Remembrance – Photo: John Riley.

Transgender activists rallied in Freedom Plaza on Friday, Nov. 17, to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance with a call for action, even as they memorialized fallen trans individuals killed by acts of violence, drug overdoses, or suicide.

The part-vigil, part-rally saw two large sections of the plaza roped off by crime tape, with two body bags and more than a dozen pairs of shoes — from sneakers to high heels — spaced out amid the “crime scene” area. A rose, a candle, and a transgender Pride flag had been laid out by each pair.

The shoes each represented a different deceased trans individual. Additional pairs of shoes and candles were strewn across the front steps of the Wilson Building, which houses the D.C. mayor’s office and Council chambers. 

According to estimates by the National Center for Transgender Equality, at least 109 transgender, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary individuals lost their lives from November 2022 to November 2023, with 53 of those deaths attributed to acts of violence — underscoring a disturbing trend that has seen an uptick over the past few years. 

In the middle of the two sections was a long red carpet lined with candles and strewn with flowers.

At one point, Iya Dammons, the executive director of DC Safe Haven, a chief organizer of the rally, marched up the aisle, wearing a pair of angel wings and a dress featuring the faces of fallen trans women, as Andra Day’s “Rise Up” played in the background.

Attendees on either side of the roped-off areas also held candles in silence as speakers repeated the names of the deceased, railed against anti-trans violence, and called for greater action on the part of D.C. residents and lawmakers to support the transgender community.

Trans activist Hope Giselle urged attendees to remember “the siblings, the sisters, the women, the beautiful parts of our community that were taken from us.”

“And let’s be very clear,” Giselle added. “These women did not simply die. These girls did not simply die. These women were murdered. They were stolen from their families, both chosen and blood. They were given up to the streets. And at this point, every year, we gather to remind not only the folks in this space, but anyone under the sound of our voices, be it on video or in person, that they will not be forgotten. And we will, before the end of this night, say, remember, and honor all of their names as if they were still here.”

Shoes memorializing fallen trans individuals – Photo: John Riley

The chief message of the vigil and rally, however, was a call for direct action and financial support for members of the transgender community — especially in light of the loss of services that the now-shuttered Casa Ruby had once provided.

“I would love to be able to see a day that we don’t have to have a Trans Day of Remembrance where none of our siblings are falling and perishing away from overdoses and murders,” Dammons said, her voice rising to a crescendo. “We’re suffering as the transgender community. Do not come out in vain to mourn us for our losses, put money behind where you stand.

“We lost a great deal of services here,” she continued. “We did not come here to put on a show for you, for you all to pat us on the back and tell us that every goddamn thing would be okay. We just lost a great deal of services. We can’t fucking breathe…. You must pour money into the transgender community, the nonbinary and queer community. We’re dying at an alarming rate, and no one is listening.

This is not about playing politics with you all,” Dammons said, invoking the recent murder of D.C. trans woman A’nee Johnson. “Bodies are dropping. If you look at every pair of shoes out here, every trans woman standing out here, we represent something. We matter.”

DC Safe Haven has cited a lack of financial resources, direct services, mental health services, housing, and the escalating opioid crisis as contributing factors to the deaths of transgender and nonbinary individuals in Washington, D.C.

The organization has called on lawmakers, community leaders, and citizens to speak up more forcefully and make concrete plans for increasing funding for direct services, access to affordable housing, and intervention efforts to combat substance addiction.

DC Safe Haven has also issued a list of 11 different demands that it would like to see implemented to assist transgender individuals who are currently in survival mode.

Among those are an immediate increase in funding for direct services and the restoration of housing options for the trans community, including hypothermia shelter bedding and transitional housing.

The organization also demanded policies to ensure access to and coverage of gender-affirming health treatments, from hormone therapy to surgery.

Other demands include a request for increased funding for harm reduction services and additional job programs that will focus on helping transgender individuals obtain gainful employment so they will not have to resort to survival sex to make a living.

The organization also called for the establishment of a Transgender Advisory Council, composed of transgender community members and allies, to advise policymakers on how best to meet the transgender community’s needs and provide long-term funding to trans-led initiatives.

Near the conclusion of the vigil, Dammons led the crowd across the street to the steps of the Wilson Building, where several dozen trans and queer individuals stood in solidarity, holding up transgender Pride flags, pictures of deceased trans individuals, and signs calling for greater action. 

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“This is what solidarity looks like when we stand together,” Dammons said from the steps. “My queer siblings, my nonbinary siblings, this is our moment. Because the next time, it could be you. Not just my Black trans body, but your queer trans body, too, can be left in the streets because somebody doesn’t understand who you are.

“I love you,” she said. “Don’t let this be the last time that we come together in solidarity to say this message here: We. Can’t. Breathe.”

“We. Can’t. Breathe!” the crowd replied in unison, their voices echoing across Pennsylvania Avenue and shattering the stillness of the dark night. 

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