The voices we’ve lost

Two local activists on a mural that elevates Sacramento trans community in the memory of Chyna Gibson

Ebony Harper and Khaya Osborne sit in front of a newly unveiled mural behind the Lavender Library.

Ebony Harper and Khaya Osborne sit in front of a newly unveiled mural behind the Lavender Library.

Photo by nicole fowler

Ebony Ava Harper is a Sacramento trans civil rights activist and a program associate at The California Endowment health foundation, whose mission is to expand health care access for underserved communities.
Khaya Osborne is a queer poet, activist, actor and team assistant for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, which advocates for the expansion of reproductive and health equity through public policy and clinical services.

It is a profound privilege to believe that death is apolitical. A man falls to his demise after suffering a heart attack. A young child suffers a tragic misfortune and must be buried. Life creeps away as easily as it comes.

However, the facts do not support this cherished belief.

On the evening of February 25, 2016, Chyna Gibson—a black transgender woman living in Sacramento—was walking down a street in New Orleans, video-chatting with a friend, when she was shot in her back multiple times. One of the bullets went through her hand and exited into the phone she was carrying.

Chyna died that night, and her killer has still not been found and charged in her murder.

Anyone who knew her could tell you that she was sweet, smart, funny and charming. Chyna was also strikingly beautiful. Though one would have needed to ask if she was trans to be able to tell, as she was what is called “cis passing,” Chyna was always honest and forthcoming about who and what she was—an undertaking that puts many black trans women in the position of being in immediate danger. She was brave and courageous. She should still be with us today.

For trans women, particularly black trans women, accidental deaths are a luxury. Many face the persistent and far-reaching, specter of violence every day; they live life never knowing how many days they have left. According to a 2015 survey by the Center for Transgender Equality, 40 percent of respondents said they attempted suicide in their lifetime, almost nine times the rate in the U.S. population, or 4.6 percent. Aside from murder, many deaths of trans women, can be attributed to neglect, oppression and health disparities.

Black trans women have less job security, health coverage and preventative care, so this startling statistic shouldn’t surprise you: more than half of them are living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many are denied effective treatment options due to medical discrimination, lack of education, or simply the lack of resources to pay for their care, according to the Center for Transgender Equality’s report.

It is not a coincidence that trans women, particularly black trans women, have so few tangible resources to live healthy, long lives. A combination of racism and transphobia has pushed many trans women of color to the fringes of society—demonized, afraid and unheard. Trans women are called predators and freaks for doing almost everything: from simple necessities like using public restrooms and using their pronouns, to more politically involved acts such as running for office and participating in activism. Though every cis person does not actively make it their mission to harm the lives of trans people, many are complicit in the silencing and erasure of trans voices, which, in and of itself, is a kind of violence.

Khaya Osborne (left) and Ebony Ava Harper.

Photo by Nicole Fowler

And by not creating spaces that are trans inclusive, many cis people alienate the most vulnerable members of our society. Even in cases where trans exclusion is accidental (often it is quite intentional), it is still unacceptable because the enduring narrative of trans feminine people is wholly negative, and providing them no platform does nothing to change or dismantle that. The takeaway from all of this is to elevate trans voices and to listen to trans people, while also acknowledging and honoring the lives we have already lost.

On March 31, a mural on the side of Sacramento’s Lavender Library was unveiled in memory of Chyna Gibson. Many people, including many members of Sacramento’s close-knit queer community, turned up to honor Chyna and to show support for Sacramento’s trans community.

There were festivities included: music, poetry and speeches from the family and friends of Chyna Gibson as well as prominent trans members of the community.

The unveiling happened on a crucial day: Trans Day of Visibility. The muralists, Shanna Strauss and Jessica Sabogal, released a statement that was read out loud at the unveiling regarding protecting the trans community and remembering the life of Chyna:

“The death of Chyna Gibson, the death of Stephon Clark, the deaths of the countless names we hear every day on the news, were not isolated incidents. As the artists responsible for memorializing Chyna Gibson’s legacy, we could not do so without pushing the viewer to draw connections to broader structural issues of oppression and violence. We cannot talk about racism without talking about whiteness. We can not talk about Black Lives Matter without talking about Black Trans Lives. We can not look at problems at the individual level when they affect our families and communities as a whole. So we urge you … to ask yourselves the question, what will you do to protect our trans community?”

Sabogal and Strauss bring up a crucial point: it is not enough to cater to the needs of individuals. We, as a community, must make it a priority to listen to those most marginalized, most in danger and most unheard. We must develop inclusive, far-reaching solutions that satisfy the needs of everyone in such a way that folks—including trans women—can walk down the street, go grocery shopping and seek care and acceptance without fear.

Chyna Gibson deserved to live, and it is because of our society’s ignorance that she is not with us. It is time for our world to open its eyes and accept the truth: trans and gender non-conforming people are people, too, and they are entitled to the same rights, liberties and comforts as everyone else. As a community and as a society, it is our responsibility to knock down the wall of ignorance, hatred and intolerance that so often blinds us to the needs of others so that everyone can live safely and fully. It is, honestly, the least we could do.