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Jae Rice at Transgender Day of Visibility rally

Jae Rice is wrapped in a trans flag, which bears the names of trans people killed in Chicago, during a Transgender Day of Visibility rally at the Daley Center Plaza Thursday. “We remember all the rest of the names on this flag. We just had to add seven names to this flag of fallen trans siblings,” Rice told dozens who attended the rally.

María Inés Zamudio

Transgender Day of Visibility turns somber as participants mourn the murders of Black trans women

Jae Rice is holding an enormous trans flag adorned with the names of trans people killed in Chicago. He’s sad and angry because his friends are dying.

“We remember all the rest of the names on this flag. We just had to add seven names to this flag of fallen trans siblings,” Rice told dozens of Chicagoans gathered outside the Daley Center Plaza on Thursday evening for a rally to commemorate Trans Day of Visibility.

Every March 31, Trans Day of Visibility is held to celebrate transgender and non-binary people. But this year’s celebration in Chicago turned somber as participants mourned the recent deaths of two Black trans women. Activists say Chicago is one of the deadliest cities in the country for Black trans people. They urge Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first openly gay mayor, to protect them.

“It is a reminder that this country does not care about trans Black people. Not when my sisters are getting pulled out of lakes. Not when my sisters are being found in the back of trash cans,” said Rice, communications director for Brave Space Alliance, a trans-led organization providing services on Chicago’s South Side. “This is not a day of celebration. This is a day of reckoning.”

On March 18, Tatiana “Tee Tee” Labelle’s body was found stuffed in a garbage bin in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. She had been reported missing by her family. A day later, Evanston police recovered the body of trans activist Elise Malary from Lake Michigan. She had been missing for a week.

No one has been arrested in connection with Labelle’s killing, Chicago police said. As for Malary’s case, Evanston police said no sign of foul play was found, and they are waiting on the cause of death from the medical examiner’s office.

“The Chicago region is one of the worst regions in the country when it comes to the number of women whose lives have been lost. Texas is the only other state, I believe, that rivals its numbers,” said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director with the National Black Justice Coalition.

Malary’s death shook the LGBTQ+ community. She advocated for trans rights in her work with Chicago Therapy Collective, Equality Illinois, AIDS Foundation Chicago and the Office of the Illinois Attorney General.

“Elise was a valued member of our Civil Rights Bureau who, as a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ community, was passionate about her work. Her kindness and infectious smile will be missed by those who worked with her. The Attorney General’s office has lost a member of our family, and as an office, we are heartbroken,” Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in a statement.

2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S., according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking deadly incidents since 2013. Six Black trans women killed in Chicago were featured in that report.

“Since last year’s Trans Day of Visibility, Chicago has had more reported murder of trans folks than any city in the U.S.,” said Ab Weeks, organizing director at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL).

Tyianna Alexander was the first victim in Chicago last year when she was fatally shot on Jan. 6, 2021, in the 800 block of West 75th Street. That killing came just a few weeks after Courtney Eshay Key’s fatal shooting on Christmas Day. By April, Tiara Banks was fatally shot in the West Pullman neighborhood. Another two trans women were killed in September; Disaya Monaee Smith’s body was found at a motel in Dolton. A few weeks later, Brianna Hamilton was fatally shot in the 7800 block of South Bishop Avenue.

Chicago police said they are still investigating those cases and no one has been arrested. Dolton police did not respond.

“Every single person in our community should be treated as though their life is valuable and has worth, '' said Kirby York. “When any particular community is able to be targeted without accountability, and without justice, makes it that much easier to treat other communities the same way. It’s important that we all stand together and that we all work together when it comes to protecting Black trans women.”

Anti-trans legislation and policies continue to spread throughout the country. Florida passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill last week preventing teachers in that state from discussing trans and other LGBTQ issues in classrooms. Iowa prevents trans students from participating in sports. In Texas, the governor directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate certain gender-affirming care as possible child abuse.

While trans people in Illinois don’t have to worry about such policies, advocates say local leaders need to do more.

Lightfoot commemorated Trans Day of Visibility with a message on social media.

“We must condemn and speak out against this unacceptable reality, as well as work that much harder to create a city where all of our trans residents feel that they can safely and fully express themselves,” Lightfoot said on Twitter.

However, during Thursday’s rally, trans advocates issued failing grades in a number of public policy areas for county and city leaders, including Lightfoot.

As Weeks shouted, “Gender affirming care and housing. What do they get?” — the crowd yelled back “F.” The response was the same for access to medical need, access to COVID prevention and other categories.

The rally was emotional. Sharah Hutson, a digital organizer with SOUL, held a moment of silence to honor the trans women killed in Chicago.

“In this silence, I want us to imagine them existing in a world where they are loved for their full, authentic selves,” Hutson told the crowd.

Hutson urges Chicagoans to think about how their own silence contributes to this crisis.

“So I ask you, how have you failed to protect the trans women around you? Has your silence around the violence that is happening to Black trans women led to their erasure?” Hutson asked the crowd after pausing for a moment to weep. “Do you understand that the liberation of Black trans women is directly tied to the liberation of your very own?”

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

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