The vigil for murdered 22-year-old transgender woman Shade Schuler may not have drawn a huge crowd in Dallas on Wednesday evening, but what the gathering lacked in size, it made up for in emotion.
Nearly every one of the 30 people in attendance spoke during a dramatic seed-planting ceremony, a reminder that “Miss Shade” didn’t die in vain, because the Trans Lives Matter movement has taken root.
As dusk fell in Oak Lawn’s Reverchon Park, the speakers’ powerful personal stories shed light on the complex array of factors behind a wave of anti-trans violence that’s resulted in at least 19 murders in the United States this year, including two in Texas.
Shannon Walker, 35, said she once was much like Schuler, earning money on the streets of Dallas as a young, black, trans sex worker.
“You’re always in great danger, but at the same time, you’re in a struggle,” Walker told the Observer, citing the family rejections and job discrimination that so often plague young trans folk. “You’re hungry, you’re homeless, and what other choice do you have? It’s not easy, being transgender, to take a résumé into a business and ask to be employed here in Texas.”
None of the attendees appeared to have known Schuler personally, and Schuler’s family and friends have not spoken publicly. But speakers said they’re nevertheless familiar with the horrors of anti-trans violence.
Marisa Anguiano is the cousin of Janette Tovar, a Dallas trans woman killed in 2012. Anguiano said she recently learned that Tovar’s killer, her then-boyfriend Jonathan Stuart Kenney, has reached a plea deal under which he’ll be sentenced to 10 years probation. The Observer couldn’t immediately confirm Kenney’s deal, but he has been free on $50,000 bond since shortly after Tovar’s murder.
“It was the ultimate slap in the face,” Anguiano said.
At one point during the ceremony, Anguiano had to be bodily held up at the microphone, nearly collapsing as she choked back tears.
“They were beautiful flowers that were meant to be shared by the world, and now their seeds are watered by the tears of the loved ones they leave behind,” she said. “But maybe, just maybe, this is a time when we’re going to get to see a change, so that future generations of transgender women don’t have to suffer through the abuse and neglect from the legal system when they’re in trouble, and especially when they’re murdered.”
Vigil organizer Nell Gaither, president of Trans Pride Initiative, has criticized the Dallas Police Department for continually misgendering Schuler. Police say they’ve declined Gaither’s request to update press releases in the case because Schuler’s family and friends tell them she had no preference when it came to pronouns. But Gaither said the misgendering is a sign of entrenched transphobia within the department and emblematic of law enforcement’s failure to properly investigate and prosecute trans murders.
During the vigil, Gaither also called for justice for Arte Madden, a black trans woman who was killed in 2013 near Denton and whose murder remains unsolved.
Huddled along the wall of a recreation center, holding candles and signs reading “Justice for Shade,” “Stop Killing Us” and “You Tried To Bury Us/You Didn’t Know We Were Seeds,” mourners said the names of the 19 victims from 2015 and later sung them along with the Black Lives Matter anthem “Hell You Talmbout.”
This year’s trans death toll is up from 12 in 2014. Many of the victims were non-white and under 30. All of them were women. They include 24-year-old Ty Underwood, who police say was shot to death by her boyfriend in Tyler in January. The suspect, college football player Carlton Ray Champion Jr., is scheduled to stand trial in Smith County next week.
Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox recently declared a “state of emergency” in response to the murders, but in the LGBT community, they continue to be overshadowed by the arrival of nationwide marriage equality and resistance from anti-gay state lawmakers, officials and bureaucrats.
Speakers at the vigil said they hope that will soon change.
Ted Van Trabart, a white gay man, noted that Reverchon Park was also the site of two anti-gay hate crime murders in 1988. In that case, Judge Jack Hampton infamously gave the killers a lighter sentence, comparing the victims to prostitutes.
“I don’t think there are any judges around to be so stupid to say that anymore, but they say it in other ways, and we’re here today to say that black lives matter and trans lives matter, and we’re all children of God, and there’s an equality in that,” Van Trabart said.
During the vigil, black trans activist Carmarion Anderson held up small piece of wood she said she retrieved from the spot where Schuler’s body was found.
“Each time I look at it, it empowers me to keep going, even when I want to give up,” Anderson said.