With quaking voices and gripping handfuls of paper on the Bo Diddley Plaza stage in Gainesville, Jami Claire and Teresa Mercado slowly recited the names of 356 transgender people whose lives were lost to violence in the past year.
“Forgive us if we get a little bit choked up as we read these names,” Claire said.
For 47 minutes, the reciters also cited each age – from 15 to 69 – and cause of death, including “stabbed,” “shot,” “stoned,” “hanged,” “strangled,” “decapitated” and “run over by car.”
The recitation punctuated a vigil at the plaza Friday in honor of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. Unspoken Treasure Society, TranQuility and the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida were among the organizations hosting the event.
“It’s like a pandemic on trans women of color,” said Natalia Dupree, founder of Unspoken Treasure, a nonprofit advocacy group serving transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Dupree and Mercado served as co-hosts of the vigil.
Mercado, 53, of Northwest Gainesville, is an HIV outreach coordinator and works with Dupree and Unspoken Treasure to provide community testing and train volunteers.
“This has been pierced in my sole for 20 plus years,” Mercado said of the violence against the trans community.
Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1999 by advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith following the death of Rita Hester, a transgender woman killed the year prior.
“The thing that gets me every year is the way that they’re killing us folks,” said Claire, 53, of Newberry, who has recited names at vigils since 2018. “How can people be so absolutely cruel?”
In the U.S., 37 cases of transgender or gender non-conforming deaths have been recorded in 2020, the highest number the Human Rights Campaign has recorded since it began tracking this data in 2013. The most recent: Yunieski Carey Herrera, 39, who was killed in Miami Nov. 17.
Advocates argue such cases are often misrepresented or underreported nationally and globally.
At Bo Diddley, about 40 people listened to poetry, songs and speeches at the vigil.
“It is a somber event and it’s important to remember those who have passed and shine a light to the reasons why,” said Kane Barr, a director at the Pride Community Center and planning committee member for both TranQuility and Unspoken Treasure.
“We’re in an amazing city and a city that wants to protect trans people as well as all LGBTQ people,” said Barr, 32, of Southwest Gainesville.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe presented a city proclamation to honor Transgender Day of Remembrance.
“As a city that respects and works to uphold equality, it is important that we break down the wall of transphobic and racial discrimination to believe that love is stronger than hate and hope is more powerful than insult or injury,” Poe said.
Julien Habif, 24, of New Jersey, came out as transgender about two years ago and is now a biomedical science graduate student the University of Florida. He told the crowd that more focus must be on the damage that misgendering can inflict on one’s sense of self.
“Misgendering someone, whether you understand it or not, it’s an act of violence,” Habif said. “It denies someone their identity – something that they may have fought so hard for, lost so many people in their lives for, had to give so many pieces of themselves for.”
UF students Jawaune Benjamin and Oluwabusayo Oni, both 19, volunteer with Unspoken Treasure. They said they were inspired to help offer HIV testing options and information to vigil attendees after having heard Mercado speak previously.
“She’s just so passionate about wanting to help people make a difference in the community on something that is so stigmatized today,” Benjamin said.
“It’s exciting because … you’re saving people’s lives,” she said.
For Dupree, the night was filled with both emotion and warmth.
“I just hope people took the main point of the night with them – that the murders are going to have to stop,” she said. “We fight for all causes and it’s important that our cause is fought for as well.”