By Shaina Richards, deputy news editor
Northeastern student Nolan Tesis, who was recently named a 2016 Arcus Fellow by the California Institute of Integral Studies, organized a Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 19 in collaboration with the university’s LGBTQA Resource Center.
The event took place at the Cabral Center in the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute and featured a panel discussion with four transgender advocates and activists: Jahaira DeAlto, Tiq Milan, Erin Epps and Jonovia Chase. The speakers discussed anti-transgender violence to an audience of approximately 30 people, while inspiring students to combat transphobic attitudes in light of nationwide reports of hate crimes since Election Day.
“I think trans people have so much to say, and I wanted to create a forum where their voices could be amplified,” Tesis, a senior English major, said at the beginning of the ceremony.
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) occurs annually on Nov. 20 to mourn and honor transgender individuals who were murdered in acts of transphobic violence. Northeastern’s ceremony was sponsored by the Arcus Foundation, Northeastern Crossing, the California Institute of Integral Studies, the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute and the Northeastern Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.
“I think TDOR is a time of year when we kind of bring ourselves to a halt and acknowledge those emotions,” Chase, a transgender woman who has been a trans rights advocate for seven years, said at the panel discussion. “What happens is that we don’t have time to really bask in those emotions, we have to push forward, so we don’t get the opportunity to really just weep and understand the totality of what’s going on. We can speak on it, revolt, riot, but at times we don’t really see how these things emotionally and mentally impact us.”
The Arcus Fellowship is awarded to non-cisgender students of color at universities with limited LGBTQA+ resources. “Non-cisgender” students are transgender or gender non-conforming. Students must use $3,000 from the grant to design and implement a campus project to directly address harassment and discrimination against trans students and students of color, according to the California Institute of Integral Studies website.
“I think my passion for the work I do and the things that I’m a part of really connected with the people receiving my application,” said Tesis, who is currently an editorial assistant for The Tenth magazine. The Tenth is a biannual publication based in Brooklyn, New York, that documents the history, culture, ideas and aesthetics of the black gay community.
After Tesis introduced the panelists, DeAlto, a transgender woman who has been a trans advocate for 21 years, read the names of the 26 transgender people who have been murdered in the United States this year. A slideshow featuring pictures, ages and hometowns of the deceased played as the audience listened in solemn silence.
After the slideshow, Tesis asked the panelists questions, such as what effect they thought Donald J. Trump’s presidency would have on the transgender community.
“Let’s keep it real: Trump is not an ally, he’s not an accomplice,” said Milan, a writer, trans advocate and national spokesperson for the LGBTQA+ media organization GLAAD. “This governing body is the enemy, and people need to fight or flee.”
Milan said his response would be the latter, as he has made plans to move to Toronto, Canada within the next few months. Epps also reflected on the daily dangers that transgender people face in the country.
“People are getting killed for no reason at all, for just being ourselves,” said Epps, an aspiring model and transgender woman. “It’s so humbling to me because I know that, walking down the street, I could be killed for no reason. Just because I’m taking this political, social stance and living my life the way I want to.”
Epps added that the death dates in the slideshow were very close together and that the transgender victims were predominantly people of color.
“That’s what’s even more scary,” she said.
Greykia Harris, a senior English major, said she wants to pursue a career in education and currently teaches fifth and sixth graders. She asked the panelists if they had suggestions on how she could teach her students about different LGBTQA+ identities.
Chase suggested “challenging people’s perceptions” and researching what work has already being done to add identity education into school curriculums. Epps said that since Harris teaches English, she could introduce her students to literature with queer characters in order to motivate conversations in the classroom.
After the ceremony, Harris said she was glad she came to memorialize those whose lives were taken too soon.
“It’s really emotional. It touches you even if it doesn’t fully relate to you,” Harris said. “It makes you realize your privilege. I’m really glad I came and got to see a perspective you never really get to see.”
Arinze Iwudyke, a third-year health sciences major, said the biggest thing he took away from the panel discussion was that representation of the trans community does not invalidate the cisgender experience. “Cisgender” refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
“It’s great to be in a place where it was encouraged to ask questions and broaden our understanding of trans culture,” Iwudyke said.
Tesis said he was excited to see how students were impacted by the panel discussion and hoped they would continue to talk about what they learned.
“If there was one thing that people could take away from this ceremony, it would be to see the humanity in the trans community and to realize that they’re not some distant alien,” Tesis said. “They’re part of our community, and it’s important that we create a space to humanize them in a world that constantly tries to dehumanize them.”
Photo by Alex Melagrano