Reflections from the Sunshine State
Coming from Philadelphia to Riverside California during a chilly fall season to do reconciliation work was definitely a task filled with a hard emotional toll, but also the joy of springtime weather. The artist in me wanted to take a picture of Crystal in front of the poster advertising the performance we were giving in just a few days on campus. We had just finished giving a workshop at the University of California Riverside on what it meant to be an LGBTQ person of faith. Afterwards, we had lunch with our staff contact and were just wandering about campus and I saw them: a string of fliers about our Saturday night event at ‘The Barn’! I pulled out my camera and asked Crystal to pose. As I snapped away I wondered why our posters were up so high and what were all these colorful pieces of paper beneath them. I got the shots I wanted and then started investigating with my colleague. After a few moments, we realized that this wall was covered in dedications to transgender and gender non-conforming folks lost to anti-trans violence. This was UC Riverside’s Trans Day of Remembrance Wall, which featured dozens and dozens of profiles telling the stories of those killed.
All of these stories included not just the names of the folks that were killed, but also their photos, their hometowns and the reasons behind why they are no longer with us. As we took the time to scan the rows of the dead I noticed some familiar Philadelphia faces. Faces like entertainer Nizah Morris, a transwoman killed in 2002. Faces like Kyra Cordova Kruz, killed in September of this year and an individual well known in the local LGBTQ non-profit world. These were the faces of people with whom I shared friends, city streets and community. Being 3000 miles from home, it was such a heart wrenching experience to remember that kind of violence that had taken place where we just left. I started to cry. I had just been at Kyra’s memorial,and here she was. She went from a human being, walking, talking and laughing, to a photo on a wall at a school where no one knew her. We had to change that.
After we took a moment to gather ourselves, Crystal and I made a decision. Moments ago, we had been like so many unobservant others just walking by this wall with what we thought was no reason for anything spectacular or memorable. There were hundreds of students passing by this wall of people from our community, violently taken from us and no one even knew that they were here. No one knew that this very spot was made special for them. So, we got Crystal’s guitar out of the car and I grabbed my poetry book and we set up shop next to the wall. We had a concert for everyone whose name and photo and life was on that brick and paper monument. We shared music and poems for all the students to hear. Some would stop and listen. Some asked questions and thanked us for being there. We would share stories about the people we knew. We shared about the significance of that very wall and why it deserved and demanded to be holy ground for all the beautiful people that warrant our remembrance. We prayed.
This experience from start to finish lasted about an hour. In the whole week Crystal and I traveled from Philly to Des Moines to Riverside, this unplanned happenstance event was the most significant reminder about why we do this work. As two queer activists of color, as two queers invested in communities of faith we see the violence that misunderstanding can cause. For many, that wall was an unconnected entity. It was the symptom of some other causation. Crystal and I knew better. The violence inflicted upon these trans and gender nonconforming bodies (many of color) is bread by the same injustice that pushes forth policies and practices that prevent TLGBQ people from being fully equalized citizens in this country and around the world. Often, as many of us know, the rhetoric used is that from a broken theology of exclusion. It becomes so easy to lay a harmful hand on someone who is not even really seen as human.
We were so grateful to the community of folks at La Sierra, Azusa Pacific, Biola and the allies of UC Riverside that took the risk in inviting us to share in dialogue with them. What I will remember most about our trip, will not be the anger some expressed over our theology, it will be the radical organizing of queer/ally young people that can see those links to emotional/physical/spiritual violence as we can and seek to end it even if it means discipline may come upon them. Many of us stand up when it is safe to do so. These students, staff and faculty made an effort to stand up regardless of the cost. After seeing what this violence can do in my community, as well as around the country, I am so grateful to know so many people unafraid to end the harm.