An interview with Chris Paige about Transfaith’s newest resource, the Transfaith Memorial Garden.
What is the Transfaith Memorial Garden?
There are many memorials in November (around Transgender Day of Remembrance) for transgender and gender non-conforming people who die violent deaths. However, the losses of transgender communities come by many means—and grief shapes our lives all year round.
So the Transfaith Memorial Garden is a place where people can come at any time to be in community to share stories, sadness and encouragement. It is a simple Facebook group, where we make space for our grief, remember lives well lived, and claim the deep resilience that comes when we gather together.
So how does it work?
The moderators of the group post a few items each day, including invitations for people to share, resources for dealing with grief and loss, as well as prayers and poetry—but the real strength of the group comes from being together. The participants in the group are what make it a meaningful community. People are sharing resources, gut reactions, memories of loved ones and more.
I think it matters that we don't have to be alone with all of this heaviness.
Facebook can be an incredible resource, but putting raw feelings in a post for all your "friends" to see can cause a variety of complications. This is a "closed" group, so there's a little bit of privacy, and hopefully it will be a community that is prepared to hold hard feelings. I've been very pleased with the sensitivity of everyone involved so far.
We do have a trigger warning pinned to the top of the group, because topics like suicide and anti-trans violence are part of what we are trying to come to terms with. The nice thing about Facebook groups is that people can manage their own settings so they do or don't get notifications.
For some of us it helps to have regular contact and daily reminders that support our grieving. For some of us, I expect the Transfaith Memorial Garden will be a place that they only visit when they want some comfort—but not something they want coming up in their newsfeed all day long. That's fine too. It's intended to be a resource. Grief is a process and we each need different things at different times.
What do you hope folks will get out of this community?
We live in a society that is addicted to "success" and "positive thinking" and "moving on," but grief is not a problem in need of a solution. Our grief comes from having loved one another. Our grief is a testimony to the fact that we have made a difference in one another's lives. Our grief is a sign of our humanity.
So, we want to this to be a space where we can remember our loved ones, whether they passed on yesterday or many years ago. The group is also about giving ourselves and each other some permission to be with our grief without adding layers of shame that we should somehow be "over it" by now.
Some have even argued that grief, like love, is a revolutionary skill that needs to be learned.
So in a multi-faith, multi-racial, multi-gender community like Transfaith, we hope to learn from each other about how to manage our emotions, about how to stay connected, and about how to build resilience in the face of so much pain. In facing the contours of our collective grief, we learn a lot about what really matters in life.
Where did this idea come from?
We have wrestled for years now with what specific role Transfaith can play in relationship to the many cycles of violence and loss experienced in transgender communities. There are a variety of threads about these cycles online and elsewhere—there's the tracking of statistics and reading of names, there's educating the broader community, there's advocating for change.
But in the wake of several back-to-back losses recently, we were talking about needing to make space for our grief. I mean, it wasn't out of strategic planning or a funding opportunity. We have been looking at how to better utilize Facebook, but mostly we were just acknowledging our own needs, while we and so many people around us were reeling from these losses.
We were still working on the idea, trying to make sure we "got it right," when we lost another light. Honestly, I made the call to launch the group because I just couldn't hold it in anymore.
You mention back-to-back losses. Do you want to share anything more specific?
A young trans man in North Carolina, named Blake Brockington, had really made an impact, both in his local area and through networking at national conferences. I didn't get to meet him personally, but a lot of my friends and colleagues were really struggling after he died by suicide. He was just such a bright light. I think it was after his death that we started talking about what would eventually become the Transfaith Memorial Garden, though there have been others in recent months as well.
Charlene Arcila passed last week of natural causes. She was an elder and a pioneer, both in the Philadelphia area and in our national networks. She passed at 3:19pm on April 7, 2015. I switched the group from "secret" to "closed" at 6:20pm that night and started putting the word out.
Sometimes, when I am grieving, I just want to *do* something. This was one of my "somethings" to deal with that immediate pain that I was feeling and to connect with other people.
Neither Blake nor Charlene died from what we normally characterize as anti-trans violence. But I am quite sure that both would have lived longer if the world was a more loving and accepting place. It's not just the quality of our lives that are impacted by poverty, inadequate health care, losing our housing, losing our jobs, or being ridiculed. Those stresses also take years off of our lives.
What do you want Christian faith leaders to know to better understand the struggles of transgender communities?
I feel like our Trans 101 trainings often linger on terminology, and they maybe get advanced enough to look at the systemic marginalization that our communities face (cue the statistics). But we rarely manage to interpret what all of that means in practical terms.
I'm not talking about some kind of a "victim" narrative that just leaves you feeling sorry for us, but I do want people to understand that many of us are carrying a lot of grief for all kinds of good reasons.
And the grief we carry shapes how we interact with the world.
Sometimes, the grief makes us self-protective. Sometimes, it makes us emotional. Sometimes, we get overwhelmed or distracted. Sometimes, we just need to withdraw to tend our wounds and recover. All of this is perfectly natural. So, if you want to be in healthy relationship with transgender communities, it is important that you work on your ability to be present to us in our losses and to find ways to grieve with us.
Healthy faith communities have great strengths in this area, including lots of long-standing traditions designed to support the grieving process. But sometimes the place where we get stuck is forgetting to take the time to do our own grieving. You may not have known Blake or Charlene, but there is still grief work that all of us need to be engaged in, so that our activism and relationships are emotionally well-grounded.
As prevalent and important as Transgender Day of Remembrance is, it can also be really overwhelming—especially if we bottle up a whole year's worth of grief for that one day. So let me invite you into the Transfaith Memorial Garden, as you feel able. We are stronger together.
Photo via Flickr user Augstin Rafael Reyes