Two lines of people holding unlit candles stretched down the long center aisle at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore last Thursday. As the service attendees—more than a hundred total—reached the front of the line in pairs, two volunteers helped them light their candles and place them upright in a large box, while up at the pulpit a volunteer read off a list of names. “Calvin Curtis Lipscomb. Nov. 8, 2013. Detroit, Michigan. Lady Butterfly. Nov. 17, 2013. Porto Seguro, Brazil. Sahlil. Nov. 17, 2013. Karachi, Pakistan.” Name, date of death, location.
It’s a list of transgender people who have been killed in the past year around the world and people who were victims of anti-transgender prejudice. The service was being held as part of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event first established after the murder of Rita Hester in November 1998. This year, there were 233 names on the list, 13 of them from the U.S., two from Maryland: Kandy Hall, whose body was found in northeast Baltimore in June, and Mia Henderson, whose body was found in an alley in West Baltimore about two weeks later. According to the police, the investigations for both murders are still open, as is the case for Kelly Young, a 29-year-old African-American transgender woman who was killed in April 2013.
It’s a sobering reminder that, even though Maryland became one of 17 states to have non-discrimination laws based on gender identity when the Fairness for All Marylanders Act went into effect at the beginning of October, life for transgender people—and for transgender women of color, in particular—is not necessarily safe here. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than two-thirds of the victims of anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2013 in the U.S. were transgender women of color.
LaSaia Wade, a transgender woman who splits her time between Baltimore and Nashville, Tennessee, wasn’t close to Henderson, but knew her through friends. “It was upsetting,” she says. “Losing her was like losing another sister.”
Violence isn’t the only concern for transgender people in Baltimore. “We’ve seen cases where a person is fired by their employer after the employer finds out that they are transgender or after they begin the process of gender transition,” says Jer Welter, the managing attorney at FreeState Legal Project, a legal advocacy organization for low-income LGBT+ residents. “We see cases where transgender patients are denied equal access to services in or kicked out of establishments like restaurants or stores or transportation services. And unfortunately I think it is, most transgender people that you talk to have experienced discrimination in these areas at some point in their life.”
“Unquestionably I’ve experienced [discrimination] in workplace situations,” says Rahne Alexander, a transgender woman and the Operations and Development Manager for the Maryland Film Festival and erstwhile CP contributor. “But it’s always hard to know if I’m not getting a job specifically because someone is uncomfortable because of [my gender identity].”
Wade says, “there’s a high unemployment rate for trans women of color and there’s a high rate of trans women of color [in Baltimore] doing sex work because of the unemployment”—according to GLAAD, transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty, and the unemployment rate for transgender people of color is four times that of the general population. “And when they do find a stable job,” she says of transgender women, “they’ll do anything they can do to keep it, even de-transitioning,” meaning presenting themselves as male.
Health care, too, is an issue. A 2004-05 survey of transgender people in Baltimore found HIV rates at a staggering 40 percent—by comparison, there was a 2.3 percent rate of HIV cases in the general population in Baltimore. And many health care policies carry specific exclusions for transition-related health care coverage. “We, earlier this year, represented a client who was a state employee, and a transgender man,” Welter says. “And it turned out that the health plan offered state employees had exclusions for the medical procedures that many transgender people need.”
But there are signs of progress. As a response to FreeState Legal’s case, the state agreed to remove those exclusions from its health care coverage. And recently, Welter says, Maryland’s “Medicaid Policy Advisory Committee formally recommended the removal of other similar exclusions [in Medicaid] . . . so regulations are now going to be promulgated to remove those outdated exclusions from the state Medicaid program as well.”
Alexander says that, more broadly, public awareness surrounding transgender people has increased recently. “It seems to have reached a critical mass in the last couple of years, which is fantastic, whereas I felt 20 years ago that nobody knew anything about it,” she says.
“The root,” Wade says, “is education. If you teach [non-transgender people] what’s going on and they better understand what’s going on, then that violence and that anger and that misunderstanding goes out the window.”
But until then, there is still a list of 233 names of the dead.
It took about 30 minutes for all of the names to be read. Rev. David Carl Olson, a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, stood up and, through tears, said a few words before Rev. Michael A. Hunt of The Open Church of Maryland came up to the front of the church. “The names were read, and they have been etched in Your heart,” he prayed. Nearby, a woman quietly sobbed into the shoulder of a man sitting in front of her.
At the service’s conclusion, five people gathered around the box full of candles to carry it down the center aisle and outside. By the time the box of candles was placed out on the steps of the church, most of the candles had entirely melted and gone out. Only seven or so wicks were still lit in the box full of wax, their flames sputtering as the service attendees quietly filed out of the church and spilled out into the cold night.