Worcester Telegram & Gazette by Brad Petrishen
June 21, 2019
WORCESTER – As hundreds looked on in a DCU Center meeting room Friday, Isa Woldeguiorgius repeated the names of the 10 transgender women killed in America this year.

Dana Martin was the first, shot in Montgomery, Alabama, Jan. 6. The most recent, Zoe Spears, was found dead June 13 in the same Washington, D.C., suburb as another victim, Ashanti Carmon.

“Say their names,” Ms. Woldeguiorgius told her fellow violence prevention workers. “Don’t make them faceless numbers.”

Ms. Woldeguiorgius, the keynote speaker at a daylong summit hosted by Jane Doe Inc., focused her address on the importance of “centering” efforts on people who live in the margins, like transgender black women or LGBQT teens.

The message was the theme of this year’s annual “prevention summit,” as speakers alluded to the importance of helping those who have become targets of a rising number of hate crimes in America.

In addition to politicians like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called the murders a “crisis” on June 15, the crimes have caught the attention of physicians at the American Medical Association.

“Fatal attacks against transgender people have prompted the AMA to adopt a plan to help bring national attention to the epidemic of violence against the transgender community,” the association said in a June 10 release, noting that most victims are transgender black women.

The AMA is calling for police to better collect gender identity data, which would likely lead to more victims being identified, and calling for government at all levels to better address treatment of LGBTQ individuals.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Karyn E. Polito spoke about a new $500,000 state initiative aimed at teaching middle and high school students to respect one another.

Called “RESPECTfully,” the campaign has taken out short advertisements on popular social media platforms that preach the importance of building healthy relationships.

“We clearly recognized the need to do this,” Ms. Polito said, noting that the state hasn’t embarked on a similar campaign in two decades.

Ms. Woldeguiorgius, who runs a Lowell nonprofit that helps victims of sexual assault, said movements like RESPECTfully and #MeToo are an important turning point in society.

“This is our time, folks, this is our time,” she said, urging those in attendance to advocate boldly for things such as people using pronouns when they introduce themselves.

The practice – of a woman using pronouns “she/her/hers,” for instance – is one derided by some who question the legitimacy of transgender identity.

Ms. Woldeguiorgius said that when people decline to declare their pronouns, they are causing harm to transgender people and sending message to transgender youth “that their identity, and their lives, don’t matter.”

She urged people to worry less about “safe spaces,” and more about having the uncomfortable discussions that lead to meaningful change.

“Let’s talk about what it’s like for trans women of color to get up every day and walk down the street every day just to get to the gym,” she said.

Ms. Woldeguiorgius cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicating the homicide rate for black women is twice that of white, Asian and Hispanic women.

Such statistics, she said, show that while some women are being helped, too many black women are not, reinforcing the importance of the industry “centering” itself on those who are most marginalized.

In breakout sessions scheduled throughout the day, the event’s mostly female attendees were set to discuss ways to focus on people in the margins, along with ways to foster change among men, boys and the media.

Ms. Polito thanked those in the room heartily for their work, and Debra J. Robbin, executive director for Jane Doe Inc., thanked the lieutenant governor for being a “champion” for their cause.

Ms. Polito said it is her hope that the state’s work will lead to its students being kinder and more aware of what healthy relationships look like by the time they leave high school.

Ms. Woldeguiorgius said such prevention efforts are crucial, and encouraged those who work in the trade for little pay and little recognition to know that their work saves lives.

“We’re in this because … we believe that violence is not inevitable,” she said, and that the horrors associated with it can be decreased if societal norms change.

Ms. Robbin said people in society need to understand that much of what they have been raised to believe is a “false narrative” built to support dominant culture.

Ms. Woldeguiorgius asked attendees, in addition to focusing on those now marginalized in society, to also respect those who were marginalized in the past.

She asked the audience to pause for 30 seconds to remember the original inhabitants of the land on which they stood, the Nipmuc Native Americans.

“We are standing on stolen land,” she said, adding that, at a time the nation is grappling with the idea of reparations for slavery, it’s important to acknowledge that “many things in this country were built off of stolen people, and stolen land.”