November 20, 2008
Portland State University
My name is Jenn Burleton and I am the Founder and Executive Director of TransActive. I am the wife, spouse, partner and significant other of the woman with whom I’ve shared my life for the past 26 years. We have been the foster parents of two transgender youth.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, I traveled to Phuket, Thailand and volunteered whatever talents, skills and abilities I could to the recovery effort. I am old enough to have marched with Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and James Groppi in the fight for civil rights and fair housing in the late 60’s and I am young enough to have voted enthusiastically, idealistically and teary-eyed for President Elect Barack Hussein Obama. I am a middle aged, middle class social liberal.
My name is Jenn Burleton; I am a woman who happens to be transgender and today just happens to be my birthday. It has always been a special time of reflection for me.
Early on, it was the yardstick against which I measured the time it was taking my mother to accept and support the little girl that lived within me. During my teen years, it became the hourglass through which the sand that was my changing body flowed. And in adulthood, it is the day on which I take stock of how far we’ve come as a culture and how far we still have to go with regards to gender identity and expression.
Since 1999, November 20th has been the day we set aside to remember our sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, lovers, companions, friends and total strangers whose lives were cut short by violence, ignorance, misogyny and fear. This is our day to honor and remember those who died simply because they were or were perceived to be sharing our transgender umbrella.
We know that at least one trans person dies violently every month. Many of these murders remain unsolved. This does not include those who take their own lives after having been slowly but surely emotionally assassinated by intolerance, indifference, poverty and isolation. Those of us who share, to one degree or another, a trans identity are the survivors… and when I did the math with regard to my own life, I realized how very fortunate I have been. As of today, I’ve survived 496 months since first coming out as transgender at 12 years of age.
Lawrence King was not as fortunate.
I did not have the privilege of knowing Larry in life; however I did spend several weeks earlier this year in Oxnard, California speaking with Larry’s friends, teachers, counselors, mentors and neighbors.
Joined by my friends and colleagues, Hayley Klug, Mariette Pathy Allen and Esther Griffin, I met with school administrators, the Mayor of Oxnard and even Larry’s father and family members of the boy who shot Larry. I have taught classes at E.O Green Middle School… 20 feet from classroom #42 in which Larry was shot in the head twice from behind at close range. Several of the students who were there that day were in the classes I taught.
You may have read that Larry was a troubled and flamboyant gay teen who liked to wear women’s clothing and harass straight boys. That Larry flaunted his sexuality. That one of the boys Larry liked finally wouldn’t take it anymore and brought a gun to school and shot Larry twice in the head as Larry sat at a desk in the computer lab.
I’m here to tell you that the only true part of any of that, is that one of the boys Larry liked brought a gun to school and shot Larry twice in the head. The remainder is nothing more than a cisgender-centric manipulation of Larry King’s trans identity in order to fit his death into a politically useful, binary gendered model of what homophobic violence is.
An article in The Advocate even suggested that support and encouragement for Larry’s overtly feminine gender identity and expression and his presumptively "gay" sexual orientation contributed to Larry’s death. It’s time for the hijacking of Larry King’s identity to stop. Larry, who told friends he preferred the name “Letitia”, was transgender.
It’s true that Letitia had male anatomy and at 15 was boy crazy (as are many straight girls at that age). But as many of us in this audience already understand, our identity… her identity existed between her ears and not between her thighs. The inability of some cisgender people in ALL communities to understand and respect that simple fact lies at the center of the identity theft that Letitia King was subjected to in life and most tragically, in death.
Letitia ’s life was complex, challenging, inspiring and, in the days prior to her murder, even joyous.
Born on January 13, 1993, Letitia turned fifteen one month prior to being killed. She had been taunted, harassed and abused for being feminine from elementary school on. Long before she may have even had a sexual orientation, Letitia understood that non-conforming gender expression is at the core of LGBT oppression. And yet, this small for her age child never backed down from being who she was.
Everyone who knew Letitia said that the weeks after she began fully expressing her true gender identity were the happiest of her life. Far from being the outcast some have portrayed her to be, Letitia had many friends at school, mostly other girls, and was well-liked by many in the school faculty and staff.
She loved butterflies. A child after my own heart, she loved the music of Crosby, Still & Nash. Her favorite song though, was “Lean On Me”, which she confidently told her chorus teacher she wanted to sing the solo on at the Spring 2008 school concert.
Letitia was described as a sweet child who befriended stray animals. Together with her adoptive mother, she crocheted scarves to send to the troops in Afghanistan and she loved Archie, the dinosaur-sized therapy dog at Casa Pacifica, the residential care center she was staying in at the time of her death. When asked how she withstood the teasing, bullying, harassment, physical and emotional abuse of others, including possibly members of her family, Letitia would simply say; “I am what I am.”
While some have tried to co-opt, manipulate, pigeon-hole and minimize Letitia’s identity in order to serve political or social causes, the brilliance of who she was lights the way out of the shadows for those who were fortunate enough to have known her. Averi, one of Letitia’s friends wrote this poem a few days after her death:
“I was his friend
And loved him till the end
You all treated him bad
You made him feel so very sad
Now take your life and change it up
So God can fully fill your cup”
Whether one attends a church that believes in a Supreme Being, or worships as I do at the intersection of equality, justice, respect and hope, we must all keep our cups filled with the compassion needed to understand those who are different than us and the courage to, despite all opposition, stand together not just as men and women of trans experience, but as human beings first and foremost.
Another victim of senseless violence, Martin Luther King, once said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
We owe it to those we remember today, to Letitia King, to Cameron McWilliams who took his own life at age 10 after telling his mother he wanted to be a girl, to Ian Benson and Gwen Araujo, to Brandon Teena and Barry Winchell. To the transgender children of today and tomorrow whose quality of life and whose very lives hang in the balance of what we do on their behalf in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
To each of us who has traveled our own unique road to where we are, and to where we’re going. To all of these and to those whose names and lives may never be known, let us remember… and let us promise them that from this day forward, we will never again be silent about the things that matter.