For the first time in its history, San Quentin State Prison joined the nationwide movement on Nov. 20 to memorialize 22 transpersons killed by hatred across the U.S. in the last year.
“Just because I’m not a part of society doesn’t mean that as a transwoman I don’t matter,” said incarcerated trans activist Lisa Strawn, who spearheaded the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony in the SQ chapel.
“I am still a person and so are the 22 transpeople we are remembering today.”
Many voices from the packed crowd responded, “That’s right, Lisa.”
“They deserved better than this,” she continued. “To have been shot, stabbed and burned beyond recognition at the hands of murderers—it makes no sense.”
Audience members for the groundbreaking SQ event included California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials Kris Applegate and Amy Miller, trans Corrections Officer M. Hauwert and California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).
“This is a really beautiful community of people who are supporting each other to make San Quentin—and the world—a better place,” Senator Wiener told SQNews after the event.
“It’s really moving to hear from incarcerated persons about the need for more love, less violence, more peace and less hatred.”
Wiener and his policy team wrote Senate Bill 132 and are working to get it approved. SB132 aims to improve housing options for incarcerated transwomen—whether they’ve had gender reassignment surgery or not.
Although the first two rows of pews were reserved with signs for “outside guests,” Senator Wiener and his aides sat in the third row with SQ prisoners.
“Thank you for being a part of what inclusion looks like today,” Strawn said to Wiener and the entire chapel.
CDCR mental health clinicians J. Lopez and C. Spohn helped establish SQ’s first transgender support group in May. They followed that up soon after with another group for the entire LGBTQ+ community.
“Guess what—San Quentin got it right this year,” said Strawn as she welcomed Lopez and Spohn up onstage.
“It’s hard to be out at San Quentin,” said Spohn, who moderates SQ’s Queer Support Group. “It takes a lot of bravery. You’re going to see a lot of brave people up here today.”
The afternoon event featured a diversity of performers and speakers who took turns honoring the fallen members of the trans community.
“Today is not just about these 22 people,” said Father Donal Godfrey from the Society of Jesuits. “It’s about the hundreds around the world who’ve been killed for no reason.”
Godfrey asked everyone to join him in a prayer for inclusion, compassion and nonjudgment.
“I believe each of us is beautiful. Each of us deserves to be treated with dignity and love.”
Nah.na Reed, with James Villa beside her, spoke the names of 2019’s transgender victims while lighting electric candles. Throughout the event, the chapel’s video screens continuously ran individual photos.
With most of the victim’s being nonWhite, Strawn made sure to highlight awareness for the heightened risks and extra discrimination Black transwomen face daily.
“Racism is a key factor that pushes transwomen of color to be homeless and in part leads them to prostitution in order to survive,” she said.
When Michael Adams walked onstage, he pointed to the video screens and said, “Looking at those faces, what I saw was beauty—but the struggle inside was not revealed.
“They walked in a courage that I didn’t have. LGBTQIA—all of that—call us the alphabet people. What matters is that you just be true to yourself…”
“…because some people just don’t wanna know,” he said, introducing his song.
Adriel Ramirez sang “Amazing Grace,” but first she said, “By God’s love I’m still here today to represent the trans community.”
Thanh Tran spoke before performing. “Lisa said to me, ‘It’s so important for men who identify as cis and straight to stand in solidarity with us,’” he said. “And that made me stop and think…
“Why would anyone who feels marginalized want to marginalize anyone else?”
For those who don’t yet know, cis is the adjective now used to describe a person who identifies with the same gender they were biologically born.
Soon to be released Azzaraya Rodriguez said she came to show solidarity for all her trans sisters who’ve died or been killed.
“I am going to let the world know who I am before the world tells me,” said Rodriguez.
Gouda Preston, a Black trans woman new to SQ, personally addressed the issue of violence against transwomen of color.
“Many times we are killed because of people who don’t know who we are,” said Preston. “But in complete darkness we are all the same.
“Hatred can never do anything but take good people away.”
Michael Acosta gave a poetic and scathing indictment of toxic masculinity. “You love to hate and hate to love,” he said. “So go ahead and call her a fag again.
“But like Taylor Swift says, ‘Shade never made anybody less gay.’”
Michael Mackey and Tim Young brought the crowd to its feet with their original song, “Why Me?”
With Young plucking away melodically on guitar beside him, Mackey rapped, “This for every transgender that done passed away,” and later his hook incited raucous cheers: “I hope me and Gavin Newsom get to play this song together,” the crowd responded in raucous cheer.
Max Jackson met Strawn almost two years ago and has cared for her deeply ever since.
“It’s been a lot of long days and long nights putting this event together,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed by all the support—the attendance, the laughs, the cheers, the messages that were given today.
“To take an hour or two and hear this message about our community, they see us in a more positive way—see us as human.”
Hauwert, now on special assignment for CDCR in Sacramento, experienced many personal hurdles herself as a transwoman corrections officer at SQ in 2014.
“I was very emotional and upset by my treatment at first, but they got better,” Hauwert said about her transition. “Now, all I’m feeling is an influx of love and acceptance.
“They’re trying hard—not just to me, but to the entire trans community.”
Amy Miller serves as an associate director for CDCR’s Female Offender Programs and Services/Special Housing.
“The support for the transgender community from the non-trans inmate population and from staff makes me believe that as an agency, we are moving in the right direction,” said Miller for Inside CDCR.
Asst. Secretary for CDCR’s Office of Legislation Kris Applegate agreed.
“What the women of San Quentin put together was remarkable and emotional,” said Applegate. “Seeing their dedication and the support of the rest of the incarcerated people and staff who attended was inspirational.”
J. Lopez moderates SQ’s Trans Support Group.
“They’ve been amazing,” she said about Applegate and Miller. “I’m blown away by how supportive they’ve been.”
Strawn said Applegate and Miller have become her “new pen pals—whether they like it or not.”
“We planned this Transgender Day of Remembrance on only three weeks’ notice,” said Lopez. “It literally took us 100-150 hours of work and rehearsals.
“All the hatred and prejudice comes from a place of not understanding what it’s like to be transgender, to be different from the norm. It’s just biology—your brain.
“Gender dysphoria, it’s scary for them to face. We all need to show empathy and understanding for what they’re going through,” added Lopez.