Baltimore remembers the lives of its transgender victims

Baltimore activists and residents light candles at a "Transgender Day of Remembrance" event in Mount Vernon on Wednesday night.
Baltimore activists and residents light candles at a "Transgender Day of Remembrance" event in Mount Vernon on Wednesday night.(Kevin Rector/The Baltimore Sun)

When Kelly Young was killed in East Baltimore in April, the well-liked transgender woman was mourned publicly, with friends and family asking for help bringing her still-unidentified killer to justice.

Too often, though, transgender women and men are killed in small neighborhoods and big cities all around the world and no one pays attention, activists say. The violence, often driven by hate, goes unpunished, even unacknowledged.


"No one seems to give it any attention. It's like it's OK," said Lauren Stokeling, a transgender Baltimore native and one of multiple speakers at an event to remember Young and other transgender victims at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore on Wednesday night.

"Things change very slowly," Stokeling said, of acceptance for transgender residents of Baltimore. "There are more of us, there are more community action groups for us, but I don't know if I would say things have improved."

The event was part of a worldwide "Transgender Day of Remembrance." Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a proclamation officially recognizing the day in Baltimore, where a transgender or gender non-conforming person has been killed in each of the last three years and in many years prior as well.

In the slightly chilly Mount Vernon church, close to 100 people gathered to mourn, but also to remember and honor the dead. They lit candles and sang, they laughed at common experiences and promised to hold on to their community bond through the violence.

The Rev. David Carl Olson said the church has multiple transgender parishioners and felt it important to mark the day with a memorial service.

"For us, the human family is a diverse family, and the full inclusion of transgender people we see as a holy act," he said. "We're doing this out of our respect for them, our solidarity with them and our sense that any loss of life is a tragedy."

The crowd was a mix of activists and church members, transgender city residents and their allies and friends. Among them were young couple Elizabeth Mason, 25, of Charles Village, and Tim Boniface, 31, of Towson.

"I grew up in this church and I really think trans rights are important," Mason said.


"We have a couple transgender members of my church, and they help out a lot," said Boniface, who attends Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. "So it's important to help them out, too."

The ceremony's key speaker, Donna Cartwright, of the Maryland Coalition for Trans Equality, said more than 200 transgender people were killed this year around the world, 16 of them in the United States. In half those U.S. cases, there has been no arrest, including in Young's case.

In the crowd, which included a large number of transgender people, there seemed to be little surprise on people's faces. Many slowly nodded at the statistics.

Minutes before, much of the crowd had stood and given a standing ovation to Stokeling, 49, who gave the longest comments of the night, spanning from her coming out as transgender at the age of 17, to her struggle with losing friends over the years, to her current success and desire to pull younger transgender women under her wing.

More than two decades ago, Stokeling said, she was part of a tribe of young transgender women in Baltimore whose lives were intricately bound together. As many as seven people would share an efficiency apartment at a time, and some lapsed into prostitution and drugs while others contracted HIV. Many eventually died. When they did, their friends would scramble to collect money for a memorial service even as the family of the deceased became more distant.

After the death of a friend, Stokeling once heard a mother say, "My son died the day he put on a dress." There were also times when she had to duck bottles, or didn't get on a bus when she felt threatened, she said.


But she has never quieted her laugh lest a potential attacker thought she sounded less than feminine and took offense. She's always known an attacker could jump out of a car at any moment just because he spotted an Adam's apple where he didn't think it belonged, but she's always refused to be reduced to fear, she said.

Stokeling, now a substance abuse counselor with a master's in human service administration, said she can't count how many friends have been shot and killed over the years, but she wishes people's memories weren't always about "the shot at the end."

"We laughed," she said, to more nods in the crowd. She will always remember the vibrance of life in all her friends who have died from AIDS or been killed on the street, she said.

"The thing that I think we must always remember," she said, "is that they lived."

That message resonated with James Burrell Jr., a friend of Young's from the ballroom voguing dance scene in Baltimore.

Burrell, who works with the transgender-focused Women Accepting Responsibility group, said when he remembers transgender victims, he likes "celebrating not only the tragic things that happened with them, but remembering the things about them like their smile or their sense of style or their laugh."

"You could always see Kelly coming down the block with a very stylish outfit on," he said. "She was a really funny girl, really nice."

The event was the first of two this week to celebrate the transgender community. The second, a Transgender Day of Community featuring workshops, a town hall and "community empowerment" events, will be held Saturday between 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore Enoch Pratt Parish Hall, at 514 N. Charles Street in Baltimore.