It is late spring, or early summer, of the year 2016, before news surrounding the Pulse nightclub massacre would seep into the media, public consciousness, and hearts of LGBTQ+ communities across the world. Let’s say it’s May and I’m on the Manhattan bound D train, on my way to see a friend. A man enters the train and hovers over me, pushing me into my window seat. He has a cold, disoriented look in his eyes and he is sort of glaring above my line of vision, looking toward me but not at me. The train lurches forward and the child inside me is trembling. That same child from my youth who felt cornered in empty classrooms, or side streets, is now trying to keep a calm, even friendly, face in hopes of wishing the man above me away. When I need to protect myself, I can put on a good performance of being trusting and unassuming towards others. After about a minute of suspended silence, he speaks:
“What do you think you’re looking at, huh? What the fuck do you think you’re looking at?”
I truly can’t remember if I responded. I might have apologized– “Oh I’m sorry, I’m just zoned out” or I might have said nothing and just stared ahead. The next thing I remember is a throbbing pain in my head and a cold lick of shock. I’m reeling from having my head slammed into the subway window and I don’t have time to react because the subway doors are opening at the next stop. I flee. I feel defeated and dirty for having apologized and run away. I stave this feeling off by talking about it with my friend, who I trivialize the incident to, over drinks. Needless to say, I’m grateful for the lightness.
Later that same week (life can be stranger than fiction) I get beckoned out of a Coney Island bound D train by an officer. It’s deep in the post midnight hours, and he gestures me to come out of the almost empty cart as the doors open. Am I dreaming? I dare not refuse. The platform at 36th St. Station in Brooklyn is empty. The narrow pupils in his frost colored eyes look my body up and down. They rest a little too long on my legs and, miraculously, the platform starts to populate. He pulls out his ticket pad, and says “You can’t prop your leg up on the chair like that.” I sigh a little bit of relief though I wait for him to ever so slowly finish filling out the ticket. The ticket is bullshit, I later learn, as he wrote a completely invalid date and time– an unrelated date far gone in the past. When I get a notification in the mail the next week that my ticket is void, I somehow know it isn’t accidentally so.
I share these personal accounts of fear and intimidation to highlight the fact that people like me– queer femme, non binary, transgender women, and other LGBTQ+ identified people– often do not leave these encounters unscathed as I was lucky to do. For many, hate violence and police antagonism lead to severe brutalization or death. This is especially true now, as 2017 has seen an uptick in anti LGBTQ+ homicides as well as police related killings. In the past month alone we have seen two queer lives lost to the pathological trigger happy violence of the police: Kiwi Herring, a 30 year old Black transgender woman from Mississippi and Scout Schultz, a 21 year old genderqueer/non-binary student of Georgia Tech. Just weeks after Charlottesville, a car plowed through a group of people marching for Ms. Herring in St. Louis in the wake of her passing.
Kiwi Herring, a caregiver, was reported to be reacting to what her family members called a “homophobic” neighbor who lived in her building and had tendencies toward harassing her. A call was made and the St. Louis police responded to the scene of harassment and conflict. In hopes of defending herself, she was said to have been holding a knife-like object which was all the police needed as cause to shoot. One of Herring’s family members said “She did not look like she could hurt a fly. She was probably hysterical but we feel excessive force was used.”
Scout Shultz was also said to be holding a knife-like object while surrounded by campus police on the grounds of Georgia Tech. They appeared to be disoriented by around the time police were notified that Shultz was wandering campus with a knife. Family members cited a history of suicide attempts and mental illness. Shultz was surrounded by campus police and while reportedly non threatening, or antagonistic, they took footsteps toward the police which incited fire. The Pride alliance called them their “driving force.”
Certainly both deaths are direct products of our insidious white supremacist police state that regularly targets and criminalizes Black men, women, and children. This is in addition to a current riptide of phobic, anti-queer, ideologies specific to this moment (though certainly not new) leading to the murders of trans, queer, and gay people in recent years. The most alarming reality is that of violence enacted upon Black transgender women, who are being harmed and murdered at alarming rates. Anyone who lives in fear of these aggressions, or follows these patterns, intimately knows this to be true. Simply walking out the door for transgender, genderqueer, and queer femme people is a radical act, and can feel like a gesture rooted in survival, as we know the danger all too well. Boredom, ease, and pleasure, in public space are kind of like luxuries that we might be able to taste but are nonetheless underpinned by a known danger that needs to be navigated for the sake of survival.
For those who care and yet live lives that are less targeted, it can become easy to grow numb and merely count the deaths of the fallen. Certainly we all must speak the names of our kin, and neighbors, whom we’ve lost too soon to violence and listen to the voices of ghosts and angels, who hold the answers to how we must change internally and structurally. But we must also honor and amplify trans and queer femme lives while they are in process of being lived. It is not enough to merely document our siblings’ deaths. As the writer and online personality Son of Baldwin says, “I don’t want to keep cataloging the murders of my trans siblings. I want a world free of transantagonism and I want it NOW.”
It is our responsibility then, whether we identify as queer or otherwise, to hold one another, shelter each other, and share our stories in complex and luminescent ways. It is necessary that we shine lights that are bright enough to surpass what we are inundated with in the headlines. As the LEGENDARY performer and activist, Sylvia Rivera, once said:
“We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.”