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(c) by Mary Griggs

This year, two hundred and twenty one people paid the ultimate price for being themselves. That isn’t just a number–those were 221 human beings who were targeted and murdered in 2011 because of their gender identity or gender expression. Two hundred and twenty one lights have gone out and their passing has left the world a darker place.

Most people have a gender identity of man or woman that is consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people, however, feel their assigned sex at birth is not consistent with their own gender identity. Still others express their gender in a way that does not conform to traditional gender stereotypes of what men or women should look like or how they should act.

Sex and gender are social constructions that have evolved over the course of human history and vary culturally. Despite the radical changes to sex/gender roles in the last century, the concept of a gender binary (that there are two sexes which correspond with two genders which were immutably set in stone prior to birth) unfortunately endures.

It is beyond tragic that there are people so invested in a gender binary that the mere thought of anyone not conforming is so abhorrent they feel justified in eradicating the transgressors. Losing anyone to hate and prejudice diminishes us all and the failure to solve so many of these crimes and convict the perpetrators is a reprehensible failure of our society as a whole.

It is heartbreaking that suicide is still a leading cause of death for many transgender and gender variant people. Discrimination on the job, at school or when attempting to use public restrooms are burdens that no one should be forced to endure. Compounded with harassment, insults and threats when someone is just trying to be themselves and it can become too much to bear.

To achieve equality we must do more than commemorate the dead. We must honor the living and their right to live their lives without the fear of prejudice.

Being an ally means more than remembering to include transgender with the rest of the alphabet soup that is the LGBTQ community. It is respecting other people’s self-identification without comment about their ability to pass or inquiry into the state of their genitalia. It is remembering their name and using the proper pronoun. It is recognizing the privilege inherent to having a legally recognized, socially approved, medically assigned gender and the oppression faced by those who do not.

This week, I helped organize a series of events at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans for Trans Awareness Week. I worked with the fabulous members of several local organizations including Forum For Equality, PFLAG-New Orleans, Louisiana ACLU, the Jim Collins Foundation, Health Law Advocates of Louisiana, HRC New Orleans, and the Louisiana Trans Advocates. We were privileged to be joined by allies from the medical community at Tulane, Ochsner, and the Veterans Administration.

Over the course of the week, we had a film screening, discussions about raising trans kids and civil rights as well as sharing information on advocacy, medical care and health insurance. This weekend, we gathered together to paint our stories of survival and to remember those who lost their lives to gender related violence.

I hope these events play some small part in raising public awareness of issues facing transgender people in addition to providing timely information to the transgender community. Above all, I hope we made clear that transgender individuals deserve equal protection under the law.