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Amherst Unitarian Church holds transgender memorial and candlelight vigil

More than 60 supporters, speakers and mourners turned out for the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Thursday, Nov. 19, which was observed at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst with help from the University of Massachusetts Stonewall Center, Northampton’s synagogue Beit Ahavah and the UMass Everywoman’s Center.

As attendants walked in on Thursday, volunteers handed out small purple pamphlets and candles baring the names of those who have died around the world from hate crimes since Nov. 20, 2008.

After a short introduction by the Jennifer Levi of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Transgender Rights Project, the attendants marched through the center of Amherst to the intersection of Route 9 and South Pleasant Street and back to the Unitarian Church, each carrying a candle representing one of the people lost to transgender violence in the past year.

The crowd sang “We are gentle angry people,” as some passersby in cars slowed down to ask those in the candlelight parade why they were marching.

Rabbi Raquel Kosovske, of Beit Ahavah, the reform synagogue of the greater Northampton area, spoke after the candlelight march. “Seeds of a progressive society have been planted but not yet cultivated,” Kosovske said before the full church.

Kosovske also noted that these crimes cannot be prosecuted, because there is no such crime as a “gender identity hate crime in Massachusetts.”

Following Kosovske was Reverend Louis Mitchell, a co-founder of Recovering the Promise Ministries, a worship group based out of Springfield, Mass. Mitchell introduced himself as a transsexual man. “We need to see ourselves as more than one or two, we need ‘us-ness,’” Rev.  Mitchell said. “We need express sorrows, anger, frustration and fear.”

The next speaker was Reverend Liza Neal, Director of Spiritual Life at Hampshire College, who shared her pride in those who had lost their lives. “The people they were and the courage they had to live in the world fear and violence,” she said. “No one is free when we are oppressed; it is violence for all of us.”

Neal expressed her frustration with both heterosexual and homosexual gender roles. She said transgender people were “beautiful and inspiring, and ahead of their time” with their “life without label.”

After the speakers concluded, they opened the microphone to the audience for personal stories of loss and perseverance in transgender lifestyles and read the names of all those killed in gender role violence.

“With this memorial, I hope it will bring all transgender people together, to remember lost ones, celebrate life and remind the public of the need for equality,” said Gunner Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, in a telephone interview. “A focus will be on transgender women of color that are often targeted.”

Scott has a personal connection to the cause. In 1998, a close friend was murdered because of her gender orientation in Boston. He said that afterward, “the Boston Herald disrespected her in their coverage by referring to her by a name and gender she no longer identified as. In reaction we held a protest on Sept. 1, 1998 which was put on by the Queer Revolt.” According to Scott, it was at that point when he decided to become involved in the cause.

For more information about local transgender events visit Masstpc.org/umass.

Sam Hayes can be reached at sdhayes@student.umass.edu. Michelle Williams can be reached at mnwillia@student.umass.edu.

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