The first time I wore women's clothes, I was in junior high in coastal Alabama. My school club was hosting a womanless beauty pageant to raise money and asked us boys to participate. Every guy from football star to band geek squeezed and struggled their way into old prom dresses borrowed from sisters, cousins and girlfriends while the other girls giggled and did our makeup. I opted for a DIY outfit--a ramshackle Cher impersonation with a second-hand black wig, fishnets and low heels. Talk about a warning sign to my parents.
We walked an aisle in our gym in front of the whole school, everyone laughing and pointing us out. We danced a little number, and I caused a mini-scandal when one of my fishnets fell down my leg in front of the first-graders. But a winner was soon crowned, the classes filed out, the makeup was cleared away and we changed back into our "normal" clothes for another day of school.
A short drive away, in Theodore, Alabama, I imagine Mercedes Williamson was experimenting in much the same way--though not for the amusement of a few hundred children. Her life, as with any transgender woman's life, was much more revolutionary, but most likely in the smallest of actions--growing out her hair, putting on a dress, picking out lipstick. A collection of moments, like sands on the beaches of Gulf Shores, together worked to shepherd her from the 17-year-old girl she was into a woman of our community.
What kind of woman would she become? We don't know. Her dead body found buried in the woods of Mississippi shows us only what she might have been--not just as a boy into a girl, but a girl into a woman.
Fate is a funny thing. Just as we mourn the nine dead of the Charleston church shooting, Williamson has become the country's ninth confirmed homicide of a transgender woman this year. As the congregation of the Emmanuel AME Church begins to heal this wound, how will our community heal from the continued assault on the lives of transgender people across the country?
Life, liberty and happiness. That's the American promise. For years now, LGBTs have climbed the ladder of marriage equality up through the courts to ensure the second and third parts are delivered. But what is liberty and happiness to those who are not alive to see it? What is this new post-gay world without Williamson and the eight other women whose lives were brutally taken from them in the most important year for gay rights this country has ever witnessed?
In a beautiful New Republic piece by Alexander Chee, he writes: "Getting to be an old queer is our next revolution." Given our history since Pride first began, this statement is profoundly true. For transgender people, however, that statement is best put as "Living queer is our next revolution." When this country is finally willing to crack open the gates of equality, death should not be the price of admission.
The real fight is now starting. Marriage equality promises us dignity, legal protections and a new place in the fabric of American society. But it does nothing to address the real deaths of transgender men and women who suffer under governments that offer them few--if any--protections. Whoever she was, whatever she might have become, Williamson deserved a chance at life. That is something we cannot ignore.