By Hale Thompson, PhD
As Pride Month kicks off in Chicago, many of us look forward to the Pride Parade in Lakeview, the Dyke March in Little Village, and numerous other performances and parties celebrating the achievements of the LGBTQ movement with friends and family.
As is tradition, Rush University Medical Center will have a contingent in the Chicago Pride Parade. And this year, both the LGBTQ Leadership Council of Rush’s Diversity Leadership Council plus faculty, students, and staff in the Medical College have embarked on several LGBTQ and gender-affirming medical education and care initiatives.
‘Say Our Names’
One of these initiatives includes an art exhibit, “Say Our Names,” by artist and film director Lilly Wachowski. “Say Our Names” is on display in the corridor of the Searle Conference Center at Rush through July 8. This is the first time the exhibit has been shown in a large, academic medical center. The goal is to raise awareness across Rush that, despite many important legal, political, and cultural gains over the last 15 years, transgender people continue to struggle for survival and access to basic resources such as health care.
“Say Our Names” consists of 27 portraits of transgender people, primarily young women of color, whose deaths were reported and recorded as homicides during 2016 in the United States. They feature bright acrylic paints on wood panels.
“I utilized a color palette with the hope the portraits could offer a vibration of the subject’s life and humanity so that the viewer would also be able to connect, to remember and to honor,” Wachowski’s artist statement says. “We must recognize these murders for what they are: a genocidal project. Trans people are under attack and trans women of color specifically are being singularly and systematically wiped out.”
One of the portraits depicts the life of T.T. Saffore, who died on Sept. 11, 2016, of multiple stab wounds at age 28 in West Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side. Friends of T.T.’s expressed their shock at the time of her death that someone took her life and that her sense of humor, compassion and steadfast cheerfulness were no longer.
Egregious amounts of violence, trauma and discrimination continue to impact trans communities. In 2017, like 2016, 27 homicides of trans people were reported. In 2018, 11 homicides of trans and gender nonconforming persons have been reported through May. Because of discrimination and stigma, survival sex work, homelessness and a lack of social support are also common experiences, leaving trans and gender nonconforming people particularly vulnerable to criminalization and incarceration.
In “Blackness and the Trouble of Trans Visibility,” scholar Che Gossett traces this systemic oppression against trans bodies, and black trans bodies in particular, to slavery and colonialism. Systemic oppression, also referred to as systemic violence or structural violence, refers to the ways in which groups of people’s lives are shortened by the systematic exclusion from access to resources.
Today, systemic oppression continues to be supported and reinforced through policies that limit trans and nonbinary persons’ access to jobs, housing, education, health care, and public accommodations, such as restrooms. This year alone, the Department of Justice and the executive branch of the federal government have issued directives against trans persons that limit participation in the military, block access to health care, and most recently, mandate federal prison placement based on assigned sex at birth instead of gender identity.
At the state level, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have been monitoring state and city ballot measures that endorse discrimination against trans persons in public spaces (for example, in Anchorage, Alaska, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Montana) and that limit health coverage for trans persons (in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire). More sweeping legislation, from religious exemptions to outlawing gay marriage and LGBTQ education in the schools, has been introduced thsi year in Indiana, Wyoming, Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Disparities in Chicago
Chicago has two comprehensive antidiscrimination ordinances that include protections for gender identity, and Rush also has an antidiscrimination policy that explicitly protects gender identity, but data suggest that trans and nonbinary persons in Chicago continue to face violence and marginalization. The year before T.T. Saffore lost her life, 24 year-old Tiara Richmond (AKA Keke Collier) was shot to death in Englewood. Nonbinary activist and accountant, Lee Dewey, was brutally arrested by police in 2017 while marching for sex workers’ rights in downtown Chicago.
According to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s March 2018 report, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health,” transgender adults in Chicago are significantly less likely to report their health as excellent, very good, or good compared to cisgender Chicagoans. Similarly, transgender adults are significantly more likely to report having experienced psychological distress in the last month than their cisgender counterparts. Notably, the June 20 Rush Pride Reception will host not only the artist, Lilly Wachowski, but also keynote Antonio King, the LGBTQ Community Liaison for the Chicago Department of Public Health who may speak to the health disparities identified in the 2018 report.
Celebration, ongoing commitment
During Pride month, it’s important not to lose sight of the struggles that continue while celebrating and honoring the resilience that comes with these struggles. Like Lilly Wachowski’s portraits, trans communities in Chicago exhibit a vibrancy and vitality at the grass roots. Organizations like Project Fierce, Brave Space Alliance and Youth Empowerment Project promote the values of autonomy, love, and democratic engagement while working to house, empower, and build skills and support for young trans and gender nonconforming persons.
In parallel with these grass-roots mobilizations, Rush University Medical Center will continue to support community-based initiatives in Chicago and on the West Side. Within Rush, more education and training, as well as types of care that are LGBTQ- and gender-affirming will be piloted and implemented across various levels of the Medical Center and colleges. Through these efforts, the Rush LGBTQ Leadership Council intends to strengthen its commitments to healing justice and health equity for transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming persons.
To learn more about the transgender lives lost to homicidal violence, see https://tdor.info and https://mic.com/unerased. To learn more about Rush’s commitment to LGBT communities, see https://www.rush.edu/about-us/commitment-lgbtq-health-care.
Hale Thompson, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Rush.