HYDE PARK — Roman Benjamin, 7, was the first on Saturday to light one of 47 candles in honor of the transgender and gender nonconforming people who have been killed throughout the United States this year.
Roman’s candle was in tribute to his aunt, Disaya Monaee Smith, a 27-year-old Black transgender woman who was shot to death Sept. 6 at a hotel in Dolton.
“We’re going to let the nephew light her candle because he loved Disaya dearly and misses her so much,” said his mother, Porsche Smith-Lewis, one of Monaee Smith’s siblings.
The memorial in Hyde Park was part of this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, held Nov. 20 each year to mourn members of the community who have died. This year’s ceremony, organized by Black- and trans-led organizations Brave Space Alliance and Life is Work, comes on the heels of the deadliest year on record for trans people.
Saturday’s event was part vigil, part town hall for trans people to discuss issues facing their community. While organizers provided space for grief, they also celebrated transgender leaders who are still living and urged elected officials to better advocate for them.
“I want to make sure this space doesn’t feel as though we are in a repass, even though every year we’re dealing with multiple deaths, especially in our own city,” said LaSaia Wade, founder and executive director of Brave Space Alliance. “As we are communing today, we are celebrating the lives we have lost and we are celebrating the lives that are still here.”
‘The Pain We Go Through On A Daily Basis’
Murders of transgender people are at an all-time high nationally in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 47 transgender people have been killed this year, compared to the 44 transgender people were killed across the United States in 2020.
Including Monaee Smith, at least five Black transgender women have been murdered in the Chicago-area within the past year:
- Brianna Hamilton, 26, who was fatally shot Sept. 17 in Auburn Gresham.
- Tiara Banks, 24, who was shot and killed April 21 in West Pullman.
- Tyianna Alexander, 28, who was killed Jan. 6 in Ashburn.
- Courtney Eshay Key, 25, who was killed Christmas in Chatham.
The ceremony also honored Dani Achiaa B., also known as the trailblazing dominatrix and transgender and gender-nonconforming activist Mistress Velvet, who died by suicide in May. Velvet was one of the original board members of Brave Space Alliance, Wade said.
More than 60 people attended Saturday’s event, including transgender community members, allies, city alderpeople and state legislators.
During the town hall, several transgender people appealed to the elected leaders to steer more funding to Black- and trans-led organizations.
Trisha Lee Holloway, trans and gender-nonbinary community health manager for Howard Brown Health, the city’s largest LGBTQ-affirming health care organization, said transgender people face added barriers to care and housing. More social services that can meet those needs would improve transgender people’s quality of life and reduce the amount of trans deaths, she said.
“We are out here having to do sex work, steal for our next meal and go through so many things, so it’s important for us to really take the time out to understand where trans and gender nonbinary people are so we can get them to the next level,” Lee Holloway said.
The need is even greater for organizations like Brave Space Alliance and Life is Work, Wade said. Those groups are on the ground with trans people every day and best understand the community’s needs. But their groups don’t get the same amount of funding as larger, North Side-based organizations like the Center on Halsted or Howard Brown Health, she said.
“We are the ones that cater to our communities in the way we need to cater to our communities, … but when we apply for funding, we don’t get it. We get the pennies that trickle down from the bigger organizations,” Wade said.
Courtney McKinney, communications and outreach coordinator for Brave Space Alliance, said drug addiction can also be a common problem within the transgender community, and trans people need better access to therapy and counseling for treatment.
Stephanie Skora, chief operating officer of Brave Space Alliance, said the transgender community needs “money, resources, support and legislation,” including laws that decriminalize sex work, making the industry safer for transgender people, and that make it so felons can change their name in the state of Illinois.
“We invited you elected officials in the room because we want you to understand the pain we go through on a daily basis, when we wake up and see on our news feeds that another one of our sisters has been murdered in these streets,” said Zahara Basset, founder and CEO of Life is Work. “As we sit here today, please listen, take notes and come up with a solution.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who said she was “here to learn,” said the way Chicago funds community groups is “not sensitive.”
“The fact that larger organizations are getting funding and smaller organizations that have an authentic connection to our communities are not is not new,” said Dowell, who chairs the city’s Budget Committee. “It happens in other areas, like violence prevention, community development and health care.”
Dowell encouraged transgender people to reach out to their elected officials and ask to be brought into meetings with the city’s Black, Latino and Progressive caucuses to ask for more funding.
“I think it’s a two-way street,” Dowell said. “We can be an advocate, but we also need to hear from you, and we need to hear from you in loud voices.”
State Rep. Lamont Robinson, who represents Chicago and is the first openly gay Black person to serve in the Illinois Legislature, also invited transgender community members to visit Springfield in January or February to meet with more elected officials, including house Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch. They can share their experiences and ask for more funding for their organizations, he said.
“We need to see you and need other legislators to understand the issues in our community that we face on a day-to-day basis, because the fight is hard,” Robinson said. “They do not give a damn about us in Springfield, but we can change that because they need to see your face and hear your stories.”
Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rep. Robin Kelly, county Commissioner Kevin Morrison and state Sen. Robert Peters also attended.
Niya Rechice, mutual aid program manager for Brave Space Alliance, said she was thankful to see so many elected officials in the room, but many of them had never connected with groups like Brave Space Alliance until Saturday.
“I’ve never seen any of you all step foot in organizations when we are on the ground doing the work,” Rechice said. “There are 41 days left in this year, and I challenge each and every one of you to go to these organizations and see what we’re doing firsthand.”
As Smith-Lewis’ family mourns their own loss, she said she wants to stand in solidarity with all the trans people who have died and with their families.
“I’m here for my late sister, Disaya Monaee Smith, but I’m also here for the others,” said Smith-Lewis, who brought a large Pride flag featuring the trans flag’s colors. “It’s not fair that these women get murdered just for being who they truly are, so from here on out, I’m going to be there for whatever program I can attend or give whatever I need to give to support the community and honor my sister.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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